Think of any big business—from Apple?bee's to Target to Whole Foods—and you probably picture its logo and get an immediate feeling about the company. That's because, whether you like the company or not, its owners have successfully crafted their company's image.
But branding isn't just for the big guys—in fact, it's one of the most important things an independent retailer or small-business owner can do to stand out from the crowd. For that reason, image should be a focus right from the beginning.
Off to a good start
As the owner—or future owner—of a business geared toward healthy lifestyle consumers, you already have one thing in your favor: The customer wants to feel good about your business.
"The growth of natural foods has come from a philosophical desire to save our planet," says Dan Nordley, president of Minneapolis-based Triangle Park Creative, which designs logos and handles branding for nonprofit organizations and progressive businesses. "So selling natural foods would right away imply that the way you do business is more authentic, more sustainable—more human."
So, use that advantage in your favor—but take it even further. Branding experts suggest that entrepreneurs take a few simple first steps to create an image.
"First and foremost, it is most important to plan, to develop your marketing strategy for your health food store before you begin to execute your marketing programs, such as ads or point-of-sale, or even your store's logo," says Melanie Albert, president of Phoenix-based Healthy Lifestyle Marketing Consulting and former director of marketing for Dr. Andrew Weil's Weil Lifestyle. "The plan will provide the foundation and direction for all of your marketing, advertising and public relations."
And it's a good idea to read a book or two on branding, says Tom Wright, president of Moraga, Calif.-based SustainableBizness.com, whose clients include Whole Foods and UNFI. Wright recommends Building Strong Brands by David Aaker (Simon & Schuster, 2002).
"I wouldn't say it's a can't-miss system, but it definitely makes you think it through," Wright says.
During the planning stages, Albert recommends focusing on the "market positioning" of your store—and your target market. Think about and be able to sum up clearly and concisely how your store is unique, and how it differs from competitors in your market.
It is also essential to figure out what type of customer will be shopping at your store. "Both the market positioning and your target market will guide the look and feel for all of your marketing and advertising, including your store name, logo, signage, messaging, point-of-sale, ads, fliers and displays," Albert says.
How to hire a pro
Sometimes it just makes sense to hire a branding professional—either in the initial stages of your enterprise or when planning a makeover for your estab?lished business.
Hiring a pro can be expensive, though. Wright says basic analysis and branding recommendations could cost $3,000 or more. But the right advice may be worth the price. "If they know what they're doing, at least you'll have a good perspective," he says. "Branding is so important."
One way to find a good professional is to scour Web sites and literature from natural foods or healthy lifestyle companies whose images you like. Call business owners and ask who did their company's branding. Try to get several names, and do brief interviews with each candidate to see who is the best fit. "Take a look at their work for other clients," Albert suggests. "You can also call some of their clients for input on how they are to work with."
If you're using a pro, Albert advises that you budget 5 percent to 7 percent of sales for marketing planning and implementation—and more in the beginning while developing your brand.
As the Internet becomes standardized—where Web sites look the same on any browser—it is more important than ever to hire a professional to do your Web site, says Perry Goldschein, founder of SRB Marketing in Denville, N.J., which specializes in e-marketing that targets values-based consumers.
"Web sites and newsletters can be critical," Goldschein says. "So, don't expect to just slap something up and have it work. Like anything worthwhile, if you're going to do it, you want to put some effort into it, and hire help to do it the right way. It's a guaranteed return on your investment."
Keep it consistent
Once you have established an image for your business, it's crucial to keep it consistent. This requires keeping the image in mind every time you make a business decision. Wright points to Whole Foods as one company that has done an excellent job. "The logo with that first O that looks like a seed, and with the colors, it just has a real organic feel to it," Wright says. "It's all very sharp stuff from a branding point of view."
But you don't need to be Whole Foods to do a good job with branding. Here are some aspects of your business that will combine to make up the whole of your image:
Logo and color
The logo is what will make your business immediately identifiable, and a design professional can help translate the "feel" of your business and your message into an attention-getting visual. "Get it right from the get-go," Nordley recommends. "Consumers seem to have really high expectations for quality in graphics nowadays." Color is a part of that and, as much as anything, will help to convey the company's image and make the customer feel a certain way about your business.
Signage and displays
The visuals and words on your signage should match the overall message you want to send about your business. Also, think hard about where to put your signs. "It's all about location, location, location," Wright says.
Employees' dress and behavior
Your employees are a big part of your store's image, so you want to think about how they'll dress—will it be business casual, uniforms or something else? And you need to come up with a consistent training program so that the way employees interact with customers fits your image. And not least: "You want to ooze professionalism," Nordley says.
Image extends beyond the walls of your store and your Internet presence. As a business geared toward the healthy lifestyles consumer, anything you do to support or reach out to the community surrounding your business will play into your image.
Today, more than ever, Albert says, strategic marketing and branding are crucial for natural foods retailers who have to compete with mainstream markets and mass channels. "Marketing and branding are key to differentiating your store from these channels," she says.
Allie Johnson is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 66, 68