Interview With Maria Ross – Author of Branding Basics For Small Business

2010 June 8
by Grace Boyle

Note From Grace: Recently, Maria Ross contacted me about reviewing her book, Branding Basics for Small Business. I don’t regularly review books (I’m a total book geek) but I was intrigued by her personal touch, her background in Ladies Who Launch, her real interest in my blog and readership, her talent and finally, her kindness. My first impression proved to be true and continually, Maria has been a joy to converse with. I was lucky enough to snag an interview with her that I think everyone will enjoy and learn from.

Q. Where did the inspiration for your book, Branding Basics for Small Business come from?

A. I started my brand and marketing consultancy, Red Slice, to work with businesses big and small and help them tell their stories, connect with customers and just generally, put more “delight” back into the world. With all the marketplace noise, it seems businesses are just cranking out products and spewing forth “noise”, which is why we as consumers get fatigued. But if businesses and brands were crafted with more care, if they stayed true to a passion, a relevant vision of how their products or services make our lives or our world a better place, then maybe there would not be so much marketing pollution out there.

I wrote the book to show small business owners especially how you can build a strong brand without spending a lot of money but by just thinking intentionally through a few questions – and then giving them ideas on how to apply that brand to more than just advertising, but to everything you do: your operations, your hiring practices, your messaging. And with that strong brand, strapped small biz owners can actually save money and effort in the long run by keeping themselves focused. I wanted to show people that brand is much more than a logo: it’s the core, the essence of what your business stands for and what value it provides to the world.

Q. One of my favorite parts to your book is how you state: ‘Branding is Not Social Media.’ I hear people ask for social media guidance and help, in hopes to get their brand going all the time. Can you delve into the distinction between branding and social media?

A. Brand has always been the foundation and the content. Social media is a wonderful, interactive and immediate way to connect with customers. But those new technologies are merely vehicles used to express the brand and better connect with customers. You still need to understand your foundation, and your core message first – otherwise, how do you know what you want to communicate via social media?

Back in the Mad Men days, we only had print ads, radio ads or brochures to convey our brand (outside of a customer’s actual experience with our company). Social media and new technologies have merely broadened our options for brand communication and customer interaction. But you still have to have something clear, consistent and compelling to communicate through social media channels.

Q. I find many small businesses and/or entrepreneurs looking for branding help but they often aren’t willing to spend much money. How do you implement and create brand strategy for your clients on any budget?

A. People get stuck on the “spending” aspect because they don’t understand that brand is not just advertising or logos or a website. Brand is your true core and essence and it’s expressed visually (logo, colors), verbally (elevator pitch, website copy) and experientially (your customer service, what it’s like to be in your store, etc.).  When you think of brand as “reputation” you see that you can’t ever “spend your way” to a better brand: you have to think through what you want  your company to stand for, what value you offer, and what you want to communicate – and then clearly and consistently convey that through everything you do.  You have to invest in many of these activities anyway.

For example, if you’re going to spend on designing a website, then you’d better make sure you know what you want that website to communicate and to whom with its colors, fonts, images, etc. Are you engaging in the right tactics based on a consistent brand promise?  Recording a voice mail message, adding an email signature, using free social media, picking company colors – you need to do all these things anyway. But thinking through the brand questions helps you focus your efforts so you are communicating intentionally and consistently every time. This also helps you focus your investments so you only spend money on the tactics that align with your brand and move your business forward, versus randomly engaging in what I call “random acts of marketing” that cost you time and money and yet get you nowhere! And who can afford to operate like that?!

Q. Who is your mentor? Who inspires you in the branding world?

A. Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Richard Branson of Virgin. I wish I knew them as personal mentors! Both of them maintain a clear vision of their company’s reason for being and this inspires their employees, resonates with their customers and informs every little detail of their business – not just advertising or “visual” aspects. For example, Virgin America’s cheeky, irreverent attitude to “Make flying fun again” manifests itself in a thousand little customer touchpoints: from the baggage sign at the airport counter to the on-board safety video. Again, things they needed to do anyway yet they use it as an opportunity to further convey their brand.

Q. Finally, if you could choose a few sentences of branding wisdom to brand and small business owners, what would you say?

A. Create a clear and well-articulated mission for your business: who do you want to be, what impact do you want to have and most importantly, what value do you provide? And ensure that everyone within your organization, as well as your partners and customers, understands this message clearly and consistently.

Ask yourself for every marketing decision – website copy, ads, events, partners, colors, customer service policies, hiring decisions: Does this person/partner/activity/design/event align with my mission and bring me closer to it? If not, don’t do it!

I highly recommend you check out Maria’s book, Branding Basics for Small Business. You can purchase the book here. Learn more about Maria and her company, Red Slice here.

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