The biggest challenge in small business is figuring out how to differentiate yourself from the competition and explain why you are different, and better, than all the rest.
After years of doing this work and helping hundreds of businesses find their unique “thing” in the world, we’re pretty confident in saying we've cracked the code on how to find your brand.
And it was quite a code to crack. I find the internet and branding books aren’t usually much help in this department. Everything out there is overly general, non-specific, and hard to follow. Even if you’re able follow some of this advice, it's tough to know if you've done it “right.” There are no definitive signposts, no markers that point to success.
That’s why I’m officially declaring war on all that ho-hum advice and giving you something you can actually use.
Below I share the formula—The Four Angles, as I call them in my book—come from the real work I do with real clients. They’re proven and they’re tangible, so you won’t have to guess anymore. Birds Eye view, the four angles are:
- Target Market
- Brand Personality
- Lead Product
- Bullseye Product
Make sure you read this in its entirety because my definitions for the angles above are not the same as other branders and if you think they are, you might do this wrong (and I see that a lot.)
And here's the trick—there are 4 total angles but you luckily don't need to have all four. In fact not everyone has the kind of business that can incorporate all four elements. So what if you can’t either? No biggie.
But you’ll need at least two angles to make your brand work (because one can’t do the job by itself), you just have to come up with the combination that makes the most sense for you. Forget big, sweeping brand ideas or overly simplistic ideas about niching. Let’s bring all of this branding talk down to Earth.
Angle #1: Pinpointing Your Target Market
When it comes to identifying your target market, you simply need to think about your favorite clients or projects (click to tweet). Then, identify patterns among them. These common threads are your potential target market.
For example, if all your clients were from the same industry, great, target market. If all of them were a similar size of company, boom, target market. If you really enjoy working with the head of marketing at large companies, bazinga, target market. (See how easy this is?)
Finding your target market is more about the working relationship and the kind of work you’re doing than a particular industry (as traditional wisdom tells you).
I once had a client who was doing professional organizing for companies large and small and individuals. When she went through this exercise, she realized her favorite clients were actually small businesses. She changed her entire branding efforts to focus on this new market, and things quickly took off.
There’s no science to this but it needs to be pretty specific to "count" as one of your minimum two angles. The more specific you can be, the better.
You'll know it's specific enough that when someone in that market hears it they think, “That’s exactly me! She’s speaking to me.” Or they immediately think of a specific friend of relative the fits the bill. Don’t say your target market is “women.” If I saw something for women, I wouldn’t react to that. Half the country is women! Instead, say “women, 25-40, who do yoga during their lunch hour.”
But demographics like gender and age are just one potential area of focus. Industry, size of business, motivations, and life experiences also work.
Financial advisers often say, “If you’re having a baby, buying a house, or getting married, you’re a good client for me.” But that’s not specific enough because virtually everyone in that industry says that. What if they also identified people by certain incomes? And/or certain neighborhoods? Imagine if you’re specific about all those things, AND you say their children attend elementary school. Now, that’s specific!
It feels limiting at first, but all of a sudden your marketing efforts open up. You know where to put your marketing dollars to get the best return. You gear everything toward people with elementary school aged kids. You invest and sponsor kids soccer games. You entrench yourself in elementary school activities around town. How would that change the way people respond to you? How would that change how you talk about yourself?
You can’t make any of these decisions until you’ve had some experiences, though. If you’re just starting out, there’s no easy way around it; you just have to try some things first. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Or, if you’re such a generalist that you’ve worked with one of every type of client, that’s okay too. You’re still going to look at your favorite clients when you decide what target market to marrow in on.
The point is, you should have an answer to the question of “who’s your favorite client and project?” Chances are, they’re also your target market.
Can this be one of your angles? No? That's ok; you've got three chances left! Let’s move on...
Angle #2: Brand Personality
Everyone’s got a personality, whether you work at it or not. Your brand is no different. If you do nothing to identify your brand personality and it’s lame, generic and boring by default, then that’s your brand’s personality: lame. But if you consciously identify your brand personality and lean into it, well that’s a different story…
Now let's talk about building a BADASS personality. In order for angle two to count towards your two angles it needs to be Badass, which means it's somehow contrary to the prevailing personality in your industry.
Financial firm (and Worstofall client) Stash Wealth is edgy and sassy. They’ve got a fun, young, agency vibe. It works for them because it's different from other financial firms. Were they an ad agency in the agency world, they’d just be another agency; it wouldn’t be different enough from most of the competitors to be Badass, and they would blend in. But because they’ve owned this Badass voice in a typically stodgy industry, they are crushing it. That’s how you create a meaningful, contrary brand personality.
And by the way when we built this brand for them, we didn’t dream this voice up out of nowhere. That’s who they were authentically. We just convinced them to own it.
People have a hard time implementing this idea because saying something contrary to the status quo can be scary. You might worry you’ll turn off business (to which I say, great!). You might be worried you’ll say something to upset someone (again, amazing!). If you aren't turning off someone you likely have a generalized, same-same brand. Those are the people who are struggling.
One thing is certain: While being different is a great way to get attention, being a contrarian for the sake of being different will never work. Despite what I’ve said, you should NEVER do something JUST to be different. It’s superficial and will be poorly executed, costing you business.
When we started using the word "Badass" oh so many years ago, it was felt almost inappropriate, but it was so authentic to us we let it fly. Now I see this word everywhere in all sorts of contexts and often it's just being used as a cheap tool, the user isn't actually doing anything else to back it up. Their brand is same-same with the word Badass stuck in. It doesn't work.
Therefore I’m definitely not telling you to come up with a contrarian personality and try to become that person. It has to be real for you. Don’t force yourself into something that’s not natural for you. This will certainly spell disaster. You’ve seen it. Overuse of the F-word. The cool guy with pictures of his fancy car despite just starting out. The reason these feel inauthentic is that they are. They’re trying too hard. It didn’t originate from a real place and it’s not who they actually are.
Take my earlier example of a financial advisor. Maybe you have elementary school aged children too. The decision to talk to people who also have elementary aged children could be perfect for you because it makes sense in the context of who you are. But if you’re a 28-year-old single guy, it makes zero sense to lean into that personality. It will be too forced. And slightly creepy.
Angle #3: Developing Your Lead Product
Most small business owners do a big tap dance to make a sale. Usually, this dance takes the form of lengthy phone conversations, free strategy sessions, long, thought-out proposals, or free discovery sessions. Sometimes you get the business; sometimes you don’t. Either way you slice it, you’re giving away a lot of valuable information for free.
As the first step in your sales process, offering a defined Lead Product—which I explain in more detail in my book—is the easiest way to engage potential clients without getting into the full scale of your offerings.
Clients need to trust you before they’re willing to pay you for your full value. A Lead Product takes care of that. Actually, it fulfills two needs:
- It creates a low barrier of entry, reducing the financial risk up front, and
- It allows you to demonstrate your expertise, building greater value and trust.
Rather than giving away your knowledge in hope of winning a client, a Lead Product lets you take time to figure out what their real problems are, hash out a plan to solve them, and present it all for a nominal, upfront fee. Getting people to part with their first dollar is the hardest sale you’ll make. A Lead Product makes it easier for them (and you) to make that happen.
I strongly believe your Lead Product must be a deliverable. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard as you think it is. Just take what has previously been your free strategy or consulting session—where you’re spending 30 minutes to an hour with people on the phone to to provide significant breakthroughs—and write it up. Then present it to the client as a tangible result. Make it look nice. Put your logo at the top. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it can’t be boring either and it must be valuable. (Remember when I said, “execution matters”?)
This builds a ton of trust up front, and you get paid for it. If the client, at that point, decides to walk away, no harm, no foul.
There’s a catch though. A Lead Product cannot be discovery or an audit. These only uncover problems and tell buyers what they already know. No one’s saying, “I need a discovery session.” They’re saying things like, “I’m looking for a marketing person to handle my social media.” Give them something valuable by solving problems, not pointing them out.
As a social media marketing expert, it’s your job to say, “Let’s do an assessment so I can give you an action plan.” This allows your buyer to acquire a deeper understand what they’re shopping for. If you can give them answers to their problems, you’ve provided a ton value. You won’t even have to “make a sale” at that point because they’ve crossed a buying threshold in their mind.
A Lead Product positions you as an expert and differentiates you from others in your industry. Not sure how this will work for you? Try this (or something similar) next time: “I hear you saying you want a new website, but let’s start with the problems you’re having. What is the ultimate goal? What problems do you think having a new website will solve?”
Angle #4: Your Distinct Offering—The Bullseye Product
Have you ever worked on a project where you did everything the client asked for? It never works out, does it? Because while you’re saying, “Yes, I can do that,” you’re really thinking, “But it would be better if we did it this way.”
Every time you bend to a customer’s demands or customize proposals or project details, you fracture your focus. Customization, while it sounds good in theory, really means you’re always learning new things, compounding your inefficiencies.
As an expert, your responsibility is to get the best results for your clients, not to agree with them. A Bullseye Product is built around a repeatable process, allowing you to become a highly skilled expert in a short amount of time. It builds on itself too. Because it’s linear, every new client adds value to your business by making the execution faster.
To begin thinking about potential Bullseye Products, identify your favorite past clients or projects, then, reflect on how you delivered the most value to them.
If you’re a graphic designer, you’d rather design an entire brand and all the materials that go with it than create new business cards. That’s because most graphic designers (the ones I know, anyway) want to see the whole project come together. Knowing this is key to understanding what your Bullseye Product should be. If you can say, “Yes, I’d do this service all day, every day,” then you’ve nailed it. That’s where you start.
Once you’ve figured out your Bullseye Product and the repeatable processes around it, charge a flat fee. This is probably deserving of it’s own article at some point, but flat fees are great (as opposed to hourly billing) because you only have to play with two numbers to increase profits. You either charge more, get more efficient, or both.
Putting the Four Angles Together
A Lead Product and Bullseye Product are easy ways to double down on your integrity and the desire to get better results for your clients.
I only do work I know I’m an expert in. That’s what it takes to run a profitable business (click to tweet). People ask us all the time to do graphic design without branding or strategy and I tell them no. In the end, I know I can’t solve real problems with a nicer website. And agreeing to do so sets the client, and us, up for failure. I won’t compromise the integrity of what I do just to give people what they think they want. And you shouldn’t either.
Incorporating the Four Angles into your brand allows people to hire you for your process and expertise, rather than as someone who will do their bidding. The more you can solve business problems—without a client needing to steer the ship—the better the relationship is for both of you, the smoother your processes will become, and the more your profits will grow.
Now that you have all Four Angles at your disposal, what are you waiting for? It’s time to take your businesses to new heights! And if you need help figuring out what to focus on in your 4 angles, take this Badass Your Brand Crash Course which will help you figure out what makes you different, special, BADASS: