Your business brand brings customers in and helps bring them back. Pet businesses, both large and small, are scrambling for a competitive edge. Everybody needs to create the best possible perception about who they are in the minds of the consumer for a profitable business.

The term "brand" can cause confusion. People's first impression is often the logo or image of a company that is used on signage, business cards and letterheads. But a brand goes much further than a "visual identity," it is the personality of a company or service.

A brand encompasses all the elements of a business from products, services, advertising and marketing, to the staff and customers. Ultimately, your brand is the sum of thoughts, feelings and experiences a person has about your company as a whole.

A good example of a strong brand is Apple. The tech company has sharp-looking products that are streamlined and appealing, sport sophisticated technology, and work well. The products inspire confidence, comfort and engagement in the user.

Furthermore, Apple's staff is friendly and energetic, and they reflect an attitude that's innovative and forward-looking. In combination, these elements have created a positive company personality.

Developing the brand foundation

There are a number of ways to develop your brand, but it helps to first identify your strengths and weaknesses. The most effective branding methods depend on the size of your business and how extensive your customer base is. There are advantages and disadvantages to both large and small operations.

The process of creating your company's identity and reputation is what branding is all about. Ideally, you want your brand to stand out in the marketplace, both locally and nationally. Branding is a compilation of business choices and a strong strategy that encompasses these four components:

  • Your products and/or services
  • Primary customers you're targeting
  • Your competition
  • Your unique market position

Establish your brand's foundation by asking yourself what makes your business different than the many other pet businesses out there. Your brand communicates who you truly are, what you care about, what you believe and what drives you. To build your business's brand, start by identifying a few key terms that encapsulate who your brand is.

Most retailers first identify their brand with things like selection, price and customer service. They can then expand and promote these areas to gain loyalty and develop positive name recognition and reputation — branding.

Yet pet businesses can go beyond selection, price and customer service to develop their brands. They offer a unique set of skills, expertise and friendship. Developing and promoting these skills provides excellent benefits to the customer, which then translates into your personal brand.

With three to four words that define your brand, you will have a clear, concise image of your business that you want to present to the world. Emma Fitzpatrick outlines some great tips in "Branding Case Study: Branding Personality," suggesting you start out by writing down a list of all the words that influence and epitomize your brand's mission and personality.

Brainstorm words that describe your products, services and who you really are. Ask any influential partners to participate as well. Terms can be concrete, specific, broad or even abstract. Once you have a long list, go through it and pull out those words or terms that best describe your business's brand. These will be your brand's foundation.

Traditional brand-building methods

Customer service is one of the best branding methods and is equally available to all retailers, both large and small. It involves training salespeople to provide them with specific skills for greeting and assisting consumers with purchases. Good customer service enhances consumers' in-store experience and increases their satisfaction. This helps generate positive reviews and mentions outside the store.

Branding for price and selection are especially effective for large operators. Common methods mass retailers employ includes the creation of programs that offer customers additional discounts or free specialty items. These often take the form of point systems or coupons that are distributed through mass mailings or with online promotions. They encourage multiple purchases and return customers, which translates into loyalty.

The same price and selection branding methods are available to smaller retailers as well. Price may never be the strength of a small business, but there is an advantage with selection and developing a reputation for carrying specialty items.

Point systems and coupons can work when targeted toward the needs of your established customer base, but the impact and reach of large-scale loyalty programs may be less impressive. Large-scale promotions are best suited to larger competitors who simply have more marketing resources at their disposal. They can readily outspend and outpromote small businesses.

Unique brand building methods for pet businesses

Animal and pet expertise and developing personal relationships with individual customers are the strengths of the small business. Expertise and friendship skills are equally available to both small and large pet merchandisers, but are best utilized by small retailers for building their brand.

In-depth species and breed knowledge along with animal and pet handling are professional skills that are every bit as important in a well-run pet business as professional sales skills are. Because there are so many types of animals kept as pets, coupled with so many variables in behavior, care and diet for each type, these skills are unique to this industry.

Small businesses, which statistically are about 96 percent of all retail pet stores, have a staff of fewer than four people. This core group participates in all activities of the business. The small business is well positioned to develop and retain long-term pet professionals with in-depth pet and animal knowledge and expertise about their care.

With a staff of professional employees, a small pet store can utilize both in-store interactions and marketing efforts to help establish their brand. This brand then becomes the place to go when consumers want quality information and the right products. The staff can also become intimately familiar with each customer's pet choices and build strong personal relationships.

Large merchandisers on the other hand, need a widespread customer base. The time and costs involved in developing the same level of expertise and establishing friendships with individual customers are less efficient than mass marketing-type promotions.

Large retailers will have a sales staff trained with basic knowledge about common pets, and may also provide additional expertise in the form of in-house veterinarian and grooming services. But with a relatively high employee turnover, investing in a sales staff of pet professionals is a more rare commodity.

Building your brand for today ... and tomorrow

Be patient, as branding takes time. Public relations firms will tell you six months or more is not unreasonable to establish your identity and reputation. But as your brand begins to take hold, the results of your efforts will last for years to come.

Establish your brand's foundation and encompass a branding strategy with every business choice you make.