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Illustration: Graham Roumieu

When Beata Tolley and her husband, Chris, launched their Okanagan Valley, B.C. winery in 2004, their focus was the product. It was only several years later that it occurred to them to look closer at their brand. “Our most important concern was the quality of what went into the bottle,” she says. “But we realized that the way our wine was being presented to the world didn’t match our intention behind it—or the wine itself.”

Like many smaller businesses, the Tolleys had treated branding as an afterthought rather than a priority. For one thing, their name, Twisted Tree, echoed that of many similar companies, both in and outside their industry. More crucially, their nondescript label simply didn’t stand out on shelves, let alone help shoppers understand the product. “The varieties we grow are not conventional,” says Tolley. “But there was nothing about the label that reflected that.” So the pair brought in some professional help and underwent a complete identity reboot: name, design and even backstory. The result? In 2011, Moon Curser was born, the border town smuggler–inspired name and ornate illustrated labels designed to draw people in to sample the offbeat wines inside. Customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, Tolley notes, adding that the reimagined brand has helped the company reach its growth goals.

What the pair learned is what marketing specialists want to shout from the rooftops: For even very small businesses, good branding matters, from your name to the colour of your logo to the copy that ties everything together. “A strong visual identity sticks in a customer’s head,” says Erin Bury of Toronto’s 88 Creative communications agency. “It provides consistency and a differentiator in the market.” After all, it doesn’t matter how good your business is if people can’t find or remember it.

Wayne Roberts of Blade Creative Branding in Toronto encourages companies to treat branding as an investment, not a cost, and to embrace the process rather than thinking of it like, as he puts it, “having a tumour removed.” Business owners who don’t believe in the critical importance of branding, he adds, fail to understand basic human behaviour. “People are not rational; they are rationalizers,” Roberts says. “We’re always trying to rationalize the way we feel about things, and branding makes people feel a certain way.”

Here’s how to make them feel the right way about your business.

Find the right partner

When selecting a branding agency or freelance consultant, personal fit matters as much as the portfolio. “It’s a very intimate process,” Tolley says of the work that went into creating the Moon Curser brand. “To work on this with somebody you might not get along with would be very difficult.” The Tolleys spoke with several agencies, evaluating both style and process before committing to Vancouver’s Brandever. “They were small, nimble and adventurous in their thinking, and they appreciated the artistic merit of an interesting label,” Tolley explains.

Know what you want

“You can’t just go dash off a logo,” says Roberts. He advises doing a branding exercise to define what your company stands for and what you want to bring to the market before coming up with any creative concepts. Monica Gault shares his view. The brand design manager for Edmonton footwear retailer Poppy Barley led that company’s founders through extensive conversations about goals, strengths, weaknesses and personality early in its re-imagining. “That’s the biggest thing you should get out of going through a branding process: to set the tone and build your brand voice,” Gault says. The procedure has helped Poppy Barley arrive at its current messaging: It’s a footwear company focused not just on fit but on luxury handmade products with an ethical foundation, she says.

Do some research

“It really helps if you go to your designer with materials already prepped,” says Bury. Collect examples of what you do and don’t like—logos, websites, copy, colours—from both within your industry and elsewhere. It’s also helpful to create a list of values you want your company to impart (fun, positivity, knowledge, resourcefulness) and to choose a few that best represent it.

Test it out

When you’re throwing around ideas for names, logos and colour schemes, don’t commit to anything until you’ve lived with it for a while. This is especially true when choosing a business moniker. Bury points out that a brand name has to work in many contexts—as a URL, a searchable company name and something that sounds right when spoken out loud—and shouldn’t be so complicated that you’re spelling it out for people. “It’s almost like naming a child,” says Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder of online voice-over marketplace Voices.com. “How does it sound when you’re yelling it out or when you’re asking it to do something?”

Treat it as a journey

Branding can be an iterative process; you don’t have to perfect it at the outset. In fact, Tolley admits that while she wishes she had thought more about branding in the early years, it might not have turned out the right way from the start. “I don’t know that we would have been ready to be Moon Curser,” she says. “I think it was helpful that we were in business for a few years and got to know ourselves and our customers, and then could make better decisions in terms of what we wanted to convey.”

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