Q&A with Helen and Matthew Ranson

Having a proper brand image in place is a strategic priorities for any company no matter its size or industry. SMEs in the Arab world, however, have not as yet given brand strategy the attention it deserves and the notion is only in its developing stages in the region. Helen and Matthew Ranson, partners of RANSON, a branding consultancy firm, based in the UAE, explain why branding is so important for SMEs and how to go about it.

Do SMEs experience particular challenges when it comes to branding?

Before we start, let us take a moment to determine the parameters of an SME: Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are companies whose turnover and/or head-count fall below certain parameters, which depend on who is defining them and can vary greatly. In 2009, the Dubai Government defined an SME as a Dubai registered company with a turnover of less than AED250m and up to 250 employees. This is a very wide definition, which also covers the lonely entrepreneur, small consultancies or the slightly larger and established family-run businesses with interests across a multitude of industries. We will, therefore, base our advice on the definition mentioned.

SMEs face particular challenges when it comes to branding: They often have marketing, public relations, and advertising plans without ever having given thought to defining their brand strategy. Like a blueprint for a building, or a map for a journey, this is the starting place for any company looking to make the jump from business to brand. Such a strategy is synonymous with a more traditional business plan, and the two go together hand-in-hand.

The particular challenges facing SMEs in the pursuit of building a powerful brand are twofold: First and foremost is the organisations general lack of understanding around the process and benefits of branding. This is easily overcome through training and education, but does require trust and belief in the process. The second challenge is financial; although brand consultants are now tailoring specific packages for the smaller enterprise, the process of branding is still a longer-term investment.

What are the 3 key ingredients needed to create a sustainable brand identity for SMEs?

A brand identity, which encompasses the company’s logo and visual style, is just one output of a comprehensive and cohesive brand strategy. As we say, ‘A logo is just a logo’. Without strategy, it lacks the depth and meaning to really resonate with your employees and your consumers. Keeping this in mind, a brand strategy would be the first key ingredient.

Second, would be the company’s commitment to stay the course in developing and maintaining the brand. It does not happen overnight and takes even longer before a company is seen as a ‘brand’ in the eyes of the consumer – having immediate positive recall in the minds of its prospective market.

The third ingredient is investment: If you are an SME looking to create a brand that really resonates in the hearts and minds of your consumer, you will need to allocate sufficient time, human capital and money.

What most SMEs fail to see is that branding can bring in new business, exclusive clients, and an opportunity to eventually create higher revenues, which will ultimately ensure long-term profitability.

What would you say are the main flaws and what the main strengths of Arab SME brands?

From a branding perspective, the region is still in the process of development. Therefore we ask: ‘How many companies have really earned the right to call themselves a ‘brand’?’

A brand consists of many intangibles. Companies such as Think; Apple, DHL, Starbucks, Ferrari and Gucci have, by defining their brand strategy, achieved lofty greatness in the minds of their loyal followers, huge bottom line profits and most importantly significant brand equity, which is the real signifier of a brand’s success.

But where do Arab SME brands currently fit? This is an interesting question for us all to ponder.

Certainly the main flaw in SME branding is the lack of understanding and commitment to the branding process. With the regions desire for immediate results, branding can be seen as frustratingly slow. SMEs need to stay the course and understand that branding is a long-term process for the business. Like all good things, this takes time and patience.

The main strengths are by far the region’s passion and motivation for business, in particular the ambition to be known and respected as both regional and global players. With an ever-increasing understanding of the intangibles that surround powerful brands, regional SMEs have the ability to create confidence, not only in their own businesses, but also in the products and services they offer.

Do family-owned SMEs experience advantages over non-family-owned companies when it comes to branding?

There is no clear answer to this question. Of course, family owned SME’s have the drive and determination of mixed management and seek to build equity around their heritage, private ownership, and generational planning. These are strong traits to ensure long-term sustainability. However, from a branding perspective, they need to be mindful that this can lead to complacency.

What are the first steps towards re-branding an SME?

Firstly, the SME needs to establish firm reasons why they should re-brand. The reasons for re-branding are numerous and could include a change in company structure or ownership, the growth or adaptation of the brand’s architecture, the decisions to enter new markets, or, the reason that is the most frequent in the region, the refreshing of a tired and dated logo.

Secondly, the SME needs to ensure it has budgeted accordingly for the task of re-branding. Companies need to dedicate sufficient resources to research and understand the investment implications in terms of people, time, and money.

Thirdly, the SME needs to have a thorough understanding of its customers or target market, and business offerings including the competition. After thorough research in this area, the SME will be in a better position to identify how best to position the brand for success.

Only once the SME has considered all of the above adequately, should it proceed with the fourth and final step: The researching, sourcing, and selecting of a reputable brand consultant.

Here, the key to success is to ensure that you select a company that has the necessary knowledge and experience to advise and consult on the complex task of brand development. This will always at least include brand research, work sessions and interviews, brand strategy, brand identity and guidelines in order to govern the correct usage of the brand itself.

If, as an SME, you find yourself talking ‘logo’ with a company who is unable to provide the consultative approach as above, walk away. You are more than likely talking to the graphic design industry, who although adept at solving problems of a creative nature, has grown too accustomed to using the word ‘brand’ loosely without truly understanding its implications. For an SME seeking brand advice, this can be frustrating and damaging.

Despite branding being imperative for SMEs, many still seem to be unaware of the advantages that corporate branding has to offer. Although SMEs have been slow to really embrace the brand-building process, we are seeing an increase in the number of organisations that perceive the benefits in transforming their businesses into strong, clear and differentiated brands.

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 12, 2011