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The day your company gets a new logo to plaster on emails, websites and stickers is exhilarating. A logo often serves as the first professionally-crafted physical manifestation of your idea—the last piece you need before you feel ready to really launch the business. It’s like you’ve graduated and this is your certificate. You have a logo—now things are real. As fulfilling as this might feel, this way of thinking about your logo can actually get you into trouble.

The Difference Between Your Logo and Your Brand

Many entrepreneurs hire people on sites like Fiverr and 99Designs to make them a logo as soon as they’ve decided on a name. They cross “branding” off their to do list and prepare to amp up the marketing, or whatever step comes next in their business plan. But the problem with using services like Fiverr and 99Designs is that their deliverable is misleading. Yes, you might end up with an OK logo for about 1/20th the cost of working with a professional designer. But it’s what you don’t get that will cost you exponentially in the long run.

Settling for a piece of artwork as your “brand” means missing out on a process that identifies your company’s potential value and uniqueness in the market. When you let a logo design experience be your company’s only thought about branding, you are ignoring one of the most valuable experiences you could have as a business owner.

Here’s what you won’t get from logo design mills:

  • Expert guidance throughout the design process that forces you to think through the hard questions that will strengthen your company’s message
  • A concise, thoughtful concept that highlights specific strengths or unique qualities about your company
  • A logo that has been examined and deemed to be artwork that your company can legally own and register as a trademark (so you don’t have to worry about getting sued, having to change it later, or being copied by someone else)
  • A thoughtfully produced system of communication materials, including a color palette, fonts, business cards, stationery, and a style guide to expand the system to other collateral.

You could pay about $100 to have an image to paste into your documents, or, you could pay a minimum of $5,000 for a strategic foundation with everything you need to communicate your company’s unique value through words and graphics for the next several years.

You’ll be glad to know that investing in your brand doesn’t have to cost $5,000. You can start branding your company for free on your own. In fact, you already have.

Your brand is the combination of what your company says and does, and how this makes people feel. Your logo is just a visual mark that serves as a reminder of this living, breathing, invisible force we call a brand. When you learn to be intentional and strategic about what your company says and does, your message becomes clear. That is what it means to work on your brand.

Working on your brand makes your company more memorable and comprehensible. You are able to articulate your company’s offerings and vision to your most ideal audience. And customers start seeing your company as a more attractive option because they get what you’re about.

What Branding Can Do that a Logo Can’t

Having a logo is not the goal of branding. The goal of branding is to clarify the heart and soul of your company so you can make confident decisions about everything you do to grow your company. Your brand encompasses all the business decisions you make, including the products you create, the people you reach, and the marketing channels you use.

Is Nike just a swoosh symbol? Is it just shoes or apparel or sports equipment? Of course not. But that Swoosh is something that has been hammered into your brain so you remember the Nike brand. Nike has connected the Swoosh with pictures and videos of disciplined athletes and the phrase “Just Do It.” Seeing the Swoosh might make you think about running, sweating and feeling more athletic than you probably are. They’ve cultivated this image over many years. All of these things together–the Swoosh, the phrase, the imagery–make you feel something very memorable.

That’s the effect of a brand—it’s expressed in a system of images, phrases, and ideas designed to make you feel something.

Looking Better Starts with Knowing Who You Are

Let’s get down to the real questions at hand—how can you make your fledgling company look good enough for people to buy from you? Do you need to invest in your brand or a logo?

How can you look good enough for people to buy from you?

You’re one person, or maybe a couple of people, getting together to make some money, and currently have little to no money to spend. When you think about what you want your business to become, looking more professional and put-together might be your most glaring shortcoming right now. But looking better isn’t something that happens just because you hired a good artist or designer.

Looking better starts with defining what you want your company to be known for, and then carrying this message into your business model, content and products. When your decisions are guided by a clear message, you will naturally look more cohesive because you’re able to think about what is or isn’t appropriate in support of that message.

When you know what you stand for, you can determine who your audience is and how to communicate with them. You can draw the line between what you specialize in, and what you find yourself stretching to do when you feel desperate to land more customers. This knowledge is the difference between spending years chasing down the wrong people for very little return, and creating a message so compelling that you sell out of your product the first week it launches.

If you’re not known for something in particular, you risk not being known at all.

When startups hired me to design their logos, I always worked with them on what their brand stood for so we were sure their logo supported that message. I was able to do this even when they felt like they didn’t know enough about what they were building or who they were building it for. But they had more information to work with than they thought, even if they shifted aspects of their idea over time. So, if you do decide to hire a designer, keep that criteria in mind.

A logo created without clear thoughts about your message and market environment is about as useful as a business card with no contact details. How are people supposed to react to it? How is it going to help your company?

Do you need to invest in branding or logo design?

You’re not Nike or Apple or Coca-Cola. Does branding matter for your teeny-tiny operation? Absolutely. Learn as much about branding as you possibly can, and apply it as soon as possible. It will never be a wasted effort when done correctly. If you want to invest in guidance for your company development, ask a brand strategist to talk with you about your company for 20 minutes. It can save you weeks, months and even years of spinning your wheels.

Does your company need a logo right now? It depends. It will matter for some companies more than for others. It depends on how established you are, how competitive your industry is, whether your company is focused on serving other businesses or consumers, and so on.

If you’re unsure whether it would make a difference for you, ask yourself, “Do my competitors stand out as a clearly better option because they look polished?” If that’s the case, you might want to consider investing in a professional logo–but only after you’ve invested in your brand.

Don’t spend money on artwork (just a logo). Invest time in your message, and save your money to hire a professional who can create a system of materials that correspond with that message (your brand). It will save you time as you develop content and products, and help you present your company with a consistent look and feel.

This clarity of thought is what will help you stand out and be remembered, and ultimately, what will lead you to build a successful business.