Driving round the country lanes where I live, it’s impossible not to notice that there’s a new farm shop opened up, not ten minutes drive away.
To give them their due, they have done a sterling job in making sure that the as many people as possible in the area know they exist: flyers, press ads, direction signs on lamp-posts for miles around (probably illegally, but hey, we’ve all got a bit of form when it comes to promoting local events).
And I already know where they are in principle, because I’ve had a word-of-mouth recommendation, which as we all know is the best kind of publicity.
So when I was driving in to the nearest town recently, I made a point of looking for it along the way. It’s on a small farm complex where there are a few other budding enterprises trying to earn a crust, so at the turning to the farm track there are a number of competing signs.
As much as anything I’m just trying to confirm, is this the right place, are they open (and ideally what are their opening times?) I’m doing sixty, so separating out all these competing messages is likely to be a bit of a challenge at the best of times. (What do you mean, slow down: I’m running late – and it’s only curiosity).
Anyway, the thing is, as I flash by, I eventually locate a sign that is just about recognisable as the one I’m interested in, but at that speed it’s virtually illegible. It’s a very nice logo, probably designed by a friend of a friend, but its red text and symbol is set on a blue-ish background: all very tasteful, but hard to read from further than ten yards away, especially on the move.
There’s a lesson here, and I’m sure you don’t need me to labour the point, but I’m going to anyway…
When you start a business, creating a brand is the first thing you do. It may not seem that way, when you call yourself Bloggo Dynamics or John’s Caff, but that is precisely what you are doing.
Whatever you call yourself, the name and the way you express it to all your prospective (and actual) customers defines the business: it is in effect a summary and aide memoire of what you are, what you do and what you stand for.
Refined sugar, for example, has always come in largely white packets. So if you’re a newcomer on the block, trying to challenge the hegemony of the big two (Tate & Lyle and Silver Spoon), can you do so via the status quo of sugar packaging, or do you need (and are you brave enough) to challenge the received wisdom by breaking all the rules?
For a shop, however, there are two competing considerations: the style, aspiration and ethos of the place, that the brand needs to express; and good old visibility. If you’re a consulting business or an online only operation, you can probably afford to be as outre and high-falutin as you like. But if you are a retail business that customers have to find before they part with their cash, I’d say that being seen is even more important than the quality messages your branding gives off.
That’s why the big High Street retailers all use big, bold colours in sans serif typefaces that can be seen a mile off. Not so important out in the sticks, where there is less competition? You must be joking. Signage is important, wherever you are. Admittedly, if you’re selling fresh eggs from happy hens, slick graphics may not be either necessary or desirable, but being seen is a sine qua non.
And colour combinations determine the practicality of legibility. Black on yellow (the best contrast of all) may not be right for a business rooted in green credentials, but blue and red? It may have looked good over the kitchen table, but it just doesn’t work.
Back to the drawing board. It’s so fundamental to the business that it’s far better to grasp the nettle now and get it right than try to live with something that isn’t giving the business its best shot. And don’t think of it as yet another cost: it’s an investment, and just because someone didn’t invest wisely first time around doesn’t mean it’s a complete write-off and no further investment is warranted. Think like that, and you’re definitely doomed.