Small Business

Developing Your Company's Image


You probably only have one chance with your Web site or business card to make an impression, so be sure to hire a professional designer

With the New Year fast approaching, and maybe a new budget as well, this may be a good time to invest in a makeover of your company image. Or maybe you're hoping to start a new firm and are dreaming up images for 2007 (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/5/06, "Picture Your Business with a Logo"). Particularly for small companies trying to compete against big corporations, image means a lot, says Jennifer Jacob Kohn, founder of Los Angeles-based JJKO Design. A home-based entrepreneur herself, Kohn freshens up outdated company logos, Web sites, business cards, and mailers. She spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein; edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

How do you define a company "image" and why is it important to have one?

A company's image is what makes it stick in the minds of potential customers. An image is conveyed by the company's colorful logos, its artistic designs, creative Web site, and business cards, but it goes deeper than that. The look of your image backs up the corporate culture you've established inside and outside your firm. It's what you want to convey about yourself, your business, your product, your work ethic, and your professionalism combined with the strategy you've developed to reach your target audience.

It's so important because your image instantly tells all your customers and vendors what kind of company you're running. If your image is excellent, it will make your company stand out from its competitors.

What's the most important thing you tell business owners and would-be business owners when they're developing a company image?

Hire a professional. Unless you're a designer yourself, and really good at it, the image you convey will not look professional if you're trying to do it yourself. You've probably only got one chance with your Web site or your business card to make an impression. You've got to put your best foot forward with that effort. If you're scrimping and put out something amateurish, everyone will know it, and it'll reflect badly on you.

For graphically challenged people, can you explain how something looks different when it's professionally designed vs. homegrown?

Professional designs typically use beautiful color combinations, gorgeous layouts, and make a strong impression immediately. They match your image to your target audience—so you've got a trendy logo and look if your customers are trendy, or a classic, sophisticated look if that reflects and attracts your customer base. In any case, a professionally designed image is crisp, easy to read, it scales up and down easily so it looks good in a size big enough to go on a billboard over your storefront, and small enough to fit on your business card or Web site. A good logo doesn't include photos, but it may have a very simple picture in it. And also, it doesn't become stretched out or pixilated on your Web site.

When you're talking about business cards, have them printed on nice, thick card stock, or glossy stock that makes your images look crisp and beautiful. I also like a matte design with satin finish, and anything that has texture is pleasing to the eye and to the touch. Your business cards should definitely match your mailers, brochures, and anything else you send out in the mail. And all of that should get filtered over into your Web site in a consistent manner.

Can you give us some ideas of problems you've identified with company's business images?

If you can dazzle people with your image right away, it gives you credibility in a world of simple text logos and garish, overdone stuff. But the opposite is true if your image looks bad right up front—like business cards that are ugly, dirty-looking, printed on cheap paper or on an office printer with perforated paper at the edges, or Web sites that aren't organized coherently or have designs that aren't consistent from page to page, and logos that are too small or don't appear anywhere on the Web site. Sometimes I see sites with broken links, or links that are different colors, or where the page tabs are hard to find, or that have text underlined that is not meant to be a link, so it looks like a broken link to visitors.

One of my pet peeves is the Web site that doesn't have contact information on it, or where the contact information is very hard to find.

Oh yes, that's a common problem. You've got to put a way for customers to get in touch with you—at least your e-mail address and preferably a telephone number—right up at the top where it's very visible. No matter how comprehensive you think you've made your site, potential clients will still want to talk to you. If they can't get a hold of you easily, they'll find someone else to do business with.

Also, a professional site has to be very quick to download, and your customers should be able to find what they want within three clicks or less.

A lot of small companies—and particularly startups—are working on a thin dime. If they're trying to create a do-it-yourself image, I suspect it's because they think they can't afford a professional. How much should a well-done corporate image cost?

Of course, it depends on who you hire and their level of design experience and expertise. Designing a logo and image from the ground up takes a lot of time and effort. You need to spend time with business owners, getting to know them and helping them figure out what they want their image to convey to the world. I would say small companies could expect to pay $900 to $2,000 for something like that. If you've already got a corporate image and you want to put your logo on business cards, letterhead or brochures, that'd probably cost $300 to $500.

I recommend that entrepreneurs hire designers who work with printers and mailing companies, particularly if they're putting together business brochures or new business announcements. That way, all they have to do is approve the proofs, and the designer sends the content to a printer, and then to a mailing house that will address and mail your materials.

You're a sole proprietor and a home-based entrepreneur yourself. How did you get started?

I worked for a marketing firm that went under, so I took some courses in design and set up my own company at home a few years ago. Most of my clients are startup companies, and nearly all of them find me online. I've had just a handful of local clients in Los Angeles, and everyone else I work for comes from out-of-state. I have been very surprised how successful advertising online has been for me. I use mostly pay-per-click ads at sites like Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! (YHOO). Of course, once I get a client and they like my work, I get referrals to other entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs that they know.

The other thing that's been nice is that I initially thought I'd get hired to do a logo for a company and then they'd move on and I'd never hear from them again. But I find that I've maintained a lot of clients who hire me to do some initial image design for them and then come back when they need their Web sites updated, or they want to move into a new product or a new industry category and they need to expand their images. That's been surprising, but definitely welcome.


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