Choosing a branding firm can be a nightmare. Ask branding agencies for quotes and you will get prices ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $50,000 and up, and sometimes this includes only the design. On Craigslist a designer might offer a logo design for less than $300, or even $50. And there’s even a website where you can crowdsource the design of your logo for free before you choose to pay.
All these options can lead you to wonder, Do you really get better work the more you pay? How do these various services differ? How much should you spend on your business?
It all comes down to what different freelancers and agencies mean by “branding,” and what your ultimate business goal is with the branding project.
Branding encompasses three different elements. First, there is the visual brand that aesthetically represents what you’re all about: the design of your logo, website, and materials. Then there is the messaging that communicates what you do and why you’re different, which includes all of the copy and your tagline. Finally, there is the positioning of your brand, which bleeds into your business plan and structure.
When a firm offers “branding,” however, it may be referring to only one or two aspects. To decide which one your business needs, you must take into account where you are in the evolution of your business, assess your current challenges and goals, and determine the best partner to address them.
Visual Brand Designers
When a designer says they’ll design your brand, they really mean your logo, website, and identity materials. It would be more accurate to say they are designing your visual brand. They often will want you to provide your own messaging and copy, and they will completely rely on you in terms of positioning and strategy.
This is the person you use when you are first starting out if you don’t have a lot to invest. It gives you something to get your business out there, to start selling and testing your services in the market. Once you’ve had some experience with clients, a strategic brand agency can craft that into something that will take you to the next level.
You can find people who will do your entire brand on Craigslist/UpWork/Elance for $1,000 to $3,000, and it’s even possible to catch a great designer for even less if you get them at the right moment—like right out of school. But these are unicorns, not the norm, and you will always end up paying more in other ways. When my partner and designer, Steve, first left school, his management skills were nonexistent. A rising design star may be incredibly talented creatively, but likely hasn’t yet mastered the art of managing projects and clients. This usually means a lot more of their time and your time is spent on the project. Also, they are generally not thinking about messaging and business strategy. They may make something that looks great, even brilliant, but if your messaging is generic and your business strategy is weak, a gorgeous visual brand is not going to help you much in the long run.
Brand Message & Design
Luckily, plenty of agencies integrate design with messaging. You tell them what you your business is about and what you want to communicate, and they put it into words, make a tagline, and design an identity to match. This is probably the most common approach to this type of branding, and if you’ve got a solid business strategy, a brand agency that does the messaging and the design is a great match.
This is the agency you hire if you have a clear business model, own a solid positioning in the market (for example, if you are the go-to interior designer for boutique hotels), and are already profitable and looking to take your company to the next level. If you have a great foundation, a branding agency that has marketing savvy can enhance your brand’s existing positioning in the market.
A small agency that does both can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 and up. I know, I know: this is quite a range. So what’s the difference? It’s not an exact science, and if there was a definitive way to slice up these numbers I would share it with you. Price doesn’t always equal value, but unicorns are rare. Usually the price is determined by the size of the agency, the experience of the principals, and the business savvy of the owners. The best thing to do is find an agency that you vibe with and that seems to have enthusiasm for your company and its work.
Business Strategy Meets Messaging & Design
Finally, there are agencies that do all three.
This is the agency you hire when you have a lot of revenue—and therefore a budget—but not a lot of profit. This agency can help you strategize how to better position your business in the market to increase profit, and then build a brand message and design based on that positioning to catapult your business to market domination.
Fewer of these agencies exist because they need to understand business strategy, marketing and communications strategy, design strategy, and how to integrate it all together.
Given that it takes different experience and knowledge to grow a tech/e-commerce business, a mid-size consulting firm, a small service business, or a thought leader brand, it’s best to look for a branding agency that has a focused clientele. They may focus by industry, by business size, by the clients’ target market, or by a variety of factors, but if they have a focus, they are able to learn nuances of their clients’ businesses and consult on the business itself. It’s ironic that many branding firms fail to focus their niche of target clients, which means they often aren’t able to offer this service. It’s a rare agency that is adept at developing strategy for businesses of all kinds.
Another reason branding agencies don’t touch business strategy is that strategists are often the bearers of bad news, and many agencies don’t want to take on that responsibility. Essentially, you may think your strategy is solid, but if your business is not profitable and is just breaking even (meaning everyone is getting paid but the owners are not taking home an additional profit share every quarter on top of their salary), your brand needs a more strategic positioning in the market, and a more solid sales and business strategy, as a foundation for the new messaging and design. This can mean painful short-term pivots for the long-term health of the business. Without that, the shiny new brand may help you look nicer, but ultimately you’re not going to achieve the goal of having a highly profitable business. You might sign more clients, get more work, and need to hire more employees, but the profit at the end of the quarter or year stays the same and might even shrink.
Even when taking into account personal goals, social missions, and the like, making your ideal model highly profitable should be the end goal of any business.
Pricing for agencies that include business strategy range from $10,000 to $50,000 plus, but have no ceiling. A good way to identify these agencies is to look at their questions. Are they asking about your numbers? Are they asking about your pricing, your process, and your profitability? If they are, then they are making sure that your brand messaging is supported by a strategic and profitable business strategy.
Some of the biggest agencies do this and do it well, but the price tag usually starts at $30,000 just for the strategy, and when you throw in research, messaging, and visual design, the projects can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Smaller agencies usually don’t offer all three, given that committing to a certain size and niche business is difficult to stomach. But if you are looking for a branding firm and you struggle with profitability, I highly recommend interviewing agencies on this aspect of their process.
Finally, I suggest to everyone who wants to work on marketing and promoting their company to more properly evaluate their skills, workload, and marketing needs. Business owners must make sure that their company’s production and service capacities are at their highest possible levels and that they have seen at least some of what lies ahead of them, even from their own perspective and understanding of the market, rivals, and the likelihood that their products will survive the competition.
There are works of great perfection and generosity, and their competitive advantage is present in the market, but the efforts of those in charge of them were focused on production and production only, as the experiments showed us an utter failure, the marketing work was mighty in return for meager products or services, and vice versa.