Does your business’s image match its other qualities? Does it reflect who you are – as a principal or proprietor, as a company, as a seller or provider? Or is it something you don’t think about?
These are some of the toughest times for small business since the late 1970s, and they come after an almost unparalleled streak of good economic times. The 1989 stock market crash, the economic effects of 9/11 and the popping of the tech bubble were only modest stumbles on the business highway for many. If you weren’t one of the businesses directly affected by those dips, you probably recovered – and prospered – within a short time. If you were connected to any of the hot growth industries of the last decade, “prospered” may be a weak description of your success.
So when the current downturn began, I came to realize that there were people who had been in business for a significant fraction of their adult lives without ever seeing a bad year. There were better years and worse, but rarely a sustained loss, and never a downturn. It was like the late 1920s again: just keep investing and wait for the windfalls. And for most of 25 years, it was a successful general plan for businesses of all types.
Now, amid the shock of national and global financial uncertainty, it’s time to realize that we’re not likely to have such a good stretch again, not any time soon. That means we’re back to a business model that would be familiar to anyone who put their name on a sign or a door in the 75 years before the recent boom times. A model where success isn’t assured, a buyout or influx of venture capital isn’t going to come knocking on your door, and where real competition for customers, clients and income has to be a daily part of your operation.
Despite that long, easy cruise and the crash landing that followed, the rules of business have never changed, and anyone who’s maneuvered their business through the minefield of the last few years has probably re-learned the basics – perhaps painfully. It’s not likely you survived if you haven’t.
There’s another facet to ongoing business success, though, beyond the numbers and the hours and employees and inventory… mostly beyond all those numbers. It’s a facet that used to be well understood, but then it got badly distorted in the boom years, and now it’s largely forgotten or dismissed. Without it, most business efforts will fail, or struggle unnecessarily, or just fail to reach their potential, even with the most strenuous efforts applied to other business fundamentals.
That facet is business image.
Until the boom era, a business image was as important as a store location, a solid product line, reliable employees and a customer-first ethic. Even the smallest one-desk or one-truck business took care with how it presented itself to the world, and a shoddy image was to be shunned even more than a grubby employee out among the customers.
In the boom era, business image took a backhanded beating. In some circles, image became so self-important that it trumped everything else. Who didn’t deal, in that era, with a business that had a glamorous, polished image but turned out to be inept, rude and incapable of meeting their own claims? Who doesn’t know the story of a business – or fifty – that was nothing but an expensively crafted image, a sign on the wall of a designer lobby in an elegant building… then a forgotten name as soon as the venture capital was exhausted?
Business image, perhaps rightly, became something scorned, especially by smaller businesses. It was unnecessary; it was a waste of money; it was just a cover for second-raters. Only product, capital and employee investments produced results and thus mattered. And for a time, the money rained so freely from the skies that this approach, too, worked.
Now we’re full circle, back to an era when businesses have to work hard every day, for every success, and will have to keep doing so rather than cruising on a financial high tide or waiting for an assured golden payoff. Part of that full circle is coming back to an understanding of how important a polished and attractive business image is for continuing success. No business is too small, or too new, or too big, or too well-established to take its image casually. Owners can no longer continue believing the nonsense of the boom times or the post-boom malaise. Business image is important – it always has been.
In coming installments, I’ll help you regain this lost understanding of what business image is and what it means to you, your business, your customers… and your potential customers. Whether you’re a basement-corner business or have the biggest storefront in town, whether you plan to hang out your first OPEN sign next week or have one that’s weathered a storm or ten, I’ll show you what it takes to create and maintain a business image that works for you… and works hard.
Until then, take a step back and look over your existing business image. You probably know some things you’d like to change… and pretty soon you’ll know more, and how.
James Gifford is the creative director of NitroPress Creative Services in Tolland.