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Building Your Business Identity: The Essential Steps

our business identity is the complete professional image you present to the world. It consists not only of the legal and contact information required to start a business but also the recognizable and distinct image you want to see carried out consistently across all your marketing materials. Developing a business identity involves careful choices and a sound knowledge of your industry. You must consider:

the legal requirements to register a business and to meet your state and federal tax obligations
your target audience and customers, who will use your product or service and what is likely to appeal to them
your competition and how they have defined their business identity
your position in the market and your abilities to produce or to deliver relative to those of the competition
the visual elements you will employ to give your business a "look" and a "tone"

Rather than just renting an office, installing a phone line, doodling a logo, or knocking out a brochure in Word, there are a series of fundamental steps that go into establishing a solid business identity, each one building on the other.

Establish an Address and Means of Communication

Settling on an address and getting phone and fax numbers in place first, even before naming or registering the business ensures that your home address won't become public record. Also this basic information is necessary for all your primary marketing documents like business cards and letterhead. In the beginning you can:

rent a U.S. Postal Service mail box or use a private mail service
take out a second or a prepaid cell phone for the business
use an online fax service
cover long distance calling charges with pre-paid cards

The idea is to establish a separate physical location and string of contact numbers for your business apart from your home information. Any of these measures can be replaced with more permanent options as your business develops.

Choose a Business Name and Tagline

If you have not already chosen a business name and will not be operating the business under your own name, you have some brainstorming to do. Remember that you want a name that is:

easy to remember
easy to pronounce
easy to spell
clearly related to your product or service
not easily confused with another business in your area

When you've selected a name, verify its availability with your Secretary of State's office. Normally state web sites have search features for new business owners to research available business names for registration. If you plan to do business regionally or nationally, extend your search beyond the borders of your own state and make sure you're not using a trademarked name. At the same time that you name your business, choose the word or phrase that will become associated with it and that will help potential customers distinguish you from the competition. We're all familiar with well-known taglines.

clearly Hallmark - "When you care enough to send the very best."
Allstate - "You're in good hands with Allstate."
GE - "We bring good things to life."
Ford - "Built Ford tough."

As part of your business identity the tagline should set you apart from the competition and be a phrase you're willing to use for a long time.

Don't Forget Your Domain Name

Even if you are not planning to have a business website at this point, find and purchase a domain name. You can go to a domain registrar like Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com) and use their "WhoIs" search feature to find out what is available. You want a domain name that:

is short (two to three words)
had good name recognition
cannot be mistaken for another word or phrase ("experts exchange" looks a bit different when it's run together as "expertsexchange")
matches your business name or tagline
relates to what you do or sell

Get Your Employer ID Number

Employer's Identification Numbers are issued by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and are not optional for business that will have employees or that will operate as a corporation. Even if you are not legally required to have an EIN, it is usually a good idea because:

you can open a bank account in the name of the business keeping your own Social Security number private
if you are hired as an independent contractor the EIN is a layer of protection for your clients so the IRS won't classify you as an employee

To find out more information about Employer's Identification Numbers consult the Internal Revenue website at www.irs.gov.

Open a Business Bank Account

Having a bank account for the business keeps your personal finances strictly separate. Although free business checking is rare, some banks do offer the service and credit unions also offer lower rate business accounts. Remember to figure in the costs of checks and endorsement stamps.

Create a Business Logo

Now that the mechanical bare bones of your business identity are in place you can begin to consider your business visuals. A logo goes a long way toward establishing your business identity with the public. Your logo should be:

unique and eye-catching without being cluttered and busy

clearly relevant to your business or service

contain a logotype (a special type rendering of the business name that can be used separately or in conjunction with the logo graphic)

not subject to misinterpretation (symbols are powerful, make sure you're not selecting an image that is offensive to elements of your community)

While there are software programs to help with logo design, if you can afford to work with a professional graphic designer it is a distinct advantage. Always think about where your logo will be displayed and make sure the image will be clear and comprehensible in sizes ranging from your business card to a billboard.

Create Business Cards

Business cards are an internationally recognized means of exchanging contact data and their use forms an essential part of business etiquette. Your card serves as your means of introduction to new clients and must create a positive first impression. If at all possible, don't use "do it yourself" business cards. Select cards that:

contain all the necessary data (your name, the business name, tagline, address, contact numbers, and email)

are attractively arranged so as to be clearly legible and uncluttered

are printed on good quality card stock with a nice tactile feel

incorporate your logo and color printing where applicable

Keep your cards in pristine condition and always have a good supply on hand. Nothing is more unprofessional than digging around in your pockets and announcing you're out of cards.

Create Your Letterheads

Coordinate your letterhead design with that of your business card. Include the same contact information and use your logo to the best advantage. Many of the same rules apply to letterhead design as to business cards.

Select paper with a good tactile feel that communicates professionalism.
Use a typeface that is clearly legible.
Use color sparingly, usually for your logo.

Consider having your business envelopes printed at the same time with matching envelope stock and perhaps get note sheets as well for less formal, handwritten communications with clients -- like thank-you notes.

Expanding Your Business Identity

After taking these fundamental steps to create and represent your business identity, you have established a foundation on which to develop other marketing materials like:

a company website
brochures or flyers
specialty or promotional items
print and media advertisements

Remember that consistency is the key to a business identity that works. In a sense you are creating a living entity in naming your business, giving it a place to live, creating its avenues of communication, and dressing your business for success. In order to be a recognizable leader in your field, you need to have a strong business identity that your clients will instantly recognize. No one has to look twice at the Kentucky Fried Chicken logo or the distinctive Nike swoosh. Crafting that kind of identity is an essential element in the success of your endeavor.

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