hall of fame
Dan Antonelli

A Q and A with Dan Antonelli, author of  Building a Big Small Business Brand, to help educate sign designers.

What prompted you to write Building a Big Small Business Brand?
After specializing in working with small businesses for almost two decades, I realized that I kept seeing the same challenges they had about their brand. So while the first two books spoke more to designers about the mechanics of building logos, I wanted to focus this book on teaching businesses why their brand is so important, how to leverage a good brand to build their business, and how to work with a designer in building their brand.

At the same time, you gave sign people a look at how to educate their clients and sell this work. What key things can sign designers learn from it?
Certainly, a deeper understanding about their role, and why it’s so important. I think sometimes sign designers don’t place enough emphasis on branding in the work they produce for their clients, and many continue to view their products as commodities. Not every sign designer is going to be able to coordinate all the other elements of a small business marketing campaign, but there are many things they can control. By thinking about their work from a brand perspective, it elevates the value of what they deliver, and better frames the relationship with a client. Instead of being a vendor, you’re their partner. Instead of an expense, your services are an investment.

Selling this approach to design takes a different mindset from selling just signs. How can the book help sign designers develop that?
It’s important to move away from a commodity-based mentality. A commodity is a product that is seen as essentially the same no matter who produces it, like aluminum sheet or printing or plywood. If you sell the same thing as everyone else, then the consumer’s choice always revolves around price. But what happens when what you deliver is different than what everyone else provides? What happens if they can’t go down the road and get the same thing? The relationship is immediately put on different footing. Now you control the conversation, and it’s not revolving around price. They want you to do the job, and they can’t get the same thing elsewhere. It’s a whole different mentality for the client. Getting to that point involves hard work and making sure that the work you put out there is great. And it involves marketing, marketing and more marketing—about your business and strategic advantages. And the marketing needs to be framed in the right context so that there’s a perceived value in your services. Most sign companies make the mistake of marketing their capabilities around what they produce. The message shouldn’t be “We make great signs (or truck wraps, or whatever).” The message is “We make signs and truck wraps that generate more revenue for our clients, and our designs help them to grow their business.” That’s one of the marketing points you need to make.

The case histories in the book really drive home how branding works. The results are pretty impressive. Do you find that clients tell other businesspeople how well their brand is working?
Great branding makes your clients your biggest cheerleaders, and they talk an awful lot. Continue to seek metrics, which are measurable results, of your success for them. For example, in the last article we had a metric that illustrated that our truck wrap design resulted in an 865% increase in leads for the client. This helps them understand the true ROI, return on investment, on your service.

Why is branding now so critical to small businesses—like contractors and cleaning services and lawn maintenance companies?
I think it’s always been important, but some of the mediums that are so important to small businesses perhaps are now becoming more integral in their marketing campaigns. Take the service sector, for example. More and more heating and air contractors are now going with full truck wraps. Unfortunately, nearly every truck wrap on the road is a waste of their money. So we find more and more clients seeking us out because we approach that line of work differently. We make sure the brand is the most important component. Additionally, smart businesses understand the value of their brand. One point made in the book, is that in my estimation, 95% of all small businesses have a poor brand. This is great news for a business owner that wants to stand out. It’s easy to stand out when so much out there is so bad. It’s almost too easy, when it’s done right. As Don Draper in Mad Men said, “One wants to be the needle, not the haystack.”

If they want to take this approach, where’s the best place for a sign person to start?
With their own branding. This may seem obvious, but you can’t craft a marketing message around branding being important when your own branding illustrates it’s not. In my book, I call this “fanatical branding,” because every business needs to be fanatical about controlling every possible touch point a customer might have with your brand. This helps establish a brand promise, which is a level of expected service the customer might assume they’d receive from you. This brand promise is the culmination of many things, including logo, website, truck wrap, business cards, uniforms, stationery.

So the strategies you outline in the book work as well for sign companies as they do for their clients?
Exactly. But one could argue for those in a visual business like sign companies, it’s even more critical—because how their brand is perceived sets the tone for the customer experience.

What if a sign person doesn’t have the skills to do this work? How does he start learning and developing them?
Study everything you can on it. Observe what makes designs and brands effective, and the strategies behind them. Or, hire someone who has the skills. It’s smart to hire and surround yourself with people who are better than yourself at different skills.

How long does it take to develop a market for this work?
Once your own branding is integrated cohesively, then it’s much easier to develop the market. Work on building up your portfolio with examples and case studies which illustrate effective brand integration on different signage. Include quotes from clients which speak to the results of your efforts. Then if a potential client visits your site, they can identify with someone just like them and their business, and see actual results of a brand implemented.


The contents in this article originally appeared in Sign Craft Magazine, a magazine that provides straightforward, important information to its audience members. Sign Craft’s audience consists of sign makers around the world that count on the information in these articles to succeed in the competitive, always-changing industry of sign making.

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