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The first and most important thing to remember in business is that NOTHING is free. Well, that’s not entirely true. The business services with the Innisfil Economic Development Team are free. So let’s just say that most things aren’t free. But it’s also true that most startups and new businesses are already operating on a budget, and sometimes the margins of that budget can be thin for quite a while.

Figuring out a way to brand and market your business on a shoestring budget is vital to your bottom line. Deciding to open a business but having no marketing strategy in the business plan and no money in the budget isn’t the best option. Unless you happen to get lucky with a video of yours going viral, you’ll be on the fast track to business obscurity.

What is a shoestring budget?

That depends on your business! According to Investopedia, the definition of a shoestring budget is “A slang term used to describe a small amount of money that is considered to be inadequate for its intended purpose.” (Source) For a large manufacturer, that could be a million dollars. For a small retail store, that could be $5,000.00. It’s all relative.

Let’s just assume that you haven’t won the lottery and your branding and marketing budget for your business is somewhat limited. You need to spend what you have wisely, to get the most ‘bang for your buck’, as the saying goes.

So how can you do that? Well, let’s first make the distinction between branding and marketing.

What is a brand?

A brand is what identifies your company to others, at a glance, and makes you distinct from other companies. A brand can include an image, a name, a symbol.

Without even saying a name, you likely know what these companies are:

Some companies decide to brand a name instead of a symbol:


Some companies do both:

The logo, colours, and fonts are what define each brand and are unique. If you sell a product, branding can extend to packaging as well. Take, for example, the bottled water industry. Even without the labels, you could probably identify some of these from their packaging:



Looking at the Starbucks logo above, while many stores sell coffee, their image is well known and clearly identifies them. Developing a brand for your business makes it instantly recognizable, which matters in a world of constant bombardment of information.

Your company’s brand should be unique and consistent, not just in terms of the look but in terms of the feeling people get when they see or think about it. Distinct from the physical appearance, branding gives meat to the visual. It defines what your company stands for and therefore why a customer should choose your company over your competitor.

Putting it all together

For example, when Starbucks decided to close all their stores nationwide to host a one day sensitivity training session for all their staff, they were acting in accordance with their brand. They didn’t want to just say that they cared about treating customers fairly, regardless of race, gender or culture, but they actually wanted do something to ensure that position. This alignment of actions to the brand was a positive force that left many customers feeling very warm and fuzzy towards Starbucks.

When you develop a brand for your company, both visual and in terms of what values your business represents, you need to always act in ways that support your brand, including in all your marketing endeavours. That costs zero dollars to adhere to but can cost you a fortune in business, if you don’t.

How is branding different from marketing?

Think of branding as the development of your image and marketing is how you get your image out to your potential customer.

A great example, albeit HIGH budget one, is WestJet and their Christmas video ads. They have branded themselves as the airline that cares by leveraging what is known as ‘cause marketing’. Their Christmas videos almost always go viral but the 2014 video was a step beyond. It’s a challenge to watch it without tearing up!

WestJet went to the Dominican Republic and, through a video link to Santa, asked each and every person in one neighbourhood what they wanted for Christmas. Then WestJet employees went shopping locally, so that it helped out the area economy! They even brought snow! The video was seen over 2.3 million times in the week it launched. Now, a cynic would say that they are just vying for our attention by pulling at heartstrings, but the reality is that the WestJet brand is well known for doing good deeds. Marketing that image through the videos that are shared and shared again is just good business. Their marketing is always aligned with their brand, so that as a potential customer, you see not only the airplane but the positive feelings their ‘spirit of giving’ campaigns give.

Take the grassroots approach to branding

A more grassroots and local example of this is JustOne. After spending some time in Uganda and meeting former child soldiers, AIDS victims and orphans, Southern Ontario based photographer Krista Jefferson returned home with a souvenir. It was a necklace made by a young woman who had been forced into marriage at age 10, among other indignities. People Krista met loved the necklace, and the incredible story of survival that came with it. She posted about her experience, the young woman’s story, and the necklace on her photography blog and in just two weeks, she sold 200 necklaces. JustOne was born. People weren’t just buying the beaded necklace. They were buying the story of the young woman and all the other people who have lived difficult lives but now work with JustOne, with fair trade practices in place.

Yes, she created a logo, but more importantly, she created a cause. A reason to buy necklaces from her company. A value statement that business can be about more than making money: it can be about changing lives.

How to build your brand

Since it’s clear from the JustOne example that even if you have a shoestring budget, you can still build a brand that gets recognized, both from a visual and a values perspective, the next question is how to get started.

Step 1 – Get a logo. Invest in a graphic designer who will listen to what you’re about and what you want to convey with your image and spend the money to get this done properly. A DIY logo isn’t likely to cut it. You should receive your logo in a variety of formats (.JPG, .PNG, .EPS, .PDF), with and without a background. Make sure you get the colour codes so that if someone is ever reproducing your logo as part of an advertisement or event signage, they get it right. Do it once but do it well and you’ll never have to do it again!

Step 2 – Decide what your values as a company are and what tone you want to set. Do you care about the environment? Make purchasing choices that reflect those. Do you care about the wellbeing of underprivileged children? Make that part of your core values. Whatever you decide, don’t pay lip service to your company values but really embrace them and align all your marketing towards supporting that image.

Step 3 – Get some business cards. Yes, they’re old school but someone will ask you for one and you don’t want to be the business owner at the networking event that doesn’t have something to hand over. Plus, it’s a great place to get your branding front and centre: leverage the back of your card (an otherwise usually blank space) to share your unique selling proposition with anyone who reads it.

Other ways to grow your brand on a budget?

  • Order your business cards and other marketing materials online. You can create professional looking materials, once you have a logo, that will not break the bank. And check in with local printers too. You might be surprised at what good value they provide in terms of quality and service, at negligibly more cost. Supporting a local business is always a good idea if you want them to reciprocate!
  • Make sure your email signature contains your brand, as well as links to your website and social media. Every time you send out email, even if it’s unrelated to your business, your brand will be visible. If they are interested, people will click on your website link to see what you’re about.
  • Build a website that reflects your brand image and your business goals: logo, font, colours from an image perspective; lead generation and e-commerce sales are two business goals. More on how to do this later on!
  • Make sure your business presence on social media—Facebook Page, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram—reflects the same branding. More on these and other digital marketing options later on in this post!
  • Create content that reflects your brand without blatantly advertising it and share it in two places: on your own blog or as a guest blogger on other sites. Again, more on this in the next section.
  • Ask your customers for testimonials. There is nothing better to support your brand than people who say they loved your product or service! A lot of people rely on testimonials and reviews to make buying decisions, even when those reviews come from people they don’t know themselves.
  • Use referral rewards. If someone refers another to your business or service and that person buys, make sure to thank the referrer! They will remember you in the future when someone mentions a need for your product or service to them. Even better if your ‘thank you’ comes with a little something, like a gift card.
  • Joint networking groups, either online or in person, or both! These are great ways to speak with like minded business owners, in complementary industries. Again, make sure that the organizations you join align with your company’s brand values.


How to market your business?


Marketing your business doesn’t have to be about investing only in one style of marketing. Your toolbox for getting the word out on your business should be varied. It all depends on your audience. Some options?

  • Print marketing in local newspapers or magazines: this tends to be FAR more affordable than larger print media and will often come with a digital side too.
  • Pop up shops: setting up a pop up shop by yourself or with a complementary business is a great way to generate some visibility. Often, these are part of a larger group of pop ups, or placed in spaces that aren’t currently rented.
  • Events: local events with display booths and tables are super for getting in front of the audience you need, as long as there is a good alignment between your business and the event. A home and garden show is perfect for the company that is selling easy to slip off garden shoes made of recycled plastic. Not so much at the food and wine show!


  • Make sure to join your local chamber or BIA: getting involved is a great way to get known within the business community.


All businesses need a digital component in their marketing toolbox too, whether or not you sell your products and services online.

What are your digital marketing options?

Build a website

There are dozens of options out there to build your own site, including WordPress, Wix and Weebly. Ultimately, it’s best to pay for the service, so you don’t get ads on your site that you don’t want or, worse, don’t reflect your brand and the image you want to convey.

Remember: a Facebook page is not a website. You don’t own that page, so you can’t control what is seen and what isn’t. It’s essential to build your own site. Use a custom URL and not a WordPress or other site URL. Yes, the latter are free but you can buy your URL for very little and tie it to your site, ensuring that no one else can use it. You need to be consistent in order to be recognized. When large brands allow their logos to be reproduced, they do so with strict rules about colour, size and so on. You don’t have to be a big brand to follow the same rules!

When you’re building your site, build it to work for you. If your business is selling a product, you can leverage integrated e-commerce platforms like Shopify to make your store and your site a seamless combo. If you’re offering a service, make sure your site has content that reflects your knowledge and abilities; potential customers will get a good sense as to how you can help them! Whether generating leads or sales, your website is your own, a space that should reflect your brand to the core!

Engage in internet and social media marketing

These two terms don’t mean the same thing! Internet marketing refers to marketing your business online. This could be online business listings, where you can place information about your business location, site, hours, and contact info on various other sites. Another example is Google ads / AdWords, where you can set up ads that will show up at the top of searches that contain your ad keywords. Getting the keywords correctly set up so that you are in fact reaching people who are looking for exactly what you have to offer is often a question of trial and error and tweaking, but as mentioned earlier, online marketing allows you to change course relatively easily!

Social media marketing means reaching your target audience via social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and so on. With each of these platforms, you can purchase advertising that can be based on geographic and / or keyword coordination. In this way, you can reach the social media feeds of your likely customers. This is why knowing who your target customer is and where they hang out is so important. You don’t want to spend a lot of your budget on Facebook ads if your audience is young and more likely to be on Instagram or Snapchat!

Don’t be afraid to spend money on social media

Organic reach on social media is basically at nil: you can’t just put up a post and realistically expect that it will reach many people anymore. You have to pay to play, but luckily, your ad spend on social media doesn’t have to be too expensive if you also take the time to really engage. Putting out paid ads on platforms might garner some attention but it’s a great idea to also engage with people directly. Just have a conversation. If you see one that is of interest and aligns with your branding, jump in and chat! There is nothing more appealing to consumers than a brand who can do more than sell, in their online interactions!

If you are going to be on social media, make sure you check it often and respond to people. It’s the easiest form of engagement, to respond to questions and queries on social, and a big turn off for a lot of customers is a company that has a handle and a few posts but is never present.

A word of advice: be careful of wading into politics, religion or other topics that are contentious. If you don’t want to talk about it with your Uncle Wilf at the Thanksgiving dinner table, don’t talk about it on social. A lot of brands make the mistake of being completely tone deaf online, making comments that are inappropriate, for which they spend a lot of time back peddling afterwards!

Don’t forget about content marketing

Content marketing refers to creating useful, informative, or entertaining content to engage a potential customer, and ultimately acquaint them with your brand and what you can do for them. Examples of content include: blog posts, podcasts, and video posts. None of these are necessarily expensive to produce. The only thing the do have to offer is value to the person reading, watching or listening to it.

Content draws people to your site and to you. It’s how you can pull them in: if they see value in what you have to say, they’ll check you out!

Having your own original and unique content on your website is invaluable for SEO (search engine optimization). Google ranks websites based on an algorithm that includes the quality of the content the site contains. Whether you write it yourself, or have someone do it for you, quality content will pay for itself over and over again. How? It can be reused.

Create your own content ecosystem

From one blog post, you can draw out dozens of quotes for Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. A blog post can also be the basis of the script for a video, or a subsection of something you talked about in the post could be the basis of a Facebook Live video. You can re-use the post in other ways, such as compiling several related posts into an eBook, which you can give away to potential clients as a lead magnet to get people to your site. There are so many opportunities to use and re-use content to draw people into your site and show them a little of what you know and how you can help them.

Beyond your own site, companies that are in the business of producing content are looking for something new to talk about and your business could be it, but make sure you choose sites that align with your brand values and speak to your target audience. Example? If you are a yoga instructor, you can guest blog about the top five poses for pregnant women on parenting sites, magazines and more. You’re reaching a target audience with useful information. Make sure you get a bio at the end of the piece, along with a link back to your website!

How much will all of this cost?

There’s a lot more time and effort than money spent in these suggestions and tips, but ultimately, you can spend little and still get the word out about your business. Know your unique selling proposition inside and out, and you’ll find it easy to answer that ubiquitous cocktail / networking party question: “So, what do you do?” Your passion and excitement about your business will be contagious!