Building a Brand Framework for a Small Business

So often small businesses do not think very deeply about marketing issues. It is enough for them to do to supply customer needs and control the cash flow from day to day. However, I have found that it is very valuable even for the smallest of organisations to have a brand framework because it saves time and avoids confusion.

For example, recently I found myself in the position of briefing a web site designer on a new ecommerce web site for a small business. I looked at competitors’ web sites and felt that there was a mismatch between how the site appeared and their target market. But, who had got it wrong? Was it the web site owner who had failed to correctly identify the target market or was it the web site designer who had failed to deliver on their brief? It can be difficult to write briefs for a web site; there is much scope for misunderstanding and confusion, so the probable cause of the mismatch was a failure of communication. To avoid falling into the same trap, I used a brand onion as a quick way to pin down the brand framework and the task became much more straight-forward.

The brand onion is a tool which has been used by marketing practitioners for a number of years. It has been criticised by some practitioners for being too technical for clients and a possible block to communication. However, it is like any tool: it is how it is used that matters and the key to using it successfully is to use simple but precise language.

The brand onion is a tool which starts from the core values of the business. From these core values come the benefits that the organisation offers to its customers and these benefits can be conveniently divided between emotional and functional. From the benefits the personality of the organisation is developed. The core values may be thought of as being wrapped in the benefits which, in turn, are wrapped in the personality – hence the onion analogy.

 Brand Onion

Let us look at the use of this model in the context of the business that I was advising which was an online hobby shop.

Brand Onion for Online Hobby Shop:

Core Values

  • Reliable
  • Friendly
  • Understands hobbyists



  • Safe and reliable in all aspects of the service
  • Understands me because run by hobbyists like me
  • Can turn to for authoritative information
  • Enjoyable, entertaining and inspiring


  • The best hobby materials at the best prices.
  • Easy to use web site.
  • Quick despatch.
  • Transparent pricing.
  • Web site that is interesting to browse even if you don’t buy anything.
  • Wide range of hobby materials on offer.
  • Latest releases on offer.
  • Well packed so goods arrive undamaged.
  • Sorts out problems to my satisfaction without fuss


  • Friendly
  • Trustworthy
  • Understands needs of customers

Once the brand onion has been constructed, it is a relatively simple matter to add communications guidelines which follow from it logically.

Communication Guidelines

Key Message

We do it properly: authoritative, trustworthy, providing a service more important than making a sale.

Key Consumer Take-Out

  • High quality goods
  • Wide range of stock
  • Good prices
  • Arrive quickly
  • Safe and reliable to deal with
  • I trust them

Style and Tone Guidelines

  • Authoritative and confident – conservatively stylish
  • Friendly and helpful
  • ‘Down-to-earth’ – not’ flashy’. More impressed by something that ‘gets-the-job-done’ efficiently rather than by style or technical wizardry
  • Informative

Customer Profile

  • Age – 35 – 70
  • Sex – 90% male
  • Social grade – C2/C1/B. In numbers probably C1 is the largest group, followed by B, followed by C2
  • Life stage – mostly ‘empty-nester’ or ‘retired’. Some ‘kids-at-home’.
  • Attitude to technology/internet – mostly not technologically orientated, more interested in what they can get from the internet rather than the technology in itself
  • What values? – particularly looking for honesty and integrity. Will also see information as being good in itself

The brand onion is a simple way to define the branding of the organisation. Once it has been constructed it can be used in a variety of contexts, for example:

  • To brief advertising and other communications suppliers
  • For presentations to the bank or other suppliers
  • To brief new employees

In the context I was using it, the device worked very well; the web site designer had a clear brief and produced a web site which was consistent with the brand.

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