Ask 10 small business owners, "What is a brand?", and typically, you will get a listing of actual brands, "Coke, Mercedes, Nike." For most people — even longtime entrepreneurs — defining a brand is quite like the famous Supreme Court Justices' definition of pornography, "You just know it when you see it."
Unfortunately, branding is too important of an element for business success to leave as some amorphous concept. In fact, branding is one of the single most powerful tools for building a strong business. 
So, What IS a Brand?
            According to the book, Brand Driven, "a brand is the sum total of every experience a customer has with a company or product — a sum total that customers begin to think of as the promise of the brand." This very broad definition alludes to the fact that every single aspect of a company's business, from physical facilities to customer service, to product or program development, to management, to sales and marketing, helps to either define or dilute a brand. Therefore, if all aspects of a business are not working towards the same objective, a true brand can never be created. For example, if your facility advertises a beginner-friendly environment for new exercisers but then doesn't offer appropriate equipment, programs or services that deliver on that promise, the "brand" you were trying to create in the consumers' mind would be diluted. Similarly, if your facility is known for one-on-one attention but due to new competition, you decide to offer a less-expensive membership that doesn't include any one-on-one attention, the brand would be diluted again.
            Unfortunately, these types of diluting experiences happen too often in all kinds of businesses. Of course, it's not that a business intentionally wants to give the customer an incongruent message that potentially dilutes or damages its image or brand; it is simply that it doesn't necessarily see the problem because the business has only simply reacted to an opportunity or crisis situation that arose without a clear "end product" in mind. To have an effective and consistent "end product," a business must clearly know what it wants to be known for. This requires identifying three things: one, the business's five core values, two, its vision statement and three, its mission statement. With these three questions, a business is equipped with a clear direction of where it is going and a filtering system by which to evaluate all future business decisions.        
The Facility's Literal Branding
            Once a business is clear on its direction, hence, what the intended brand will convey, the next step is evaluating all the literal aspects of the day-to-day operations to make sure the brand is correctly being supported. The physical design and layout of the business is a big part of the branding effort. Every piece of furniture, every machine, every decoration reflects the brand and should be consistent from location to location. And of course, the facility's color schemes and signage should also be consistent with your chosen brand. Even if you have only one facility, the physical aspects of branding are just as critical. If your surroundings don't reflect your brand, there will be an immediate inconsistency within the minds of your prospects and customers. In addition to the physical branding of your business, it is also important to evaluate your programs and services. Look at each member program, each customer service policy, all member materials and employee training guidelines to ensure that the brand is being supported, not diluted.  
The Branding Look
            Your marketing materials are critical to both the creation and support of the brand. Even if you have wonderfully branded facilities, programs and services, but your marketing materials aren't conveying the right branded message, disaster looms. Sadly, although critical, marketing is the area where most fitness operators make their biggest mistakes. This happens for several reasons: first, lack of clarity as to what the brand really is, two, lack of professional marketing services monitoring the brand and three, lack of a pre-established marketing plan, which results in knee-jerk marketing decisions and last-minute materials being developed. Although there are dozens of minor details involved in branding marketing materials, two critical areas are logo and advertising design.
            A company's logo, referred to in the graphics world as an ID (identifier), is one of the most identifying aspects of the brand. Without even a name, consumers see a "swoosh" on an item and recognize that the brand is Nike. Certainly, Nike has spent millions, if not billions of dollars creating such logo awareness, but they wouldn't have been successful if they didn't follow some basic branding principles. Some essential questions regarding your logo should be: Is your logo unique, or is it the result of clip art that was easily available in the early days of the business? Is the logo up to date (modern) in terms of look? (Look at a brand like Coca-Cola, and you will see font and slight design progressions over the years.) Do the colors reflect the brand being created? Is the overall design and font of the logo appealing to the market you are trying to reach? Do you consistently use the logo — including the font — in all your materials? If, due to the size or design, it is impossible to always use one format, do you have second and third layout options that are used consistently? If you answered "no" to any of these questions, you may want to hire a professional graphic designer.  
Marketing Your Brand
            Once you have brand consistency with the logo, the next area to evaluate is your marketing materials. Sure, the logo is part of your marketing materials, but there are still many more aspects to these materials that need to be consistent with the brand. Whether it be newspaper ads, brochures, flyers, note cards or even business cards, there needs to be a consistent design theme throughout. Secondary colors, secondary and third-level fonts, borders and even placement of a logo are all important. Any branding expert will tell you, "If you take five ads and put them in front of the consumer while covering up the logos, will they know which one is your company simply by the design elements?" If the answer is "no," then you're not branding your materials.
            Building a strong brand is often overlooked, but this element is such a critical part of building a strong business. If your facilities, services and marketing aren't conveying the brand you want, or if you aren't even sure about what brand you want to convey, now is the perfect time to begin the process. Begin educating yourself with branding books, and involve your management team in the process. In the end, not only will you have a better product, but you will have a more valuable and salable business model.
            Casey Conrad is the President of Healthy Inspirations, a chain of women's weight loss centers. Casey has written the well-known book "Selling Fitness: The Complete Guide to Selling Health Club Memberships," as well as her latest book "Winning the Struggle to be Thin." For more information, email her at