Logos, color schemes, web layouts.  As small businesses, we spend a lot of money on efforts to create the ultimate brand-  a brand that defines the business, conveys credibility and sets us apart from competitors.  However, if you are a service provider—particularly in certain industries—I am going to say something that is going to make the eyes of every branding guru on the entire Internet collectively roll back in their respective heads.  You may be wasting your money.

See, for many service providers, the “branding” that matters is in the “R’s”: results, reputation and referrals.  With my merchant banking firm primarily focused on investment banking services, you know what got us business?  It wasn’t our name, our logo, our business cards, our “colors” or even our website.  In fact, I changed the businesses’ name, logo and website several times. In reality, those items were just collateral.  But what got us business was results, like selling scale manufacturer Pelstar to Newell Rubbermaid for a very attractive multiple or selling the Jerdon division of Applica for them when they had previously unsuccessfully attempted a process themselves.  We also generated significant referrals from previous clients, private equity firms, lawyers and other service providers that we had worked with.

Frankly, the firm could have had any name, tag line or colors.  Our website only mattered as much as enforcing that we were credible. However, in our industry, as in many others service industries, almost no business comes in over the transom.  If you are going to be spending multiple six-figures for someone to sell your business, you aren’t doing an Internet search or judging a business card, unless perhaps that business card was printed on a piece of toilet paper.  What you are doing is getting a referral from a trusted decision maker- almost without exception.

I know this to be the same and true for others.  There are lawyers who I refer business to because of the great work I have witnessed them do for me and for others, whose firms’ names I can barely remember.  I couldn’t tell you what my accountant’s tag line is and I don’t really care. Even household service providers that I use are only allowed into my home because someone else that I have confidence in has vouched for them.

Yes, it may be cliché, but particularly in the services realm, people are doing business with providers that they know, like and trust. Sure, looking totally unprofessional can hurt your credibility, so you have to spend some money to have a brand that is in the realm of credibility.  That being said, spending too much on your branding can be a giant waste of time and money.  You will generate a higher return if you invest in developing your relationships and nurturing your current and past clients instead. Even putting time and resources into raising your profile as an expert will have more of an impact than deciding if you like burgundy or navy.

Now obviously, if your service is branding, you don’t want to be the shoemaker whose children have no shoes. If that is your business, you need to walk the talk.  But for many industry segments, “traditional” branding is one of the last places you should be focused.  Spend time thinking through how new clients are typically garnered in your industry. If you are not likely to generate a client through an Internet search or advertisement, but do so through a connection, take a guess as to where you should be spending your time.