A few weeks ago, I received a call from a business owner. He was frustrated at a lack of progress from Facebook ads he'd been running. 

The source of the problem: He had no overall brand marketing strategy in place. Under the constant pressure to be proactive, too many small businesses focus on the tactics of branding before considering overall strategy.

According to a HubSpot State of Inbound Marketing report, 63 percent of those surveyed reported "generating traffic and leads" as a top marketing challenge. 40 percent said "proving the ROI of our marketing activities" was their top marketing challenge.

In my experience, both of these issues can be vastly improved by taking a step back from the tactics and thinking through your overall brand strategy. Whenever I start work with a client, I use a four-pronged entry point:

1. S.W.O.T.

A S.W.O.T. analysis is a time-honored strategic planning technique used to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats related to a business or person. It helps pinpoint the external and internal factors that are helping--and hurting--a brand.

The meaningful information generated by a well-done S.W.O.T. can include:

  • Strengths: What gives your business a competitive advantage in the marketplace?
  • Weaknesses: What puts your business at a distinct disadvantage in the marketplace?
  • Opportunities: What opportunities exist within your business or market that you can expand upon and take advantage of?
  • Threats: What's going on in the marketplace that could pose a problem for your business?

I once worked with leaders from a professional services firm, who did this and realized they were so busy servicing their two largest clients that they weren't making time for marketing. As a result, they decided to dedicate a percentage of income from those two clients toward hiring a marketing firm to drive new leads.

Six months later, they were out of the danger zone.

2. Competitive analysis

It's helpful to understand how you stack up against your competitors so you can determine your ideal branding tactics. This type of evaluation helps you identify your unique branding proposition and the attributes making you most attractive to your target market.

Some items to consider include:

  • How does what you offer differ from your competitors?
  • Who are your main competitors (both specifically and by category)?
  • What kind of branding tactics are your competitors employing?
  • What can you learn from your competitors?
  • What can you borrow from your competitors?

A small software company I worked with used this process. Its leaders discovered that all their major competitors were branding based on product strengths. So, they created a content marketing campaign to become thought leaders in their space. The company went from a commodity to a trusted advisor, making sales conversions faster and easier.

3. Whitespace evaluation

A whitespace evaluation helps your business uncover the unmet and unarticulated needs in the marketplace that can scientifically shape your brand strategy. That's where you examine these issues:

  • What products/services don't exist that the market wants/needs and that we could create?
  • Where is their room for a leader to emerge in the market?
  • Is there a lack of competency somewhere in the market that we could fill?

I once advised a pair of college friends who wanted to start a food company. They were looking for where in the market they could create something new.

Their whitespace evaluation helped them discover that the unique combination of two highly popular snack foods (jerky and trail mix) had never before been marketed as one product. Easy as that, a company was born.

4. Tactical evaluation

The final step before springing into action is to take a sober look at the wide variety of tactical options for putting your brand out in the world. There are at least 40 tactics, from LinkedIn Outreach and blogging to FaceTime Live and book publishing, that you can employee in promoting your brand.

In my experience, most entrepreneurs, small businesses and even mid-cap companies can't really manage more than 3-5 of these tactics at one time. Creating a brand marketing strategy is both a science and an art: Both are better served when the necessary research is done first, and the tactical execution second.

If you've been investing in underperforming Facebook ads, for example, you might realize through this process that a LinkedIn strategy could be a stronger bet for your company. I had a client once who did exactly that, and it garnered them a cool $100,000 in the first year.

As a former musical theater major and self-admitted theater geek, I'll take any chance I can get to quote a show. Apropos, there's a song in Stephen Sondheim's Sunday In the Park with George called "Putting It Together." As the song says, "Putting it together bit by bit, that is the state of the art."