I have worked with small/medium-sized businesses and startups alike. And one of the things I see again and again is the lack of a budget for branding.
Maybe it's because the people making those decisions don't truly understand brand. Or maybe they think it is harder to track a result from. Regardless, no one can argue that the experience you give your customer is not important to your comapny or worth some investment. And that's really all branding is.
Branding should be apart of your budget as a business. If you have a budget for marketing, you should have a budget for branding. Otherwise, you could be wasting your marketing dollars on driving traffic to a less than successful brand.
Here is my advice on how and when I think, realistically, businesses should invest in brand. I think overall, businesses fall into a few categories:
1. DIY Mode
This is where you are still doing most everything yourself. If you are in this mode, (and don't have the budget for a branding project), make a sheet of colors, fonts, personality words, your mission and values for your company. This you should come back to every time you make a decision: buying items for your store, writing an email to your customers, training your staff, etc. I have nothing against businesses in this bucket. I grew up in a family business of DIYers. But just know if you stay in DIY mode too long, you could actually be costing your company. That goes for more than just branding.
2. Movin' Up
Your business would fall into this category if you are growing and starting to delegate more and more responsibilities to professionals. This is when I would recommend you reach out to a freelance designer to help your establish and maintain your brand.
3. Strong Foundation
Businesses in this category have been around for years and have strong, steady growth. You are at the stage where you are needing someone to handle your marketing and you have lots of materials you need designed. At this point, I would recommend you hire an in-house designer or hire an agency to do your design & marketing.
4. Fast-growing Startups
You know who you are. You are growing quickly, maybe some investors are interested in giving you some money, and you're probably in a little over your head. The time to invest in brand and hire a designer? Yesterday. (I'm talking like a true millennial now.) But really, if your company is growing quickly, it is very important that you define and implement a brand. You have to gain the trust of customers in a brand-heavy world. And one of your competitive advantages will come down to brand whether you are innovating an industry or not (trust me, I know).
Building a brand takes time, energy and knowledge. Know which business stage you are in and invest what you can into your brand experience. It'll be worth it.