Setting a Marketing Budget Without Neglecting Branding or Advertising

Posted by ImageWorks Creative Team November 12, 2015

Businesses need customers just as much as customers need businesses. But how do they find each other?

Say hello to our friend Mr. Marketing.

Marketing is for the business world, delivering products and services to the people who need and want them. Businesses’ and clients’ complementary needs create meaningful relationships and drive growth, but they come at a price.

Cutting through the clutter takes time, creativity, and smart budgeting

Many sources of advice, such as the SBA and its partner SCORE, toss out flat budget percentages – typically 5-12% of revenue – for small and midsize businesses to allocate to marketing. But setting a marketing budget this way fails to address a business’s individual needs, instead adopting a range of budget percentages that aren’t appropriate for all businesses. For example, if your company doesn’t have a website, you’ll need to spend more to build an online presence than will a company that’s been online for years. Think you’re set if you already have a website? Think again! A website isn’t a one-time line item. Usability standards, security threats, and graphic design styles are constantly evolving, so your site requires regular maintenance – and yes, that, too, comes at a price.

We’ve worked with those “savvy” CEOs who know what everything costs but don’t see the value of strategic branding. They expect enterprise-level quality for the pennies they’re willing to pay. Their focus on spending as little as possible prevents them from really understanding the three disciplines that make a lasting impression on customers:

  1. Branding
  2. Marketing
  3. Advertising

Let’s focus on these disciplines and discuss how much you can expect to pay a credible agency to help you achieve your goals within them.


Branding is often a large part of a startup’s cost, but too often companies skimp on it, opting to hire unaccountable freelancers or an employee’s friend’s sister’s twice-removed cousin who is taking a class in Photoshop. Branding is the art of defining who you are while creating value, trust, and credibility. Does that sound like a responsibility you want to pass off to the lowest bidder?

Most businesses evolve constantly, so their brand messaging, imagery, and overall customer experience must too. Nobody loves your ’90s-era gradient logo with a swoosh and a globe. And this is just one consumer touch point among dozens of others, including the following:

  • Logo
  • Tagline
  • Business cards, stationery, and other print collateral
  • Marketing materials, such as flyers and posters
  • PPT decks and PDF presentations
  • Videos
  • Website and social platform designs
  • Apps and interactive media

With great revenue comes great brand responsibility. Customers expect larger companies to be consistent and professional across the brand, so what’s forgiven in mom-and-pops represents a glaring flaw in businesses looking to grow and expand. Small and midsize businesses should try to set aside 2-3% of their revenue strictly to improve the brand. If you’re starting a site from scratch or expanding your site to include a shopping cart or client portal, expect to spend a bit more – typically $25,000-65,000 will get a brand off the ground.

After a company launches its website, the company moves into maintenance mode, ensuring that the brand is not only supported but also enhanced via the site and other . Most companies need 100-200 hours per year of creative support to keep their brand fresh, and you should plan to spend $75-175 per hour on it, depending on the quality and size of the agency you hire. Just like with a lawyer or doctor, you can’t get both cheap and great.


Now that you have an awesome brand, your customers need to know about it. Marketing gets your company out there – telling others who you are, what you do, and why they should care. Not every marketing technique is effective in every industry, but here are some of the most popular and productive activities according to MarketingSherpa:

  • Email marketing and lead nurturing, which get your message directly into your customers’ hands and on their screens
  • Organic SEO and keyword strategies, which help customers find you online, based on the content you provide and how it relates to customers’ needs
  • Content and social marketing, which establishes you as a thought leader and innovator in your industry and builds your domain’s credibility
  • Trade shows and event marketing, which enable you to meet your clients and customers face-to-face
  • Public relations, which may be old-school but is still quite effective in reaching large audiences

Your marketing activities should account for roughly 2-4% of revenue. If you take out trade shows and public relations (which can cost a pretty penny), you can still get a solid marketing program going for around $3K per month, depending on the size and price structuring of the agency you hire.


Advertising is unique because you can place your brand, logo, or message anywhere: bus stops, magazines, elevators, websites, stadiums, search engines, toilet paper rolls (yes, really). Pricing is based on the location of the ad and the number of impressions (people who see your ad).

Every agency handles ad spend in its own way. For example, ImageWorks Creative, a DC- and Northern Virginia-based digital agency, helps clients determine a spend level that is smart for their budget and goals and then charges a flat percentage of 20% of spend for design and management.

With so much going into branding, marketing, and advertising, it’s important that small and midsize businesses set realistic budgets. Underspending or not planning strategically can waste both your time and your money, and customers’ perceptions of your brand and company directly affect your bottom line. So invest wisely now – and set yourself up for exponential ROI later.


Scott C. Margenau is the CXO of ImageWorks Creative, a branding and marketing agency located in Chantilly, VA with additional offices in Washington DC, Ft. Lauderdale, and San Francisco.


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