It takes the average woman about two hours to prepare for a first date. (True confession: that statistic is totally made up, but it sounds about right). First, she has to pick out just the right outfit. Something appropriate for the occasion that’s also highly flattering and fashionable without being overly trendy. Then there’s the hair. She has to find the style that says, “Of course I’m not high maintenance,” without saying, “I had to read the owner’s manual to figure out how to run the hair dryer.” Finally, we have makeup. It’s a true art to apply makeup that covers the flaws, plays to the strengths, and leaves a face with that “natural” look. The goal of all this intense beauty preparation is, of course, to make the right statement. The specifics of that statement vary depending on the woman. And the date she’s hoping to impress. Branding your company is not too far from working to make the right impression on your date.

Every time a customer walks through your door, or navigates to your web site, or reads one of your Facebook posts, he or she is gathering information about your company and forming an opinion. It’s safe to say that there is not a single aspect of your public face that isn’t scrutinized by someone at some point.

The first introduction a customer usually has to your business is your name, logo, and business statement or tagline (if you have one). That’s what you put on your advertising, website, building, vehicles, and anywhere you expect to find a pair of eyes. This means your company name and logo must be meaningful and communicative. If that sounds overwhelming, keep in mind that your company already has a message and a personality. It’s up to you (or the marketing team) to refine it into something clear and purposeful.

People develop expectations based on your communications. After that first step, it’s time to follow through on the implied promise you’ve made wherever you make contact with your customers. If you say customer service is your number one priority, that should show in the way you answer the phone, how you handle a difficult situation, and even in how clean you keep the restrooms in your business (assuming you have a physical space that customers will visit). Of course, not all aspects are weighted equally. It’s okay to prioritize those that have the biggest impact based on your business model, but don’t completely neglect those further down the list.

Possibly the most difficult lesson to learn about branding is that it’s not entirely up to you. You may create an identity for your business, clearly communicate it to the audience you are trying to reach, follow through on your promise in all facets of your business, and then find yourself hijacked by an entirely unexpected demographic. Believe it or not, Doc Marten’s actually started as a comfortable, sturdy work shoe. In the 1970’s, a group entirely outside the target audience picked up the product and shifted its brand image independently of the company’s efforts. The result was a jump from the serviceable to the fashionable. While you can’t count on (or even predict) such drastic fluctuations in public perception, you can expect people with their own agenda and their own interpretation of your meaning to influence your standing to a certain extent.

Just like with dating, branding starts with the first impression. You need to look like a business your potential customers will find interesting, say the right things, and, most importantly, back up what you say in your daily operations. The most dangerous part of branding your company is failing to follow through. Otherwise customers become disillusioned, and unhappy customers don’t hesitate to share their opinions with all their friends. It’s only logical that you need to build your brand based on the true foundation of your business. Good relationships, whether they’re romantic or business-based, require honest communication. Branding is your opportunity to present yourself and your business’ strengths in the best light.