Whether you like it or not, your business isn't what you think it is. It's what your customers think it is. And their impression comes from your logo. Coming up with a logo that grows in value -- and grows a company with it -- is the job of branding consultants. Visually creative and market-wise, branding consultants forge a cohesive image that starts with a sign on the storefront and seeps into every other aspect of an operation.

Newton, Mass.-based BrandEquity International has been in business 39 years working with firms as diverse as Levi's, Kodak and Amoco. But developing new brands is its specialty.

"Perception is truth," says Elinor Selame, branding consultant and company president. "Too many corporate executives don't understand that. The ones who do understand the value of building a brand. The one thread that runs through everything we do is developing a very strong brand through the visualization of the name."

Starting with a blank slate But there are thousands of ways to draw a name, and thousands more ways to project it as an image. Where does a new company begin?

"It's almost like going to the psychiatrist and telling them everything. Only we don't have a couch here," Selame jokes. "We as branding strategists have to understand the company, the people who own the company, the people who run the company and the people who are part of the company. What is their vision? Who is the customer going to be, or whom would they like to have as customers? Where are they going to market what they're selling?"

In answering these questions for two new stores, Selame's firm recently created two names that express their brand identities: TOZ and KaBloom.

Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp. wanted something upscale, yet whimsical and entertaining for its Hanes legwear retail stores. The company wanted to do accessories as well, so it needed a broad-based, brand-leveraging opportunity for a whole store. The name TOZ highlights the category but allows the store to go into many other products that deal with feet -- pedicure accouterments, for example -- as it expands.

And BrandEquity's solution for a new chain of fresh-flower shops whose intent is to get Americans to buy flowers every day? KaBloom, a name that captures the wealth of color and variety of fresh flowers as well as the fun of popping into a neighborhood shop for fresh flowers on a regular basis.

"We're a firm that believes in boldness," Selame says. "If you've got it, flaunt it. We create something that absolutely can be flaunted as the face of a company. And we believe strongly that it should be. You have to get people and hit them over the head and show them how great you are in a holistic method so they don't forget you."

There is never a wrong time to engage branding consultants. Entrepreneurs who have only an idea can get investors to buy into the idea with the right model. Working with a branding consultant at the outset, companies can set a course to grow on.

"Some people just don't have the funds," Selame acknowledges. "If they have the greatest product and nobody else has it, they're going to succeed anyhow. As they start to grow, that may be a time to look and say, 'Is this what I want to look like 50 years from now?' And that could be two, three, five years down the road. Or it could be 50 years later."

INBrief Since company logos adorn anything from advertisements to shopping bags, they are the key element in creating a brand image for retailers. Companies that need to start from scratch with a new logo or just need to update an old one, are turning to branding specialists to help them create one of their primary links to the customer. Branding consultants use their expertise, along with a thorough understanding of the company, to create a logo that conveys a strong message to the customer.

Evolution of a logo Selame says there are no formulas or sure-fire answers. There is not one right or wrong color or logo or typeface.

"That's one thing I try to get across," Selame says. "We can't tell you, 'These are the ingredients, now go and do it.' Everyone is different. We all have two eyes, a nose and a mouth, but we all look different. And that's the truth about a company's look in the end: It's going to reflect the company and not us, and not what we've done in the past. It's a mysterious effort, but that's creativity. If they're with the right people, it's a wonderful process to go through, both for the client and the team."

The process is evolutionary, one look coming out of many other looks, Selame says.

"Each name might have one, two or three visual options with it. You look at them and imagine them as they would be in signs, as they might be inside the store, on carry-out bags and on vehicles. You begin to get a feeling of which ones would work better than others in all of the areas where they must work well."

As the design is evolving, Selame calls in the client to discuss possibilities. "You want some dialogue, you want some feedback," she says. "It's going to be the client's chain, not yours. The client might say, 'Red's a great color but I hate it.' Why give a client red if they hate it?"

Branding is a creative process requiring a lot of experience, expertise, talent, strategy and good marketing know-how. "It all goes into the mix of creating an identity," Selame says. "Or it should."

Once a company establishes its visual identity, it must be vigilant about guarding its integrity. Selame recommends that her clients look at themselves every three to five years.

"Sometimes," she notes, "different suppliers and people you hire like to change your look and they start to dilute it and make it what it wasn't. But if everything's running smoothly, there's no reason to change. You want to keep your look as long as it works for you and doesn't look dated and as long as you didn't change what you're doing. Because the longer you can keep your look without much change, the more recognizable and familiar it becomes, and the more it grows as an asset. When people can just glimpse you and know you, you've made it."

Reviving an existing logo Scott Truitt, project designer for Seattle-based Planet Retail Image + Design Studios, knows the feeling. Truitt has extensive experience in designing and re-designing logos. Among Planet Retail Studios' recent branding projects are Eyes Nouveau and Moo & Oink, a three-store Chicago chain specializing in meats.

"Good design is our tool for marrying a company's concept of who they are with their customers' concept of who they are," Truitt says. "These days you have to be incredibly focused. You have to have an image, you have to have an attitude, and you have to have a point of view."

In redesigning a logo, Truitt explains, the first thing he does is look at the existing logo and see why the company wants to change it. "We ask, 'What's wrong with it? How much equity does the existing logo have? Do you have a strong customer brand loyalty to that logo? Do customers identify with it or is it just words on a page?'"

The next step is to look at all the elements in the current logo -- shape, color, font -- that aren't representing the company the way it wants to be represented. "Maybe it just looks outdated," Truitt says. "That's the most common problem. But if there's some equity in that logo and all you want to do is update it, the modifications might be minor. Let's give it a different shape, let's give it a different font, but retain a lot of the original design elements so you don't lose the customer brand loyalty you already have. You don't want to alienate people, to give them the impression that you're a whole new company."

Incorporating a logo into the store How extensively a logo is employed depends on the personality of the store. "You don't want to put it on every single fixture," Truitt says, "unless it's a store where absolutely everything you're selling is the brand, like Niketown, for example. If it's a start-up store where there's not a lot of brand loyalty yet, you want to put it in enough places that people are going to remember it, but not so many that they think you're trying to sell a brand that has no brand equity yet."

For Moo & Oink, the logo is very small on every single sign, just to remind people of the personality of the store. Colors throughout the stores are traditional butcher-shop colors, only warmer -- a range of oranges and cream instead of stark white. Signage materials are tough as nails -- a lot of metals, laminates and vinyl -- because the stores really take a beating.

Since a retailer's name is seen first on the sign, Selame always asks about signing laws. A name may have too many letters to fit in large type in the kind of space the signing code permits. In that case, people wouldn't be able to read the name from a distance.

"Once people buy your goods and walk out of the store with their carry-out bags, what is the bag going to say to both the customer who walks out with it -- 'Oh, my goodness! I was in the best store!' -- and to the people who see the customer walking around with that bag?" Selame asks.

The store's name and logo speak not only to customers but also to employees in the store environment. "Is it going to say, 'We work with the best company with the best products,' or is it going to say, 'Ho-hum, I have to stay here for eight hours a day, the goods aren't that good but what the heck, they're giving me a paycheck.' These are things we think about."

Seattle-based Tim Girvin Design Inc. understands the importance of using a logo in the proper places. The firm works all over the United States, South America and Japan. Among its clients are Nordstrom, The Gap and Microsoft, all of which thrive on Girvin's mastery of timeless, classic and simple identity treatments.

"The more cohesive you are in terms of how a brand mark is applied, the more impact it will have on a consumer," says Tim Girvin, principal. "You try to establish a spirit and a discipline in terms of how the mark is used. You want to be creative but consistent. It's a combination of discipline and freedom."

The value of a business includes the products and the real estate. But Girvin says a logotype has equity as well. In fact, it has almost more cachet than anything else because that is the company's connection to the consumer's mind.

"What retailers need to understand is that the name of their entity and its visual representation are going to be two of the most powerful forms of introduction and connection with the consumer that they can hope for. If they choose to throw those away, they're just throwing away potential value."

Yes, branding is signage and shopping bags. But developing those tangible things is almost a mystical journey.

"It's more than just type and logo," Girvin asserts. "It's really strategic thinking about the heart and soul of the company."