About two years ago Jim Lang, owner of MWS Inc., in Kennebunk, Maine., decided to change the company name. It's not uncommon for home improvement companies to change their names. Many do so to shake a miserable reputation, to get out from under a pile of Better Business Bureau complaints, or to avoid the legal obligation to service products under warranty.

Lang had a different and far better reason. He'd started in business as Maine Window & Siding. After he took on sunrooms, the company's name became Maine Window & Sunroom. Then MWS. The company sells three home improvement products: Owens Corning Basement Finishing, Renewal by Andersen windows, and Betterliving sunrooms. Therein lay the problem: Jim Lang owned the largest home improvement company in the state, with sales topping $6 million, but his company's name disappeared in the shadow of the brands he was selling. MWS meant nothing to Maine or New Hampshire homeowners.

“If I stood out there on Route 1 and stopped every car and asked them who Maine Window & Sunroom was, they wouldn't have known,” Lang says. That, in spite of the millions he has invested in advertising over the years. “They might have known our product brand names, but they wouldn't have known who we were.”

BIG, BAD BRAND Small-business owners often dismiss branding as a marketing buzzword. Either that or they write it off as the prerogative of large corporations. And why not? Successfully branded companies — Coca-Cola, Domino's Pizza, McDonald's, BMW — built their brands with big-time advertising bucks. Mega-millions.

But consider the effect rather than the cause. What does “Domino's” actually mean to people? Pizza in less than 30 minutes. And BMW? The ultimate driving machine. These company names somehow now occupy space in our minds, and that makes us more inclined to buy their products.

On one level, branding is simply awareness. Publicize a name often enough and for long enough, and people will come to know it, and possibly associate it with something. Possibly. “Awareness,” says professor C.W. Park, who teaches marketing at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, “is the most important characteristic of a branding strategy.”

But awareness, Park says, is just the first of three elements essential to establishing what he calls “brand equity.” The others? Differentiation and value. “If all three are understood by customers,” he says, “people will either buy your product, or will recommend it to others.” And for small companies, awareness doesn't have to come by spending money. It can easily come by establishing difference and consistently offering value, then transposing those practices into messages delivered at every point of public contact.

WHO AM I? In an industry where products such as vinyl siding, vinyl windows, and asphalt shingles are often seen by consumers as commodities distinguished only by price, and where the bar for customer service expectations has been lowered to the bottom rung, opportunities to develop brand abound. In fact, say marketing experts, you're already a brand whether you choose to regard yourself as one or not. Your brand is how you're perceived in the marketplace by your customers, your competitors, and your employees.

“It's how well you develop that brand and position it in people's minds that determines how strong it is,” says Jim Mack, a consultant for Vistage, an organization of CEOs who share marketing strategies. “Brand is not just based on product. It's your reputation, your people, your customer service.”

Which is why opportunities for brand-building in home improvement loom large. If the public perceives the products as essentially indistinguishable, then the companies that sell and install them have an opportunity to stand out on their own — if not for the “now” buyer, then for the future buyer.