Small business owners often lack the resources to produce a comprehensive branding plan. But failing to create a compelling brand image can hurt their business in the long run, suggests Dan Antonelli, author of Building a Small Business Brand and c.e.o. of Graphic D-Signs, an advertising agency.

“After working with nearly 1,000 small businesses, I realized so many owners have no idea how to conceptualize and build a brand or locate and hire reputable professionals to brand their business,” Antonelli says. “Most small business owners are experts in their field, but they have never worked in or studied marketing.”

Making sure the brand perception is positive is key, Antonelli says. “When we are talking about a business image, we like to think it sets the level of expectation the customer has. What does your brand communicate to a customer who doesn’t know anything about it?”

He says most small businesses project a neutral or even a negative image. Setting the bar very low creates low expectations among potential customers.

“Most small business brands are perceived to be either negative or neutral,” Antonelli says. “If you can build a brand with a positive perception, you have set a higher perceived value of your brand and your company’s expected deliverable than your competitors. Consumers are willing to pay more for a premium brand experience than a neutral or negative one,” he says.

What makes up a brand? Restaurants should consider starting with their exterior signage, Antonelli says, because signs are the most visible and costliest factor in a brand image. “Often I won’t go into a restaurant because from just looking at the sign my perception is that it won’t be a good experience,” he says.

When developing a logo or brand, it’s important to consider not only how it will look on a menu or a business card, but what it will look like on a sign. “On a 40-mile-an-hour street, it has to be discernible from a distance,” Antonelli explains. And, as any restaurant owner knows, getting it right at the start is important because of the costs associated with new signage.

Other places to consider: menus, packaging, promotional materials, table tents, email marketing, websites, social media and where delivery vehicles.

Some restaurant owners are equipped to go it alone in creating an integrated branding package, but for those who seek help from a third party, Antonelli advises looking for an expert who understands how to coordinate the various media in a cohesive way. “Can they ensure that whether someone hits your website or Facebook page, or walks in your front door, they have the same presentation?” he says.

When it comes to logos, there are many sources for logo design on the web. But Antonelli says firsthand experience with a concept results in a better outcome. “I think it’s important to do a walk-through so someone can see how the brand will live in the space, and how the interiors will work hand-in-hand with the branding,” he says.

It’s also tempting to use DIY website design software, but Antonelli says it’s especially critical for restaurants to make a good first impression on the web, since so many potential customers find restaurants that way. He suggests including lots of photos to provide a virtual tour of the interior and menu, and to make sure the site looks professional. “When people go to a website that hasn’t been put together professionally, often they feel like that’s what the restaurant will be like,” he observes.

“Photography plays a huge role,” he continues. “If you can, invest in professional photos. If you can capture the mood and essence of the restaurant, that will send a powerful message.”

And because so many diners are checking out restaurant website on a mobile device, by now it’s a given that a website must be mobile-friendly.

“A restaurant might be able to get by on word of mouth,” Antonelli says. “But if you can set high expectations and deliver on them, that’s usually a great recipe for success.”