By: David Curtis
Unless you’ve been doing business on Mars (or Venus), you’re aware of all the buzz out there about brands and branding. But to grow your brand, you have to move beyond the talk and adopt a practical plan of action. As always, it starts with some fundamentals.
What is a brand?
A brand is a relationship — the connection between your customers and your company or product. Like all human relationships, this connection is based on experience, attitudes and expectations. “Branding” is about shaping and deepening that relationship.
Think about your own choices as a consumer. Why will you pay more for a suit with an Armani label? What makes New Yorkers go out of their way for an H&H bagel? Why have you bookmarked Google, but not Ask Jeeves? In each case, the answer has to do with how you think and feel about these brands. Clients sometimes say to me, “I can’t spend time and money building my brand — I’m too busy building my business.” But that’s a false choice. A strong brand makes your business more visible and more credible. So instead of your constantly seeking customers, they may find you. Also, at a time when it’s tough to find a real, lasting competitive edge in the marketplace, a strong brand can give you that edge. It increases the perceived value of your product or service, which can translate into higher prices and profits. And a strong brand commands loyalty, which means better customer retention. So although you many not find any line item on your balance sheet called “Brand Value,” a strong brand is one of your company’s greatest business assets. Another misconception I often hear: “I’m no Coke or Nike — branding is just for the big guys.” Wrong. Whether you’re a global powerhouse or a local start-up, branding is crucial to your business. And starting small actually has its advantages: You’ve got a clean slate to work with. Nothing to undo or un-brand. And small investments yield bigger returns. Besides, nobody wants to stay small forever. Think like a big brand and you’ll find it easier to become one. Let’s get started.
Understand what a brand is — and is not
A brand is a bond — meaning both a connection and a promise. Therefore, branding is bonding. When you consistently deliver on your brand promise, you strengthen the bond between you and your customers. There are both rational and emotional aspects to the brand bond; but, if anything, how your customers feel about you is more important than what they think about you. Take the Apple brand. Mac users will intellectualize (at great length!) about crash-free operating systems and elegant interfaces, but what really comes through is their passion. That brand loyalty and devotion has helped Apple defy the conventional wisdom of the PC-dominated marketplace. It has also helped them charge a premium for their products. Emotion is where great brands live. Don’t confuse “brand” with “corporate identity.” Sure, you need a good logo and consistent graphic standards but these are just visual expressions of your brand. Before you develop a corporate identity, get a handle on your brand identity. Also, your brand is not you. Especially for entrepreneurs just getting started, it’s natural to blur the distinction. But long-term, it can be a trap. Think of the day when you want to sell your business; what will the buyers be paying for? Not you — you’ll be off playing golf in Arizona. They’ll be buying your brand.
Scope out the competitive “brand-scape”
Step back and assess your competitors with a critical, objective eye. Which ones do you think have well-defined brands? What do they stand for? What kind of customer — or customer need — do they appeal to?
What you’re looking for is a gap in the brand-scape where you can build your brand, a strategic opportunity that plays to your brand’s strengths. Or its potential.
We’re not looking for a niche. Ideally, you want to occupy the “high ground.” That’s the place in your category that has the most basic, powerful consumer promise, and the greatest source of business.
In the heyday of “reach out and touch someone,” the AT&T brand owned the high ground of long distance — human connection.
Do any of your competitors yet occupy the high ground? Could you?
Define your “brand space”
This is the more rational component of your brand — the space you want to occupy in customers’ minds. Think about the functional benefits you deliver to them. Identify the one or two that are most critical to your business. What promise is solid enough to build your brand on? Speed? Innovation? Customer service? Value?
Just as important, this exercise also helps you identify what you’re not. Because a brand that tries to be all things to all people may not be much of anything to anyone. Focus! It’s demanding, but for brand-builders it’s vital.
Example: Did Manhattan really need yet another me-too dry cleaning establishment? No, but it needed someplace that knows how to care for upscale finery — and the fussy fashionistas who own it. Enter Meurice Garment Care. Quality and service (at a hefty premium) is what Meurice delivers. They’ve built a thriving business, a fleet of delivery vehicles and a tony brand on that platform.
Define your brand “personality”
Now we’re talking about the way your brand feels to your customers. It’s a much “squishier” area, because we’re dealing with human emotions. Here, it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. Should your brand feel dignified or playful? Traditional or irreverent? Why does brand personality matter? Because while business owners might like to believe all buying decisions are fact-based, they’re often guided by feelings — feelings that attract us to certain brands the same way we’re attracted to certain people, out of loyalty, or security, or sex appeal. For example: There are seven different day-spas within five blocks of my wife’s office. They can all manicure her nails equally well. But she always goes to the one that’s farthest away. Why? The owners and staff always greet her by name and fuss over her a little. They don’t just polish her nails; they buff her ego. She is bonded to that place like acrylic. You can’t change your own personality, but you can shape your brand’s. What’s the glue that will bond your customers to your brand?
Dare to be different
A strong brand is a “tie-breaker.” If it’s a toss-up between you and a competitor, customers will choose you just because they feel better about your brand. But you can’t be perceived as better unless you’re perceived as different. Trouble is, these days it’s increasingly hard to create a real difference in your product or service. And when you do, it gets knocked off by your competitors practically overnight. But you can differentiate your brand. It takes a little guts to be different. But if you understand your customers and differentiate yourself on the basis of what they need, you can create preference.
Take the line of Crunch Health Clubs in Manhattan. Are their fitness machines really any different than those at the Health & Racquet Clubs? No, but their brand is. It’s an attitude — an irreverence that says it’s OK if you don’t conform. If you’re not a perfect physical specimen, like most of us, that’s a powerful emotional appeal. Enough to build a pretty healthy business. You started out in business because you believed you had something different and better to offer. Trust that instinct.
Consistency pays dividends
Your brand character and personality should find their way into every aspect of your business. I call it “360 degrees Branding.” Every place your brand touches your customer — brochures, packaging, uniforms, letterheads, signage, advertising — should feel like the same experience. All employees must become your “brand ambassadors.” Even the way your receptionist greets people on the phone can support your brand. The care and feeding of your brand is your responsibility, but it’s everybody’s job. If you haven’t already, check out one of Apple’s local retail stores. See how “Apple-ness” surrounds you in everything from the white-on-white décor to the user-friendly displays to the “Genius Bar” where support is just a geek away. In fact, the store itself is the Apple brand come to life. Simple. Uncluttered. And totally cool. When all your branding efforts are focused and single-minded, it’s like an eight-person crew rowing their shell in unison. One or two oars out of sync can really slow you down.
Invest in your brand — wisely
You don’t need a big, separate “branding budget” or a special ad campaign to build your brand. Start small, and start with the basics.
Since consistency is so important, one smart place to invest a little money up front might be to create some graphic standards for your brand — your “look.” If you don’t have a logo, create one. You can hire a good designer, or use one of the Web-based design services that do this very inexpensively. Just remember that your logo, and your look, must reflect your brand’s personality.
Build and brand a website, even if it’s just a simple page or two with your logo, your capabilities and contact info. Your brand will seem bigger. And you’ll walk taller.
Be different. Find innovative and cost-effective ways to make your brand visible. Would pizza-box inserts be out of the question? Consider public relations. Do something newsworthy — getting your brand involved with a charitable cause is good for your soul, and often good for some free press.
Most of all, invest some time in your brand. Use these basics as a checklist, and think about them carefully. What competitive “brand-scape” do you operate in? What should your brand stand for? What is its personality? Are you different enough? Are you being consistent in all the ways your brand touches your customer? As a small company, you can’t afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on branding, so all of your employees, your website and your marketing materials need to convey what your brand is all about.
Here’s the critical thing for a business owner to remember about branding: You don’t really have a choice. Consciously or not, by design or by neglect, for better or for worse, you are already creating your brand. So why not do it well?
That way, you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds: a business that builds your brand and a brand that builds your business.