03 Jan Will Your Real Brand Please Stand Up?
Seldom has there been a concept that has been more confused and abused in business than the topic of branding. Contrary to the most popular branding notion, branding is not something that is “done to” a company, though some agencies’ branding efforts may feel to the branded company like searing iron on flesh. During the “dot com” boom, many branding agencies created brands from scratch and little else. The emphasis was often on edginess and creativity, not substance. It didn’t matter whether the company shared the traits of the brand, what was most important was getting attention, “attracting eyeballs”.Companies lost sight of the fact that they needed to pay-off prospects’ initial interest with realized value in order to complete the sale. The ventures that traded on buzzwords and fads are dead. “Value” is the new king, and companies that can’t communicate effective value propositions are on the endangered species list. A brand represents a promise of an experience that your customers will have. For this experience to be positive, your brand must be authentic. Brand authenticity is rooted in a company’s true identity, why it was formed, its vision and purpose. The look-and-feel, the style, the uniqueness of a brand’s expression should not originate with what an ad agency would fashion if it owned your company, yet many brands are crafted in this way and sold simply on the basis of the agency’s vision of the brand’s appeal to your key markets. My point is this: Brand development is too important a topic to delegate to someone who is not willing to immerse himself or herself in your culture. Your company’s top management, the wellspring of the company’s vision, must be fully engaged. Ask yourself: What does your company stand for? Why do you exist? What customer expectations do you fulfill best? An effective brand image sells for you when your sales office is closed. Your brand image reinforces your prospect’s decision to buy your product or service. In complex selling situations, where the decision cycle may be long and where multiple decision-makers and influencers may be part of the equation, your brand must be appealing and relevant to all. It must be reinforced through every contact that your customers and prospects have with you and every one of your people, both now and next year. Try this experiment: Make a list of all the audiences that you would like to influence – customers, prospects, the media, investors, your own employees. Then write down the “hot buttons” of each, i.e., what they are anxious to achieve or avoid in establishing a relationship with you. Next, as your best salesperson might do, outline the steps necessary to build a closer relationship with each audience. What enticements would you use to get their attention? What offers of engagement might be required to advance the relationship from the outer orbit of vague recognition to more meaningful interaction? What can you exchange to close a sale or obtain a reference? And, finally, now that you have a relationship, what programs could serve to make the audience member a dyed-in-the-wool, loyal member of your core constituency? In the process, be mindful of how you look and behave as you form a closer bond. By “you” is meant your ads, your voicemail system, your return policy, your service response time, your vehicle signage, your visitor security policy, etc. All these, though some seem arbitrary, can be molded in your image to help communicate your brand. Effective brand positioning must meet three criteria: 1) it is compelling to your audience, meeting some important expectation and satisfying a desire, (2) it is true, supported with facts, and achievable by the company, and 3) it is strongly differentiated from that of other competitive positions. That differentiation should be firmly rooted in authentic brand attributes, not teetering as a trendy façade. If you really think through the process, you’ll see that your brand may not be exactly the same thing as the product or service you provide. An interesting exercise is to ask yourself the question “If my company didn’t exist, what would the world lose?” You may find that your brand relates more to your customers’ experiences than to tangible items. For example, Starbucks’ brand is more about the coffee shop experience than the beans. Toyota is more about its’ customers’ transportation experiences than a particular integration of steel and plastic. The Kodak brand has slipped in many consumers’ minds because it no longer represents the latest experience in imaging. K-Mart and Target have many of the same items on the shelves, but the companies’ brand images are as unlike as the experiences of shoppers in the aisles. When you think about your brand in broader terms, you become open to new ideas for reinforcing your relationship with your customers — via new models, new services, new channels of communication. An experienced marketing communications agency or consultant can be beneficial in helping you to unlock your company’s value proposition and reveal it in a compelling way. The experience and independent perspective of people that have a track record of working with other companies in similar situations can help you separate your “forest from the trees” and contribute fresh thinking to your strategic process. In addition, an experienced creative resource can give expression to your brand in a manner that people who are important to you will quickly understand and remember. Beware, however, of the agency that doesn’t ask lots of questions about your business, your customers, and your competitors. Avoid the consultant who has pat answers or “one size fits all” solutions. Shun folks who promise to “create” an image for you in favor of those who will give expression to what’s already compelling about your vision and value proposition. Finally, don’t work with people that you don’t like and trust personally. When expressions of your brand are authentic, they not only look right, they feel right. It’s as fun as discovering how naturally good you are at something. And like other pursuits in life, if it isn’t fun, there’s something wrong.