Perhaps it’s the word, but branding is often misunderstood. Brand is a term so frequently bandied about that it appears to have been leached of meaning. Yet a business’s brand is integral to its success – not purely from an image-maker’s viewpoint, but at a far more fundamental level, representing the company’s reputation externally and reflecting how employees feel about the company internally.
Globalisation and commodization are only likely to increase the need for a strong brand. As LBS Management and Marketing Professor Patrick Barwise observes, companies face “competitive markets on steroids.”
“We’re in a culture where small and medium-sized enterprises are being squeezed and have to create a very clear point of difference,” says Julian Rawel, director of executive education at Bradford University Management School.
Small businesses need to find a way to compete, and this comes from branding, he adds: “Unless you enthuse customers, you’ll be undercut by bigger competitors. Why would I go to a small provider if I can get a cheaper product from a bigger supplier?”
Too often, companies confuse brand building with brand-name building.
So it makes sense to define what branding is – and is not. Brand-building is: developing a long term, sustainable product or service that is consistent, clear and delivers time and again.
It is not a communications strategy, but a business strategy, a way of aligning your company’s internal activities with what it produces for the outside world.
“Everyone has a stake in building the brand and everyone protects it,” says Stephen Cheliotis, chief executive of Centre for Brand Analysis and chairman of Superbrands. But it needn’t be overcomplicated.
Here are some brand-building basics:
1. Sum it up
To paraphrase another big business question: why should anyone buy from you? What one word or phrase sums up what you stand for as a business? Ask yourself: what do I want my customers to feel when interacting with my business?
If it’s ‘security’, how does that look – on your website, in your offices and so on. Marketing firm Point to Point suggests thinking of ways of conjuring up that feeling in customers without explicitly saying it – through your business card design or how quickly you answer the phone.
Author Grant Leboff calls this your ‘ESP — ‘Emotional Selling Proposition’. It needs to run through all of your activity – your logo, your language, the way you speak to customers, your dress code.
Develop and communicate a relevant brand promise, and remember: dissatisfaction drives consumers, so deal with that first.
2. Get your product or service right
Work hard to deliver on your promise. Says Barwise: “Competitive markets have always punished companies that fail to reliably deliver. Keeping your promise is genuinely difficult.”
This builds trust, which is integral to growing a strong brand. If you can get to a stage when customers trust you, they’ll trust you to get it right – and allow you to get it wrong on occasion.
At collaborative software start-up Assist.ly, “our brand is the delivery of our products and service,” says Matt Trifiro, senior vice-president of marketing. “If you promise to achieve better service, you’ve got to deliver.” Any advertising spend in a small business is best targeted through ‘performance marketing’ – “we’re going to help you deliver X”.
Focus on delivering what Rawel calls an ‘augmented product’ – doing whatever you do very well and continuously improving.
3. Culture: building a brand from within
If you look at big business brand icons – Virgin, Apple, Google, John Lewis Partnership – they all have distinctive company cultures. It is this ‘value system’ that gives a brand definition. Whether it originates with a dynamic entrepreneur or not, the company brand should permeate the organisation and drive decisions.
This isn’t necessarily about marketing, says Cheliotis. “Initially, Google didn’t really ‘do’ marketing; it was about culture internally and doing good work for many years [before it began promoting itself].”
In other words, it’s about involving employees in building your brand from Day 1. If they help to shape your values, it’s easier to convey them to customers. US shoe etailer Zappos.com’s Tony Hsieh attributes the company’s phenomenal success to an employee-led value creation “I’m barely spending anything on brand advertising,” says Assist.ly’s Trifiro. “I’m spending time on [developing] a message that resonates with our staff.”
Be flexible enough to tweak and evaluate your brand message’s effectiveness on occasion and make sure you communicate it internally.
Sustain and extend belief in your brand by ‘living it’ – in behaviour, dress code, language, pay and governance. But beware of becoming too formal: you’ll lose engagement if you turn your brand into a series of dull policies and behavioural demands. If you want your customers to trust you, start by trusting employees.
4. Be consistent
The hallmark of a strong brand, this is easier said than done and applies to delivering your promise, but also to the manner in which you engage with customers. Your products and services are likely to evolve as you grow, but your brand values should remain consistent. This is why it’s important to be clear about them from the outset.
“Consistency is important,” says entrepreneur Chris Tanner, founder of Brightpearl, which offers small business software in the cloud. “Don’t get ‘bored’ of your own message – remember, for many, that ‘marketing fluff’ is the first impression they’ll have of your company. Resist the urge to tweak established your values.”
5. Customers contact
Like it or not, “your brand is essentially what people say your brand is,” says Salman Malik, CEO of Brightpearl. To some extent, then, your brand takes care of yourself if your product is good. But involving customers in product development has become a hallmark of ‘open’ brands – Brightpearl regularly rolls out products to customers to test and offer their feedback, so they get a sense of co-creating products. “Customers love to be close to someone who is an advisor, and you can build reciprocal respect, by featuring your customers as case studies,” adds Tanner.
It’s also a myth that small businesses are closer to customers – although they should be: “Small companies often don’t spend time talking to customers and even more rarely speak to lapsed customers”. If your customers are in your sector or around your size, you can create a sense of fellow-feeling with them. Sage accountancy software may be large now, but its small business friendly reputation has been a differentiator.
6. Using channels
Stay on top of what’s out there to build a brand. Leboff urges companies to gather video testimonials, if only using a simple, handheld camera. “Pay attention to sound quality; authenticity and clarity more important than whizzy graphics,” he says.
Social media is important as a communications tactic (and one that could be applied internally to help build brand). It’s a great leveller for small businesses to provide customer service and support, as well as getting their name in front of people. But not everyone is online. Says Cheliotis: “There’s a danger of chucking out the old in favour of social media. People do still talk, watch TV, and walk down the high street. The assumption that it will replace the old is like the old belief that TV would do away with radio.”
7. Creating community
What social media has hastened is the importance of community to brand building, especially among ‘challengers’. User opinion is only like to grow in importance, says Graham Murphy, head of communities at music streaming start-up Grooveshark. While too much can be made of social media – and there’s already a backlash – it offers a series of channels to customers that can help small companies build community.
But strong brands also create communities around their industry, building their reputation by sharing knowledge offline and online. Whatever your means of communicating, show your personality. “It’s important that information about the business doesn’t just come from the marketing division,” says Cheliotis.
Focus on where your customers are, be that on YouTube, eBay, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, but use each medium appropriately: don’t ‘sell’ on LinkedIn, for example. Look at going to interest groups and consider creating partnerships to build an ‘umbrella brand’.
Says Rawel: “A lot of businesses don’t necessarily have a huge amount of time or money for traditional marketing and communications, but rather it’s about taking opportunities to get into networks”.
This is an area of debate. Should you focus on a niche market in order to differentiate yourself from bigger rivals, or try to be all things to all men? Clearly, it’s about differentiating yourself by what you stand for – personality and values come into it, says Cheliotis: “You’ve got to stand out to be chosen, especially in markets where commoditisation rife.” But Professor Byron Sharp, author of “How Brands Grow”, warns against narrow targeting unless the statistics stack up.
Barwise encourages companies to ‘innovate beyond the familiar’, but believes the strongest source of competitive advantage may adjacent to you, not miles away.
But David A Aaker has a different view. The vice-chairman of Prophet Brand Strategy and Professor Emeritus of Marketing Strategy at the Haas School of Business, Aaker’s latest book, “Brand Relevance”, argues that it’s only possible to sustain competitive advantage by making rivals ‘irrelevant’.
Companies can do this, he explains, by identifying ‘sub-categories’ that competitors cannot move into – within sports TV channels, one that’s just about tennis, for example. His tip for brand sustainability: “Create a competitive arena and then build a fence around it so that others are kept out. There are a variety of barriers that can be created, but the brand, in addition to being a barrier itself, can service to organize and leverage other barriers. For example, a distribution advantage can be a key barrier to competitors and also become part of the brand vision and serve to communicate a value proposition.”