Your business may be a lot of things, but at the end of the day it's the customers' perception that counts. Create a brand strategy that will help your company present the right image.
By Chad Preston
In business, image is everything. For small businesses, especially, it can mean the difference between acquiring or retaining a customer and letting the ‘other guy’ steal them away. The competition is fierce regardless of what size market you’re in, so you need to look deep within your operation to find what it is that makes your company unique and your product worth someone’s hard-earned dollars. In essence, you’re defining your business’s identity.
The Anatomy of Branding
In his book, Stand Out From the Crowd: Secrets to Crafting a Winning Company Identity, Jay Lipe, founder and president of Emerge Marketing, LLC, lists five different areas in which a small business should brand itself:
- Strategic Branding — This is the way a small business approaches its brand and thinks through how it wants that brand to appear. “So, elements of targeting, elements of the messaging and elements of how the organization positions itself to its marketplace are very strategic components of a brand,” Lipe says.
- Touch Points — These “touch points” are instances in which the sales force comes into contact with customers. Some examples are when customer service representatives receive in-bound calls or e-mails from consumers or a presentation is made to potential customers. Identifying each one of these touch points is important, he says.
- Written Communication — These could be key messages—advertising copy that is used, taglines, etc.—any of the written words that a business uses to communicate what it does and why it’s better than the competition, Lipe says.
- Identity Tools — These are visual tools, logos, colors, icons or design elements.
- Follow Through — “This is very important,” Lipe says. “If the organization is not devoted to improving its brand over the course of time by conscientious follow through and execution, then ultimately the brand is going to suffer in the eyes of the marketplace.”
Lipe says that ultimately, a strong brand evokes a feeling in the customer. “A brand allows that customer to make a connection with [a] company. They will associate that company with outstanding service or prestige. The associations they have with that brand are most important. From the company’s perspective, branding really allows a customer to be more disposed to doing business with them,” he says. “You’ve got to find out what associations are being made in the customer’s mind and then try to develop and refine those.” Have your customers fill out a quick questionnaire with an open-ended question on how they perceive your business. Offer a few adjectives to help them along, or give them the option to create their own descriptions of your business.
Think Through Your Branding
Rodger Roeser, APR, president of Eisen Management Group in Cincinnati, says the first thing you should do is involve all of the company stakeholders. “Sit them in a room and create a simple matrix of what you think your company is and what you think it’s known for and try to align that with what you think your customers’ needs are,” he says. “If you simply can’t make the leap between what your company does and what your clients need, you probably shouldn’t be in business. So hopefully, that’s a pretty simple thing to do. As you go through that, try to understand what makes your company a little bit different. Take a look at your competitors. What is it that you as a company can do to help make an emotional connection with these targeted audiences?”
Lipe says that branding happens whether or not an organization consciously pursues the branding process. “If we define branding as a set of associations that a company provides to its customers, branding is occurring, it’s just a question of how well that branding is occurring,” he says. Every touch point between the company and its marketplace needs to be considered because the individual components of branding have an impact on the marketing strategy as a whole.
Roeser agrees. “[How small businesses] project themselves to their target audiences is the most critical factor in ensuring regular, on-going profitability and sales,” he says. “It enables a small business to consistently make sure that the people that are experiencing their brand are doing it at the level that the business wants it to be done. Branding … starts at the customer relationship management level. It’s how you treat your customers, it’s how your employees treat the people that walk in to sample your soup of the day or if they go to the back of the hardware store to find the right nut or bolt.
“Operations are the No. 1 key to a small business and making sure its brand is lived through consistently,” he says. “It starts from the top and trickles all the way down.” If you, as management, aren’t willing to live up to that brand, it will not work. “Give them striking service,” Roeser says. “That’s good solid branding for a small business.”
Avoid Common Mistakes
Roeser says that the biggest mistake he sees small businesses make regarding their brand is brand/operational dissonance—they think that if they say something loud enough, people will think it’s true. “What you’re saying in your advertising is not being lived up to consistently and then it becomes the worst of all kinds of advertising, which is just fluff, hype—that’s certainly not something you want to be known for.”
Lipe says that the most common mistakes he’s seen are businesses portraying themselves in an amateurish way, lacking consistency in their brand and not committing to the care and feeding of the brand.
“If your brand is amateurish to the customer, they’ll sniff that out in a minute,” he says. “The more consistent companies can be about their brand and to applying consistent principles to that brand, the stronger the brand will be ultimately.
“After a while, a logo may need to be improved upon; key messages need to be updated. Elements of a marketing plan get tired and a company has to stay contemporary.”
Roeser suggests contacting a professional marketing agency if you’re not sure where to begin.
“If you’re in the business of selling shoes, don’t be in the business of marketing,” he says. “There are experts out there. You wouldn’t go to court without a lawyer; spend the $1,000, bring in the agency executive to help you get your graphic standards manual together, get a good solid logo on a variety of different formats, make sure your Web site and e-mail looks consistent, and how you greet your customers is consistent.
“All of those tactical things are pretty simple to do but sometimes as a small business, you’re so worried, your focus is constantly on the things you do best; sometimes you forget about these little things and pretty soon you’ve failed to establish a brand.”