To many small business leaders, "Brand" is a catchword for many activities.
Today, the word is applied to products, services, organizations, initiatives and entrepreneurs of all kinds. It’s easy for business managers to get caught up in a cycle of reactive rebranding to develop a constant stream of clever names, catchphrases and trendy logo designs.
Along the way, such managers lose sight of what a brand actually is and why it should matter to customers.
Laurence Vincent takes it personally when he hears branding described as an artful mix of wordplay and graphics—or, worse, magic. Vincent shares his approach to the business of branding that is relevant to anyone who has a stake in a brand’s success.
Vincent offers these tips for a small business looking to develop a brand identity:
- Demonstrate a sense of purpose. Great brands attract and retain employees and investors because they can tell why they exist. Vincent says he recently met with the owner of a small agency who is doing stunningly beautiful creative work. When he asked her why she decided to create an agency of her own instead of working somewhere else, she said, “because I wanted to create a studio that attracted creative talent that works like I work.” And that's exactly what she’s done, Vincent said. Her team is winning awards because of it.
- Make a promise. Don't confuse a promise with a position. Positions are disposable. Vincent says: “You can take a position on just about anything. But when you make a promise, you are committing your business to deliver specific value.” A brand, at its heart, is the embodiment of a promise, he says. The brand promise should be the owner’s guide when she or he has to make critical decisions such as financing, staffing and new-business development.
- Deliver a storied experience. Brands become valuable when they consistently deliver experiences that meet or exceed the expectations they set with their brand promise. Instead of worrying too much about the name and logo, double-down on the experience of doing business with the company. Make it easy, and make it so distinctive that people want to tell great stories about it.
- Master the three most important brand questions: What is it? Why does it matter? And what makes it different? The owner should be able to give concrete answers to these three questions in the proverbial elevator ride. They are the elements of the brand the owner wants to stick in the mind of the customers and the employees.
- Credibility matters more than image. Many people mistakenly believe that brands grow strong by producing evocative creative identities. But consumers keep reminding us that what matters most is a brand's trustworthiness. Be the brand the customer believes is the most credible in the business’s category.
"Brands should stand for something, or they shouldn’t stand at all,” Vincent says. “Real brands make promises they intend to keep. This is as true for a brand that stands for a product as it is for brand that stands for a person. Everything you may already understand about a brand—names, logos, advertising, package design, retail experiences, customer support, etc.—is really just an extension of that promise in action.”
When asked to think of brands, most people naturally recall big, global brands that dominate popular culture.
But branding is a strategic discipline that is just as relevant to the small-business owner. A real brand provides a small-business owner with an identity that is a microcosm of the business plan.
The brand should guide the decision-making process by clarifying what the owner does (or doesn’t do), why that behavior is important, and how that behavior produces benefits that are different from those of competitors.
Vincent’s new book is In Brand Real: How Smart Companies Live Their Brand Promise and Inspire Fierce Customer Loyalty (AMACOM; March 2012; $25), For more information, visit http://www.laurencevincent.com.