Branding: Perception is Reality in the Mind of the Consumer
What exactly is a brand? That’s a question that’s likely to receive as many answers as there are marketers in the world.
Wikipedia defines a brand as follows:
The identity of a specific product, service or business. A brand can take many forms, including a name, sign, symbol, color combination or slogan. A brand is the personality that identifies a product, service or company and how it relates to key constituencies: customers, staff, partners, investors, etc.
Ask a rancher and you’ll likely hear a brand described as the unique marking livestock is given that enables each rancher to identify his/her animals.
I contend that a brand is every touch point your business has with every person inside and outside of your company, and the perceptions and expectations each of these people maintains about your business, products and/or services, and people. If your company consists of only you and your personal output, then your brand is YOU.
So, how do you determine what brand to create? It’s quite simple actually: what do you want the world to think of you? Really, that’s what it boils down to.
Is it most important that you are viewed as the company with the really cute lines of paper, or perhaps you want to be known for your edgy grunge lines? If you’re a retailer, perhaps you want to be known for your excellent selection or amazing classes. Whatever you want to be known for, you need to nurture it in the mind of the consumer – tell a story with every action.
Let’s consider a few of the most well-known brands on the market today: Apple, 3M and UPS.
These are not just company names, services or product lines, they are brands – brands that have received sustained, focused effort, brands that are easily recognizable, and brands that are not only trusted, but hold a special place in the hearts of their fans. Everything these brands do, everything they communicate and everything they produce is part of their overall brand, a brand they defend with the utmost intensity.
Apple is known for creating products that do one thing and do it very well. Their products are very well designed and ownership of one of their products ups one’s “cool factor.” 3M is most well known for its line of Post-It products, something no modern office is without. In fact, the Post-Its brand is so well known that Post-It has become a widely used noun. UPS is known for their brown trucks and brown-clad drivers who deliver in all conditions.
Now, let’s talk about a brand that has some work to do. Hilton, which was once known for its prestige level Conrad Hilton properties, has experienced an identity crisis of sorts as the company chose to put their brand on properties purchased from other hotel chains, properties that often missed the mark on delivering the quality experience Hilton guests had come to expect. And yet, their Hampton brand is well-liked and mostly consistent. Ah, mostly.
Now, you might think that being consistent most of the time is OK. I am here to tell you it’s not, at least not when it comes to managing one’s brand. Successful creation of a brand means you will likely be chosen over your competitors – and that’s good, really good. However, that loyalty comes at a price. You see, there is a “dark side” to branding. If you are effective and build a brand people love and trust, their expectation is that the brand will deliver every time. That’s why they choose one company over another, one product over another and one expected experience over another. Customers who have expectations are harder to please than ones who don’t.
Can you deliver? Every time? We all know that no one is perfect and things don’t always go as planned. The difference between a company that cares about its brand and one that treats its brand as a side-effect is that the company that cares will do everything in its power to rectify anything that does not align with the consumers’ perception of the brand.
So, given how much effort it takes to create a successful brand, and how hard it can be to ensure a consistent brand experience every time, why would a company want to expend so much time and effort on creating a brand that it has to “defend” at every turn? Because it IS worth the effort. The payoff – loyal customers, consistent and/or increasing sales, consumers who become fans and share your story with others, and employees who feel honored to work for you – is worth every ounce of time, money and effort.
Now, you might not aim for behemoth status like that of the aforementioned brands. Or, you might be thinking you would love to have a reputation like they do, but it’s not in the cards because of budgetary or resource constraints. That’s OK, branding can happen at all levels of expenditure of time, money and effort. Even the smallest company can build a brand, a brand they are proud of and one that attracts loyal fans.
So, where do you begin?
Let’s start with some easy stuff:
It’s likely that one of the first things you decided on was a name for your offering. This is for many business owners a very fun part of starting a new business (I know it was for me). For others it’s pure drudgery. In any case, your business, product or service name is the first indication to the world that you exist, and just like a person’s name, it creates a sense of who the company is and what it represents. But, it does not have to be clearly understood to be valid. Just look at Google and you can see that a name can be nonsensical and still garner attention. In fact, sometimes a name becomes so well-known, it becomes a verb! Google and Xerox are wonderful examples of this phenomenon. But, they did not become verbs overnight – a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into creating the brand awareness of their names.
You most likely had a designer, artist, friend or family member create a logo for your company, product(s) or service(s). Or, perhaps you are the designer? In any case, you likely have a logo that represents your brand. It has a certain look and feel and color(s). What is it about the design, colors or words that prompted you to create it or choose it over all other available options? Did it just perfectly represent what you had in mind for your company, products or services? It’s likely that you chose it because you have a vision for your company and its offering and this logo encapsulates it perfectly. Hopefully it was not chosen because you had to make a quick choice and it was the best available option at the time.
Now, let’s focus on a few areas that might not be as obvious in terms of how they affect your brand:
Most everyone can recall at least one experience with an employee of a brand they trust or adore. Perhaps the experience was amazing, perhaps it was horrible. How that interaction made you feel reflects positively or negatively on the brand the employee represents. What are your employees “saying about you?” And no, I don’t mean what are they literally saying, but how do their actions, their dress, their demeanor and their words reflect on your brand? If you are not 100 percent positive that they reflect positively on your brand, it’s time for change.
When was the last time a brand really knocked your socks off? No, not delivered just great service, but treated you in such a way that you couldn’t wait to share the story with others? I recently had such an experience and I was so impressed that I took the time to ask for a manager so I could share how wonderful my experience was that day. And you know what? She added to my experience by truly appreciating my taking the time to tell her about it, and by applauding the employee who was responsible for my positive view of the brand. I couldn’t wait to tell others about my great experience at a time when most service experiences seem to be “lack of service” experiences.
It’s possible you are displaying a confused expression after reading this header, yes? Well, apparently cleanliness matters. I recently surveyed scrapbookers about what they wanted from the retailers they patronized. Know what landed in the top five again and again? A clean store and clean bathrooms! Yes, all that hard work you’re putting into making sure the loo is presentable, or better yet, beautiful, is worth the effort!
As you can see, some aspects of branding are obvious. And some, well not so much. The key is to know which aspects are most important to your ideal customer, the one whom you spend so much time and effort attracting. Do that well and these customers are not only predisposed to remain loyal to your brand, buying your products and/or services for a long time to come, they are likely to make a habit of spreading the love to their family, friends and colleagues. That is branding at its best!
“Simply put, a brand is a promise. By identifying and authenticating a product or service it delivers a pledge of satisfaction and quality.” – Walter Landor
Are you delivering?