This post is in response to Mark Silver’s post Can Branding Ever Be Heart-Centered?
Mark wants to rename branding “worldview”. I don’t – I like the word “branding”. It means something specific – but maybe not what you think it means.
Your associations with this word might be from seeing graphical logos or “brand names” on clothing, or getting fakey-B.S. “we care” stuff from big companies who obviously don’t actually care.
This is not what branding is.
Branding is the visceral feeling someone has about your business.
Here’s an example. Some time back Qwest re-branded themselves with this whole “Spirit of Service” crapola. But when I called them to get help, I spent 1/2 hour going through a phone-tree, and finally got a guy in India who I could barely understand and was obviously rifling through an employee manual while talking with me, trying to figure out how to answer my question.
So the visceral feeling I have about Qwest? A crunchy-tense feeling in my gut, and an annoyed/indignant feeling that they lied in their advertising. That they were just trying to make more money, but didn’t seem to make any real changes in their customer service. That’s their brand.
In the same way, part of Wal-mart’s brand (for me), is a questionable sense of ethics about how they get their cheap prices (like, from third-world sweatshops).
The key here is that branding is not what companies want you to think/feel about them, it’s what you really do think/feel.
So what is your brand? And where is it? It’s in the hearts and minds of all of your customers. It’s the sum total of all their reactions from all of their interactions with anything connected to your business and to you (yes, personal branding is a thing, especially for solo-prenueurs).
Branding isn’t abstract – it’s the real-world feeling people get from interacting with your business in any form whatsoever, from looking at an ad to browsing your website to talking to you on the phone. It’s the gestalt of YOU that they form in their head from all their different experiences. It includes their idea of what you offer (products and services), how responsive you are, if you are fun and playful, serious and committed, etc.
Branding is exactly where small businesses have a huge advantage over giant corporations.
Qwest does business the giant-corporation way. You don’t have to. You can do business exactly how you’d like a business to treat you. That’s why people choose to do their business with small businesses and independent providers!
Big companies resort to advertising to try to build a brand. To try to convince you to trust them. But do you? Not unless their advertising is backed up by their real-world actions. And more and more, it’s not, and that’s why people choose to buy from smaller companies who do still have the values they proclaim to have.
Ok. So how do you build a brand?
Branding is about consistency and focus (and the trust that they build).
To translate it into a different framework, NVC (non-violent communication), branding is “the needs people think will be consistently met by your business”. For example: integrity, compassion, generosity, spontaneity, humour, play, warmth.
Or they could be less touchy-feely needs, like vision, innovation, clarity, efficiency, ease, or exceptional value.
The consistency part meets peoples needs for predictability and safety. Which, of course, is the absolute first step to people buying from you.
If you send a customer a nice thank-you gift for instance, they’ll feel warm and fuzzy – that’s part of your brand then, in their mind – that warm fuzzy feeling. They’ll think your company = generosity.
If you do something inconsistent with that the next month (like give their 3 day overdue bill to a collection agency), you’ll dilute your brand. People will be confused. Uncertain. Scared. This is Not Good.
Get clear about a few specific things that define your brand. You don’t want to be all over the map, because you won’t be able to keep that up consistently. Sure, you can be playful one day, even if it’s not part of your core brand. But the things that are part of your brand, you want to bring into every interaction, and every product you offer, as much as you can.
For solo-preneurs, it’s important to pick things that are close to your heart, and easy for you to be consistent about. It really sucks to be not-yourself on a daily basis. For instance, I am not known for playful chit-chat when it comes to customer support. But answering questions clearly and honestly, and responding quickly and efficiently – that I am known for.
So get clear on who you are. Then, let people know about it!
For instance, if your strength is consistency, focus on that in your materials. If you have a special gift for being warm and connecting with people, make sure that is coming through on your website, your phone message, etc. Every little interaction counts toward their mental picture/visceral feeling of what your business is about.
Think about your brand as an investment – your brand is the principle that pays dividends – don’t spend it foolishly.
Think about Apple, one of the strongest brands out there. Do they ever release an inferior product? They could probably sell anything they released and make tons of money doing it. They have a huge customer base. But if they did that, it would dilute their brand. So they consistently make innovative, stylish, brilliantly designed products – and that keeps their brand strong. That way, when they release products, people are lined up at the stores camping out to get them.
So when you build up a brand, that is, you build a sense of trust with your customers and community, don’t waste it. Use it in a way that will leverage your business further.
Here’s an example of brand dilution I see sometimes: adsense or affiliate links all over a website, trying to make a few extra bucks. I am all for passive income! But it needs to be done in a way that makes sense – and that won’t turn people off – because that “turning people off” is now associated with you. So when you think about affiliate marketing, or anything you want to add to your site or make a part of your business, ask yourself: “Will this strengthen my brand or dilute it? Does it help my customers?”. Affiliate marketing, in the best sense of the word, is about recommending stuff to your people that they actually really could use and you can genuinely recommend.
I’ve learned this the hard way: if you recommend something and it turns out to suck? That is now part of your brand: “doesn’t do enough research on what she recommends”. There goes some of the trust I built. Ouch.
Then you get to learn to apologize to your customers and build trust by making amens – for instance, doing a lot of research that you can back up on what is a good recommendation, and looking through all the things you’ve recommended to make sure you still stand by them.
So, start to think about who you are and what your business stands for, and look around at everything you are doing in the world and see if there are things that you could re-align to be true to your brand.
If you want to get more into the topic, here is a fun little book on the subject: The Brand Gap.