< Previous Article     •     The Captain's Log    •     Next Article >


A brand — a mental image of an organization and its offerings — is nothing more than an accumulation of data. It is the sum of our beliefs, feelings and experiences merged with a company’s products, services and communications. When brands are clear and easy to understand — when they are strong and unambiguous — it makes life easier on your customers.

Our brains develop brands to help us understand the world and make choices about what to do. Entrepreneurs who understand this dynamic are better positioned to create meaningful brands that guide customers and foster better relationships. If you take the time to build a strong brand, you give your customers what they want. A strong brand:

  • decreases the cognitive load, making it easier to choose between different options
  • generates expectations, making new experiences more predictable
  • provides clarity, letting us know what a company offers and what it doesn’t
  • supports our beliefs, delivering on the promises it makes and fixing mistakes when they happen
  • provides confidence, reassuring customers that they’re making the right choice
  • saves time and effort, enabling customers to stop looking and start focusing on other tasks.

You want to go out to eat. You look online, evaluate your choices, and decide on a well-reviewed restaurant that serves seafood. At this point, you’ve developed a certain set of expectations in your mind: you know what they serve, about what it will cost, and what a few other customers have thought. You have a good meal and these expectations are largely met. But later on in the week you see a local news investigation that reveals terrible, unsanitary conditions in the kitchen. They reveal that the “fresh caught” seafood was actually shipped from overseas farms and contaminated with high levels of lead, mercury and arsenic. The brand in your mind is shattered. What you learned does not align with your expectations, and you never eat there again.

This happens every time we buy a pair of pants that look terrible once they’ve come out of the washer or a new car that has to be repaired several times in the first year. These kinds of experiences can destroy a brand. Although there are hundreds of reasons why a product may not work or a service may not meet our expectations, we generally don’t care about the details — we simply transfer our dissatisfaction to the brand itself and find a replacement somewhere else.

A strong brand benefits consumers with the reassurance that these kinds of problems will not occur or that, if they do occur, they will be rectified quickly and painlessly. If the store where I bought the poor quality pants is known for their simple return policy, I won’t punish the store for one piece of faulty merchandise, I’ll simply stop by and return them, possibly making another purchase while I’m there. And if the auto dealer quickly replaces a lemon with a new car, you may be willing to give the brand another try. (If you’ve ever smashed your iPad, driven to the nearest Apple store and walked out with a $49 replacement, you know just how good it can feel to have a big problem fixed quickly and inexpensively.)

Those brands that don’t inspire faith will quickly be replaced by those that do.


Tim, the owner of Tantalizing Toys, specialized in well-crafted – often handmade – toys that were both educational and fun. He was anxious to separate himself from the mass production, poorly made toys that sell in most big box stores, but he knew that he would need to overcome price objections with so many cheaper alternatives on the market.

One way he decided to create assurance in his customers was to create a “Glee Guarantee.”  Since customers were paying quite a bit more to purchase these toys, they wanted to be sure kids would like them. And there’s no way to ever guarantee that – one child may love something that another child pays no attention to. So Tim, using in-store signs and ornate slips of paper tucked into each box and package, informed his customers that they could return his toys for any reason, including the unpredictable preference of the children who received them. This allayed the anxiety of his customers, who could now avoid the sight of an expensive toy abandoned and forgotten in the back of a dark closet.

He also created a large, central area where kids could try out any toy in the store. This had the added benefit of giving parents a place to see which of Tim’s toys their kids preferred, making gift giving a bit easier.


If I love Amy’s Ice Cream I’m probably willing to try one of the dozens of new kinds she develops each year. Her strong brand enables her to experiment with a wide array of unusual flavors, reaching out to new audiences while keeping existing customers entertained with fresh new combinations. If Amy decides to venture into low calorie ice creams or health-conscious smoothies, her strong brand makes it more likely that customers will give these products a try. She might even be able to expand into candies or other desserts with greater confidence in the investment. Her strong brand benefits her customers. They trust her judgement enough to try something that they might otherwise avoid.

When a printer with years of experience in traditional offset printing decides to offer new digital options, customers will be more likely to assume that they’ll receive the same level of professionalism and attention to detail that they’ve had in the past. They can try out new technologies without worrying about binding, finishing, delivery, pricing, customer service or any of the other aspects of a print job — they already have positive experiences with those things, and they only new variable is the digital printing itself.

Even a small purchase carries some risk. Will I like the flavor? How will it look after it's printed? But if I make a purchase from a company that I already trust, I'm far less likely to worry. Building a strong brand alleviates fear and makes it easier for customers to try new things.


Interior design can be a big investment. It can also be extremely difficult to match up a client’s taste with a designer’s aesthetic understanding. Some customers will walk through each detail, picking and choosing what they want with unerring certainty. But many don’t have any idea what they want, and are happy to have the designer guide them. That works just fine when the finished product is loved, but an unhappy “reveal” can waste a lot of money, destroy the client relationship and severely damage the designer’s reputation.

Irene decided that one way to alleviate fear in some potential clients was to give them a taste of the process. She created a program for potential new clients: they choose one small room in the home – usually a guest bathroom or small bedroom – and go through the complete project process from beginning to end, choosing the colors, textures, furniture and accessories. Anxious homeowners learn about Irene’s methods and often clarify their own expectations while spending a small fraction of what they would spend on a kitchen, living room or complete residence. Irene gets a chance to see which customers she enjoys working with (and which ones she might be "too busy" to help in the future).


If your restaurant serves unusual dishes that appeal to sophisticated palates, anything that you do to demonstrate this fact will encourage one set of customers and discourage another set of customers. Without the right brand, a customer willing to spend more on exotic game or sculptural desserts will look elsewhere, and someone looking for a burger won’t find what they’re looking for. Clarity is a critical part of a strong brand. It makes it easier to find the customers that you do want and to keep the customers you don’t want from expecting something you don’t provide.

A strong brand also provides clarity for your staff. When your employees understand exactly what you offer and how you offer it, they’re more likely to explain that effectively and to give your customers what they want. A waiter that knows he has to please diners who have an extensive culinary vocabulary won’t “talk down” to guests, and a waitress at a diner that knows that she’s dealing with a hungry crowd may serve guests quickly. These examples seem obvious, but we’ve all run across service professionals who can’t seem to answer basic questions, damaging the brands of their employers. Ask yourself, “If I asked everyone on my staff to clearly define what my business offers and who we offer it to, would they all have the same answer?” Without clarity in the minds of your employees it’s unlikely that your brand is clearly defined in the minds of your customers.

A clearly defined brand also prevents your competitors from “rebranding” you. Some businesses build aggressive campaigns aimed at diminishing the brands of their competitors, creating questions in the minds of current and potential customers. But if you have a clearly defined brand it’s much harder for anyone to uproot that foundation. If customers are certain about what you offer, they don’t need to look around. And, no matter what a competitor says, they won’t believe it.


Al loves swimming. He started working it into his regular routine, and found it provided a great way to stay in shape. After an automobile accident, he found that swimming accelerated his rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, Al has had a hard time getting potential customers to understand what he does. Some people assumed that Al’s was a natatorium — an indoor swimming pool. Others thought he sold scuba gear and diving equipment. But Al’s Aquatics is focused on the intersection between swimming and fitness, offering the suits and gear needed by everyone from top-tier teams to those using the pool to recuperate after surgery. So he decided to get involved in the community to demonstrate both what his business offers and his support for the sport.

  • To both clarify his brand in the public mind and attract potential customers, Al decided to donate his products to swim teams at all educational levels, including college. He also volunteered to coach his son’s middle school team.
  • In conjunction with a local hospital he developed a fundraising campaign for a nonprofit rehabilitation center, advertising the benefits of swimming for those in need of physical therapy.
  • He also worked with retirement centers to facilitate water aerobics and other courses for the elderly.

We know what to expect from McDonald’s. We know what to expect from Louis Vuitton. We know what to expect from Ford Motor Company, Baskin-Robbins, and Coca-Cola. Because we know what to expect, our choices become easier. We're not going to go to Louis Vuitton to buy a hamburger. We understand that we can buy high quality items in very large quantities from Costco. If you build a strong brand, you are creating expectations in the minds of your customers, and they will come to rely on these expectations. Expectations make us feel more confident about how we spend our money.

People will make judgments about your organization based on every detail they see. If I walk by the front of your salon and notice your expensive interior design, I’m going to expect that my haircut will be pricey. I will probably also expect that my stylist will know what he’s doing, and I’ll feel more confident putting myself in his hands. If I enter a Mexican restaurant and see several empty tables still covered in dishes from guests who have already left, I’m probably going to expect that the service will be slow. I might also expect that the kitchen is about as clean as the customer area. Of course, I could be completely wrong on all accounts — the kitchen could be spotless and the service quite speedy. But that doesn’t stop us from generating these kinds of expectations, and our confidence in the value and quality of products and services is influenced by these cues.

Studies have shown that people believe a higher priced wine tastes better. Food that is beautifully presented also tastes better then the exact same food place randomly on a plate. When you make an investment in your brand — when you pay attention to the details that affect the way your offering is received in the minds of customers — those efforts have real world consequences in terms of the way customers think about your products and services. Of course, the same techniques have been used to deceive customers. Your conscience will dictate whether or not you create your brand authentically.

As you build your brand, recognize that you are building expectation.


Mary went out of her way to secure a great location in an upscale retail center. Surrounded by well-reviewed, well-respected restaurants, she fully expected a capacity crowd most of the week. Each day she posted the menu in a large glass case outside the front door. But day after day she watched customer after customer look at the menu and walk away.

Why was she losing so much business? It couldn’t be the interior design — a flawless blend of modern architecture and classic Latin culture. She knew it wasn’t the menu, which had undergone a lengthy review process and which, she was confident, was one of the best in town.

She decided to wait outside and ask potential customers for their thoughts on her menu. One by one she spoke to shoppers, asking them what she could do to entice them inside. The results surprised her – people thought her prices (entrées between $5.99 and $8.99) indicated that lunch at Mary’s Mexican Café wouldn’t be the kind of fine dining experience they wanted.

Mary assumed she could get people in the door with a low price point, and had acted accordingly. She also used the old 99 cent “trick” in her pricing. She failed to recognize that people assumed the food wouldn’t be very good since she wasn’t charging very much for it. People said things like, “We were looking for something a little more upscale,” or “Today we’re having a very special lunch, and we wanted to celebrate.”  By simply raising her prices to meet the expectations that she had created with every other facet of her business, Mary was finally able to attract the customers she wanted.

We develop habits for two reasons: they make the decision process easier, and they provide some sort of reward. Making decisions is a cognitively intensive task, so once your mind receives a reward from a certain decision, you will be more likely to make the same decision in the future, decreasing the cognitive load. This happens every fall and spring, when you decide what to watch on television each night. At the beginning of the season you might try out two or three different shows. Once you find a show that you like, that's probably what you'll watch on that night. You’ve made the decision and received the reward – you don’t need to make the decision again. 

McDonald’s has spent decades of effort and billions of dollars to do the same thing: to create a simple answer in your mind, so that when you’re feeling hungry, the decision process becomes easier. They’ve associated their logo — the “golden arches” — with the smell and taste of burgers and fries. They have worked very hard to create consistent taste and quality throughout the chain. As a result, when some people see the McDonald’s logo towering over a highway, they can mentally taste and smell those burgers and fries. If they’re hungry, they may decide to pull over and grab a bite to eat. They make a quick decision about how to satisfy that need. And McDonald’s has encouraged that habit by making the purchase easy — you can find the nearest location by following signs on the highway and you can buy your meal without leaving your car.

That does not mean that we will automatically make a purchase. Some people are highly adverse to fast food. No matter what the price or level of convenience, they simply won’t eat it. All of who we are — all of our thoughts about fast food, our health, value, how we spend our money, the role model we want to be for our children — all of these things contribute to the decision to make a purchase. That does not, however, diminish the impact that decades of brand building by McDonald’s Corp. has made on our minds. The decision is still easier because we know exactly what the golden arches represent, even if it's not what we are willing to buy.


Larry found that he had a significant number of unhappy customers in his high-end residential landscaping business. His first thought was that his customers were dissatisfied with his lawn care, but after a few in-depth conversations he realized that his customers wanted much more than beautiful lawns. They spent a great deal on their houses and wanted to enjoy all the benefits of beautiful landscaping, including fresh herbs and cut flowers, seasonal fruit and vegetables, a place to play and an outdoor entertainment space. They also felt they were spending too much time dealing with different service providers and not getting enough service. They would hire one business to install trees and bushes, another to install irrigation and another to take care of long-term landscaping needs. Many would hire another to prepare an outdoor space for an al fresco dinner. It was just too much work to locate good people. They wanted everything to do with landscaping to become more streamlined and simple.

  • Larry saw this as an opportunity to make the decision process easier for his current customers.
  • He greatly expanded his business, offering a suite of services covering everything that could be done in the exterior of the home.
  • He developed a simple online interface that allowed current customers to make special requests, which were then passed on to specialized teams. These requests could be as simple as “I want to grow heirloom tomatoes” or as complex as the wide range of services needed to “prepare my home for a wedding ceremony and reception.”
  • Sales reps were assigned to neighborhoods, providing each customer with only one point of personalized contact.
  • A new marketing campaign introduced this suite of services to new and existing customers and created a significant point of differentiation.

By reducing the number of professionals they needed to hire, Larry enabled his customers to make only one decision: contact Larry’s Landscaping.


You’re an elephant. You need to drink water — a lot of water. So when you find a nice big river-fed pond to drink from, your mind creates a mental image of where that pond is. Your elephant mind says, “a good source of water can be found in this location” and creates associations with the surrounding area. Your mind notes the shapes of the trees near the water’s edge and the smell of the mud and the sounds that the water makes and, when you get thirsty, your elephant mind recalls those sensations and says, “Find this place.” These mental activities make it much more likely that you'll find water because you don’t have to go searching for a new pond every time you get thirsty.

Our brains have evolved this function — the associations between sensory cues and the things we need — to ensure our survival. This function is still within us, and we use it all day long: how many times have you walked into the kitchen and opened one particular cabinet door because you’re feeling a little hungry?

This is the fundamental dynamic that we use every time we go shopping. Without brands, a trip to the grocery store would be complex and difficult. We would have no idea what was in each box and bag, and we would have to sample many different products to find the ones we want. Brands don’t just serve business owners, they also serve consumers – logos, text, colors and the familiar aspects of each label and package help us find the things we want. If you like a particular peanut butter you don’t have to sample a dozen different brands when you go looking for something to spread on your crackers. You pick the label — the brand — that you know and love.

Your customers want to create these connections because it makes their lives easier. If you own a hair salon and you do a good job on a new client she will probably be more than willing to come back a second time. She doesn’t want to try out every single stylist in town – it would take too long and be too difficult. The same thing is true for hamburgers and car repair and clothing. Once a customer develops a positive brand, he can find what he wants quickly and easily. The business owner reaps the benefits of this process.


Paul is on a mission: he wants all Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables.  Lots of people want to include more produce in their diets, understanding the role these foods play in good health and overcoming problems like obesity. But many people don’t know how to change their buying, food preparation and eating habits. Paul decided to create ways to help people find what they want.

Paul’s Produce is a dazzling array of color and smell and taste and, for cooks and those who eat lots of produce, a great place to find more unusual options. In the autumn, Paul might provide 15 different types of apples. In the summer, a squash display may include 20 varieties. Paul could count on his regular customers, but many new customers would walk in and become somewhat overwhelmed by the display, then leave without making a purchase. The desire for a healthier diet was not as strong as the fear and confusion created by a large display of unfamiliar food. Once Paul recognized this challenge, he was in a position to help potential customers achieve their goals.

  • Paul began providing informative point-of-sale information to guide new customers. For example, the apples were stacked neatly beneath a big sign explaining the differences in flavors (sweet or tart), textures (crisp or soft) and uses (fresh or baked).
  • Small printed guides with recipes and storage tips were offered, and produce experts were taught to direct customers to the varieties that best meet their preferences and needs.
  • Demonstrations were also created. A squash demonstration showed cooking-averse customers how easy it is to make a squash side dish. Another showed how salads could become far more creative and tasty. 
  • Paul posted all this information, including videos of the demonstrations, on his website, attracting local shoppers looking for new ways to prepare produce and giving existing customers a resource to help them remember what they had seen in the store.
  • Paul also made a point of spending at least three afternoons a week in the store interacting with customers, sharing his knowledge and skills.

By helping customers find what they truly want — help — Paul was able to associate his brand with the idea of helpful advice, encouraging customers to return to his store and his website.