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Luck Is A Fickle Mistress: Strong Brands Are Intentional

Everyone customer, vendor, employee and consultant carries around a mental image of your business in what we are calling a “brand bank.” Each person opens a new brand bank account the moment she notices that your company exists. That account opens whether you want it to or not, but you choose what you deposit in that account. If you create a strong, positive brand that provides the information needed to make a purchase, you have a much better chance of forming an impression that results in a sale. But if you don’t, people will draw their own conclusions.

We make sense of the world by merging the information we receive with own beliefs and perspectives. When we have plenty of information, that's what we use to reach a decision. But in the absence of information we make assumptions, regardless of whether or not those conclusions are accurate.

  • A sign that reads “Sophie’s Spotless Cleaning” doesn't provide a lot of information. Does she clean clothes? Carpets? Cars? Without additional information, we'll just assume, and our assumptions will probably be wrong. But if she builds a website with the URL "sophiescarpetcleaning.com," and places ads in social media featuring photos of carpets, the mystery is solved. 
  • A lakeside restaurant opens in a beautiful location. If the owner works hard to hire and train the best staff but the interior looks cheap and thoughtlessly thrown together, she may not be able to get customers to return. If the food is exemplary but she fails to promote the business, new customers may never show up to try her innovative menu.

You can either create your brand intentionally or let people come to their own conclusions. Every detail of your offering will provide an impression. The photos and fonts you use can lead people to believe that your business serves the affluent or make a promise that everyone can afford your products and services. The style and colors of your brochures and business cards can indicate that your products are either cutting-edge or old fashioned. The message of your brand is your responsibility, and you can either deliberately craft the impression you want to give or allow your audience to make assumptions. We are often just as influenced by what a business does as what it doesn’t do. It's far better to build your brand intentionally than to leave it up to chance. Just make sure that as you craft your brand you focus on the entire experience, not just one portion. An effective branding strategy examines the entire customer experience, from the website to the storefront to the way the receptionist answers the phone, then intentionally aligns them using a single, compelling idea.

Begin the branding process by pretending to be a customer and looking carefully at everything a customer experiences. Each detail should be evaluated and coordinated so the brand makes sense. The more consistent the experience, the more memorable the brand. Disney and McDonald’s, two of the most intentionally designed brands, have gone to great lengths to ensure that every aspect of the customer experience is precisely what they intend it to be. This deliberate attention to detail has, over time, created internationally recognized brands.


Selling Ice To Penguins: Strong Brands Have Specific Appeal

Each business owner must decide what to communicate and who to communicate with. But no matter how good those communications are, entrepreneurs don’t have complete control over the mental images we hold in our minds.

If I’ve heard news reports about the dangers of high fructose corn syrup or I’ve spent thousands of dollars to fix cavities in my kid’s teeth, I may decide to never buy soda, no matter how many times I see ads or sponsorships on TV. But that doesn’t mean that the Coca-Cola company can’t count me as a customer — they provide a wide range of different offerings for other audiences, including those who won’t buy Coke. They produce sports drinks for athletes and diet sodas for those who are worried about gaining weight. They offer bottled water and mixers for alcoholic drinks. They offer juice in packaging that kids can take to school. And, of course, they create different communications for each of these products, and appeal to each audience in specific ways. You won’t see many ads for Coke in magazines for health-conscious consumers, but you will see ads for vitamin water or sports drinks with electrolytes. With this approach they create positive attention for each of their offerings.

Each business owner must do the same: describe each of the audiences they want to appeal to, and decide how to reach those audiences. No offering will appeal to everyone. Each offering and each communication must be tailored to a specific audience and delivered in the most effective way. Coke didn’t try to force health-conscious customers to drink their signature beverage; there was no way for the negatives (corn syrup and empty calories) to be changed into positives for people in that demographic. Instead, they created new brands (vitaminwater® and Minute Maid®) to serve those markets, leveraging their existing expertise and distribution systems. As you build your business, you’ll want to think through the audiences you want to serve, and decide if you’re providing each demographic what it wants.


Mr. Right Vs. Mr. Right Now: Strong Brands Generate Good Attention

There are many, many reasons that we choose to buy something, and quite a few of them don’t have anything to do with what a company says about its products. Brands make it easy for us to understand the world and decide how to spend our money, but our mental images are always incomplete, and they can be changed easily.

In order to discuss the effectiveness of branding efforts, we’ll define “positive attention” as attention that attracts customers that align with an entrepreneur’s definition of success. We’ll define “negative attention” as attention that repels customers or brings in the wrong type of customers. This is an important distinction because not all customers are equally effective when it comes to reaching a particular set of goals.

Mike opens a hair salon and wants to serve those who don’t mind spending $200 for a cut and color. In order to get customers through the door, he offers a 50% off coupon, good for the first month. His salon may be filled for the first month, but how many of his initial customers will return when the price doubles? If he attracted customers that won’t pay the regular price, he’s generated negative attention and done little to build the long-term customer base that he wanted.

In the same way, if Mike sets the cut and color price at $200 but buy ads in the local penny-saver newspaper, he’s probably reaching a clientele that can’t or won’t spend $200 on a single salon visit. He may be attracting attention, but he hasn’t been building a set of positive impressions in the minds of potential customers. Each piece of the brand puzzle must be evaluated in terms of its effectiveness: Is it generating the right kind of attention? Is it building the customer base you want?


Is Your Cat A Tiger Or A Tabby? Strong Brands Are Clearly Defined

Let’s say you want to buy a sled — you have a lot of available choices. You can choose from a wide range of types and prices offered by a large sporting goods manufacturer, purchase a much more expensive handmade, vintage-style version from an independent woodworker, or choose a sleek, high-performance sled made from technologically advanced alloys.

Let’s assume you go online and search for “sled,” and these three types of businesses pop up in the results. If these brands are well-defined, you can quickly determine what they offer: the lowest price, old-world craftsmanship or the newest technology. The front page of the sporting goods manufacturer is going to present hundreds of products of many types. The woodworker is going to describe his painstaking sled-making process and what kind of wood he uses. The high-end sled designer will describe the advanced composite materials used in their manufacture and make claims about the sled’s performance.

But you probably don’t have to read the descriptions to get a sense of what kinds of products each business offers — you can probably get a feel for each business from the logo and the style of type and images used on the home page. A high-tech sled designer will probably present a page that looks sleek and modern, and may include a photo of a famous sled-racing champion. The woodworker will present black and white images of kids on sleds alongside vintage typography. The large sporting goods manufacturer will present visuals that are appropriate for a wide range of sports.


Of course, there will be other businesses that have not defined their brands so clearly. If they don’t look like what you want, or if it’s not clear what they offer, why would you spend time learning about those businesses? You will gravitate to those that provide a clearly defined offering. If you don’t find what you want you might do more research, but if you find the right sled on the first few sites there’s a good chance you’ll stop searching.

Clearly defining your brand and simultaneously differentiating yourself from the competition is the key to securing customers in a crowded marketplace.


As Dependable As Sunrise: Strong Brands Are Consistent

The owner of a new restaurant wants to create the perception of a top-tier establishment, serving the finest food and drink to those who want and can afford the very best. If she creates a beautiful ad campaign and spends money on striking interior design but serves food that’s only ordinary, she will invalidate the expectations she generated in the first phase of her branding process. In the same way, she can build mental value with a well-dressed staff and perfectly prepared food, but if the restroom looks like it belongs in a truck stop, her carefully crafted image can be irreparably damaged and she may lose future customers. To establish value in the mind, each impression must support the mental picture that the offering promises. Each impression is a micro investment in the brand — a coin deposited into a mental piggy bank. When enough impressions have been deposited, the collected value of those efforts is returned to the entrepreneur through the sales they create. The mental impression of value can only be created by consistency.

When we meet someone new it takes time before we’re willing to trust them, and this is as true with businesses as it is with individuals. If your auto mechanic consistently provides good service, carefully explaining what needs to be done and why, you’ll be more likely to trust her when she informs you that you need major work done. If the chef at the corner bakery always makes good food, you may develop enough trust to have him cater an important party. This same dynamic extends to your communications. If your business offers the same message and personality over a long period, customers can develop expectations that translate into buying habits. If you get what you want every time, why go anywhere else? Consistency builds trust.

It’s precisely this dynamic that has enabled Coca-Cola and McDonalds to grow and maintain enormous customer bases. People know what they will get for their money, and that consistency – both in the offerings and in the communications that surround them – move that interaction closer to the realm of habit. Consistency builds habits.

Consistent branding can only be achieved by branding through the entire customer experience. If every interaction clearly reinforces the same message, your customers will more easily remember who you are and what you offer. Disney is one of the businesses that has most clearly defined each tiny aspect of the customer experience, and they have built a large, dedicated customer base as a result. If your brand is consistent, customers won’t feel the need to look any further — they know that they’ll get what they need from you.


I Will Not Be Ignored! Strong Brands Are Memorable

There are two ways to become memorable – repetition and innovation. Consistent branding relies primarily on repetition. The same products, services and communications are repeated day after day for years, sometimes decades. Through this repetition, people become accustomed to a particular offering and certain cues bring it to mind — McDonald’s “golden arches” is a good example of this dynamic.

The other method for creating a memorable brand — innovation — is a way of reaching into the minds of potential customers and establishing a powerful presence very quickly. Innovation can be simple and inexpensive or complex and costly; it’s all about the creativity that’s brought to the effort.

Small business owners have a big advantage here — they can reach people in a way that large companies have never been able to duplicate. When a small business owner speaks directly to a customer, she makes a powerful impression in the mind. You can see an advertisement hundreds of times and never feel strongly about a business, but a powerful personal experience can generate memories and feelings that will last for months or even years. Human connections are the most compelling interactions we ever have with a business and no amount of branding will ever create as much feeling as a one-on-one interaction that creates a strong memory.

Finding ways to connect with people can be a little intimidating, so the first step in building a powerful connection must be caring for the customer. A brand-focused entrepreneur will see through the customers’ eyes and think about what they want and how they feel, then find creative ways to meet those needs. Some examples:

  • A bakery is just a few doors down from the local Apple store. The owner knows that a new iPhone will be released in a few days and that hundreds of people will be lining up to buy it. It’s July, so he also knows that everyone will be waiting in the heat. He bakes hundreds of cookies in the shape of his logo and hands them out to the folks in line, along with glasses of ice cold lemonade. He also has his staff walk around with portable fans, giving folks a momentary cool breeze to go with their lemonade. How long will those Apple customers remember his generosity? Some of those Apple customers will be coming back to the Apple store when they need to buy accessories and get help; the experience they had waiting in line might just remind them of how good those cookies were, and they may stop in to buy more each time they’re in the area.
  • A dress shop owner wants to expand into formal gowns for special occasions. She creates a campaign, “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Formal Fashion,” and offers free classes on makeup, clothing trends and hairstyling to high school and college students. How many of them will come back to her shop when prom rolls around? If they forge strong relationships with the owner, will they return when it’s time to buy a wedding dress? The owner is investing in deeper relationships with potential future customers, and when the time comes to spend money on a fancy dress, those young women will probably feel more comfortable shopping with someone they already know.

Innovative communications are more memorable, which makes them a better use of your marketing dollars. Too often, small businesses focus on the mass media end of the spectrum, which generally carries a higher overall cost than individual communications, which may have no cost at all. A well-trained waiter with a great personality can cost just as much as an inattentive slacker, but one will encourage repeat business while the other can ensure customers never return. (Tip from the Captain: If you’re spending thousands of dollars on ads and direct mail but failing to monitor how well your staff interacts with your customers, you’re wasting money.)

Innovative communications can differentiate you from the competition far more effectively than something that looks and sounds like it could have come from anyone else. A complex marketplace increases the necessity for innovation and differentiation: as the number of choices increases, it’s much harder for potential customers to remember that you exist.

Get Real! Strong Brands Are Authentic

We are surrounded by inauthentic communications. Regardless of what companies say in their advertising, corporations cannot feel — only people have emotions. You may have a great relationship with the owner of a small local store, and you may have a great relationship with a single employee at a big box retailer. But a company is not a person, and no organization can care about you. Any attempt to humanize a large corporation inevitably fails against this simple unwritten truth.

As a result, mass marketing is seen as inauthentic. The “average” people that appear in ads are played by actors that we recognize from sitcoms or movies. We know that their reactions are faked, and we know that they are paid to pretend that they love the product. But when small business owners do the things that mass marketing cannot — reach out to customers using real, human interaction that demonstrates your mission and your values — it bypasses all the mass market clutter that we find so annoying. When small business owners demonstrate authenticity the effect is far more compelling than any ad or direct marketing piece.

In this way, small businesses have a remarkable advantage over big, impersonal corporations. Yet most of the time, small businesses attempt to use the marketing methods employed by big business, and avoid using the most powerful, least expensive communication method available — real, authentic human relationships. As you begin to develop your brand in the minds of your customers, remember that you can engage people in ways that large corporations can’t: a handshake, a phone call, or a handwritten note.

But if your communications contradict the experience, the negative consequences will destroy your brand. If your expensive handmade jewelry turns necks and wrists green, any chance at repeat business will evaporate. If your pricey homestyle ravioli tastes like something that just came out of a can, no one will believe your menu descriptions. And, thanks to modern communications, your fraud will quickly be exposed.

If your communications and offerings are in harmony, it creates authenticity in the mind of the customer. But customers can spot an incongruous element as easily as a stain on a white shirt. If they see any evidence of a façade, they won’t return. As you develop your offering, ensure every facet of the customer experience is authentic. Don’t lie, don’t cover up and don’t pretend to be something you’re not. That way, you never have to worry about being perceived as a fraud.

One more thing: if you feel like you need to lie to your customers, there’s something wrong with your offering. Fix the offering first. Your offering is the place authenticity comes from, and it’s where you start building your brand. Give real value, and you’ll get real value in return.


A Tool Or A Weapon? The Choice Is Yours.

A scalpel can be used to heal or to kill. It can perform lifesaving surgery or slash the throat of an enemy. The scalpel is just an instrument. Whether it is used as a tool to serve or as a weapon to harm is a decision made by the person who holds it. In the same way, branding and marketing are extremely powerful instruments.

Branding and marketing can bring people together around a common cause. The Red Cross uses marketing to collect donations that bring relief to millions of people suffering the aftereffects of natural disasters. Doctors Without Borders has spent more than 40 years developing a brand that serves the medical needs of millions in war-torn regions.

Branding and marketing can also be used as weapons to foment hatred and encourage discrimination. Dictatorships and military regimes have deployed massive propaganda machines that have led to war and massive loss of life.

As entrepreneurs, we use these tools to reach new audiences and persuade people to act. The tools we use to communicate have changed, and technology allows us to reach more people with less effort than ever before. But with these advances comes the need for greater individual responsibility in how they are used.

Many large companies have used these instruments to coerce customers into doing things that are not in their best interests. They don’t tell the whole truth, or they tell it in a way that leads the audience to false conclusions. Sometimes they just plain lie. As a result, branding and marketing have acquired a negative taint, and many people assume that an advertisement is inherently dishonest, regardless of what it says. This is unfortunate, since branding and marketing can also be used as tools that inform the public about products and services that greatly enhance their lives.

Some small business owners decide to use these instruments to benefit themselves, regardless of the harm it does. They don’t think twice about telling half-truths or lying outright. But this practice is inauthentic and, over time, lies will always be uncovered. A lie told to achieve a short-term result will do far more harm over the long term, and can eventually destroy a business.

As you build your company, you must decide how you will use these powerful instruments. Will your brand be truthful? Will your products work as advertised? Will you live up to the guarantees you post on your website? Will your salespeople make promises they can’t deliver? This is a question that every business owner must tackle. Communications are incredibly powerful instruments, but they are only instruments: your conscience will determine how you use them.

Most business owners are wonderful people who have decided to build something that they can be proud of, but those that aren’t should know one thing: you won’t fool us for long.