Before all is said and done, and you’re about to layout a roadmap for your brand, I believe there are five rules in building a brand you should know and, hopefully, follow. I’ve listed them in order of importance, as follows, and while the rules are relevant for any-size company, I’ve written them from the perspective of the start-up or smaller company.
5 Rules for Building a Brand for Any-Size Company
1. Stand for Something
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been with the head of a company and he or she refuses to clarify what their brand stands for because they believe this will limit their potential market. In truth, it’s exactly the opposite: narrowing your focus and standing for something you passionately believe in generates the power your brand needs to make a difference in the marketplace. You absolutely don’t want consumers to define your brand for you, as it may not end up where you want it and most likely will become schizophrenic: meaning different things to different audiences. Not a good thing.
So before you start out, or really anytime you feel there’s a lack of clarity about your brand, take the time to express it in a simple, straightforward way. While there are many techniques that help surface that focus, the one I prefer sounds deceptively easy, but can be really challenging: What’s the category you compete in; what is the key benefit your brand delivers every time without fail; and what supporting reasons do you offer for that key benefit. Answer these, and you’ll have the focus you need to succeed.
2. Know Your Customer
This could arguably be the first rule, but, regardless, before you start, it is essential you have a clearly defined target market and know exactly what they want and need from your product or service. Then, as you enter the market and begin to expand and grow, be sure you truly understand the role your brand plays in their lives.
Knowing your customers isn’t the result of sharing anecdotes or what you hear at cocktail parties, but instead, a concerted, ongoing process of talking to them and learning not only what they think, but how they feel about you. I believe the best way to do this is through research, which many feel might be too expensive, but there are ways that are more cost-effective.
If your budget is too limited for proprietary research, I recommend finding secondary studies that have already been done and will help provide the perspective you need to make smart decisions. There’s also online dialogue on social media that may be relevant. Certainly, Google can be your best friend, including reviewing how your competitors position themselves and the way they present themselves to their audience. There’s much you can learn by seeing what they do and doing it better.
What is key after you launch and start to mature as a brand, is if and how your customers’ perceptions about you have changed in some way. If they have , are you comfortable with where they are now? This is especially relevant in today’s instant social media, especially if your brand has taken an action that might be misperceived or is subject to rumors or innuendo that impact how people see you. Knowing any shifts in perception allow you to address it in a timely, informed way.
3. Ensure Internal Vision Aligns with Consumer Reality
I’ve worked with and for literally dozens of companies in my career, from the largest global entities to the smallest start-ups and, without a doubt, the two greatest obstacles to success are: (1) a lack of internal agreement on the company vision, and, (2) aligning that internal vision with the external customer wants, needs and perceptions.
I’ve found this can exist in any size company, but can be a particular obstacle to growth in the early stages, when a small band of passionate believers may not be quite as much agreement as they might think. If not addressed, this can lead to a splintering of effort and focus that can seriously harm the brand’s potential.
So get with your team and discover if every key decision-maker and brand influencer is on the same page in terms of the brand, goals and aspirations. Oftentimes, one person may have undue influence that is different from the others, who may be reluctant to make this known. Then, and I recommend using an outside mediator, these different viewpoints must be surfaced, addressed and resolved into a singular point of view that is not only agreed upon, but believed and supported. Unity really is strength.
Once the internal perspective is clarified, you need to learn if it is aligned with your target market’s wants, needs and perceptions. You want to learn if how you’re positioning your brand is both desired and believable. This can be done fairly easily and inexpensively with online research tools such as survey monkey.
If you learn your internal position is not aligned with what your customer wants, you need to take a good, hard look at your offering and consider how to make it more appealing to them. In the end, aligning the internal vision to the customer wants and needs helps ensure a solid foundation for brand success.
4. Be Consistent at Each Contact Point, Every Time
A brand is all about cues, which are the signals it sends every time a consumer comes in contact with it, wherever that might be. I’ve learned that people are in a continual process of reading what your brand is saying about itself, from the logo, packaging and website, to the advertising, sales and promotional materials. Each time, they interpret the signal in a way that either confirms and deepens their existing brand perceptions, or makes them question if and how the brand is changing and what it now stands for.
I was once worked with Saul Bass, the graphic designer many credit with founding the corporate identity industry. Whenever we had a new client — and they were often global or multi-divisional – we’d hold the first meeting in a large hall. On over-sized boards arrayed throughout the room, we’d display every logo, piece of stationery, ad, promotional material and signage of the company, from every country, from every division.
Almost without fail, the client would wander around the room, open-mouthed, stunned at all the different, conflicting and sometimes contradictory looks of his company. And we’d simply ask: what is your company trying to convey about itself, and is it working?
So regardless of what stage your company or product is in, always review what message each brand contact point communicates to the viewer, whether consumer, distributor or vendor, and ask yourself if (a) there’s a singular message being communicated each time, and (b) are they working synergistically or not with each other? Remember, it’s the consistency of message, look and feel that is the hallmark of the most successful brands.
5. Establish an Emotional Connection
I’ve said this before and promise it’s true: while the brain may explain a purchase rationally, it’s the heart that controls the wallet. It’s a circular effect: when customers feel emotionally positive about a brand, they intuitively trust it, and trust is the reason brands exist.
So beyond determining the features and benefits your product delivers, it’s essential that you clarify how you want people to feel about you. The emotional connection is that link to your consumer that endears your brand to them, and overcomes short-term problems or hiccups that may derail other companies. Brands that are built in the heart are the ones that endure.
The emotional connection can be inherent in the product itself, or felt by how you look or communicate with your audience. Another increasingly important way to achieve it is what you do as a company that reveals the way you conduct business, or your set of values and what you consider to be of true importance in life. In truth, it should be more than selling something to make a profit.
For example, are you contributing a portion of your sales to those causes that help people know what you stand for? Do you hire personnel or select vendors in a way that raises the quality of living for them and helps ensure better lives?
Every action you take, and every word you speak, should go towards deepening and enriching the emotional connection between your brand and your customers. And that is about much more than simply selling a brand, but helping define and create the type of world that you and your customers believe in.