Building a Strong Brand

The following is a chapter from the book Pursuing Growth

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Branding is a term that all business owners come across but few truly understand. Branding in business is similar to branding on a ranch. You leave your mark on your customer’s mind.

What is a brand?

A brand is a reputation. This reputation is often represented by a name, term, symbol, or special design (or some combination of these elements) that is intended to identify a company or its product. The most effective way to accurately describe the strength of a brand is by the feeling you get when you see or hear all components of the company’s image truly represented within the brand. For example, McDonald’s has established a strong brand identity by evoking feelings representative of a fun and cost-effective family dining experience. The phrases, “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” and “I’m loving it!” have staying power because they invoke similar feelings of what McDonald’s represents.

The company’s personality can also be considered a brand. It is shaped by corporate culture and defines what a company stands for. This is essentially the company’s internal brand. Often, the branding effort starts internally because employee contact with customers greatly defines a company’s external reputation.

When developing marketing strategy, external and internal brands are inseparable and we must view them as two sides of the same coin.

Purpose of branding

A strong brand identity is an effective way to stand out from competitors. If you do your job right, potential customers will know what you have to offer and think of you when the time comes to make a purchase. Your product’s name may even become universally used. Take Kleenex as an example. The actual term for the product category is facial tissue, but nearly everyone refers to facial tissue by the most popular brand name on the market.

A successful brand can provide benefits such as enhanced brand loyalty or an ability to charge a price premium. Owner-managed companies often find that they have built a strong following of customers who receive tremendous value from a company they have come to trust.

Defining your brand

Branding is the action of portraying the image you believe will attract your target market. When defining what your brand should be, consider why your customers purchase from you. Doing so is much more complex than it first appears. The trick is to clearly define what is important to your customers and then build your competitive advantage around meeting those needs more effectively than the competition does.

Once you have defined and established your competitive advantage, it should then be communicated through an appropriate message and tone and reinforced in all contact with the target market. For example, McDonald’s communicates its fun family atmosphere and fast, affordable food in everything from advertisements and layout of the store to the company’s pricing strategy.

How do I build a strong brand? 

When branding a company, product, or service, consider all elements that will influence the customer’s buying experience. Strategic marketing decisions such as the prices you set, your product attributes, and even where you choose to sell your products can have a direct impact on a customer’s opinion.

Brands are built largely through personal experience rather than promotions, because customers tend to trust their own experiences more than advertising.

Therefore, a significant component of your marketing strategy should relate to customer experience. You may be justified spending your marketing budget within your own company to help “live the brand.”

There is no doubt that advertising often influences the formation of a brand, but it can also play a role in sustaining the brand over time. This type of advertising is usually broad, image-based advertising. Walmart, for example, advertises everyday low prices instead of weekly specials.

When making advertising decisions, carefully consider how people will view your company. Imagine if BMW were to show a 16-year-old driver with green hair and a nose ring in a TV ad. This would not fit with the image of a typical BMW owner and could cause current BMW owners some concern that their status symbol is in jeopardy. BMW targets high-income adults and must reinforce this with every experience their customers have with the company.

Although it can take years to successfully build a brand, it can be easily destroyed. If Walmart suddenly started to sell high-end premium-priced furniture, its loyal customers would become confused and perhaps think that everyday low prices may not apply to everything in the store. Strategic marketing decisions such as price and advertising message are almost always interconnected.

Know your customer

The more you know about your customers, the more effective you will be at making marketing decisions. Who are you trying to attract as a customer, and what is important to that person? These questions are fundamental to your marketing effort whether you are selling industrial equipment to Brazil or cutlery in a mall retail store.

Why do these people buy? What is motivating them to purchase? Once you know the few key factors that influence purchase decisions, you can build those traits into your brand.

Knowing why customers buy has implications for companies planning to target new segments. If you plan to attract a new type of customer, should you adjust your brand image to include traits that are important to the new market segment? Ideally, yes. But practically this may not be possible. Honda faced this problem when launching a line of luxury vehicles in North America.

The Honda name was well respected as an economy car and likely would not be suitable in the luxury segment. The solution was to launch an entirely new brand under the name Acura. Most Acura owners realize they are driving a Honda product, but the fact it’s an Acura adds some credibility to the vehicle as a luxury car.

Know what is important

Define what your brand should mean to the customer. Again, it seems like a simple step but few business owners have a clear understanding of what they want their customers to know about their company. A company or product’s brand should emphasize a few key traits. Sure, you can emphasize many traits that might be valuable over time (e.g., quick delivery, competitive price, or great service) but a select few will truly differentiate you from the competition and will also be valuable to the customer.

Remember, different people view brands in different ways. Too often, marketers speak about their brand as if all customers in one market segment are clones. Every person walking down the street has been influenced in different ways. Some people have had good experiences with your company, and others have not. Some have seen your advertising and others have heard of your business only through word of mouth. Keep an open mind when trying to understand how the market views your brand.