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How to get people to connect with your brand

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 The power of branding is a powerful tool for your business

A few years ago, Rob Frankel was working with a venture capital company that was dying on the vine.

The company had created a product that allowed companies to contain their Internet signal to their building rather than extending outward where others could use it for free. When Frankel, founder of branding companies i-legions and PeerMailing, met with the company’s leaders, the business was losing money and was unable to sell its product.

“It had a horrible name: Blackstorm Technologies,” Frankel says. “I changed the name to Airespace, and when I presented it to the client, they asked about the ‘e,’ which was exactly what I wanted them to do. I told them the ‘e’ was because they are the only product and service that provides enterprise-level security. The media picked up on that, and 20 months later, they were sold to Cisco for $500 million.”

Branding can be as simple as choosing a name that garners awareness and places your product or service in the customer’s mind. This is a critical component of a business and can often determine its success or failure.

“Try to remember the last time you bought something and weren’t aware of the brand or watched a movie that didn’t have a name,” says Kiran Mohan, director of marketing for Mindtree, an Indian global IT solutions company that went through a rebranding process about a year ago. “Today, there is so much information that we didn’t have 25, 20 or even 15 years ago. But the brand is not just the name of the company or the product, although that is certainly part of it. People buy a brand because they connect with it. And that’s the fundamental of branding.”

Branding basics

Everyone has a different definition of branding, Frankel says. Some people describe it as an identity, awareness, culture or feeling. However, Frankel defines it in the true business sense.

“Branding is getting your prospects to perceive you as the only solution to their problem,” he says. “If you’re perceived as the only solution, price goes out the window because you’re the only game in town and your customers will pay the price you demand. That’s how a brand makes a business more profitable.”

Branding is important because it creates repeat customers, builds trust and grows your customer base, says Laurie Morse-Dell, who works for the Center for Technology & Business in Bismarck, N.D., providing business development and counseling services for the North Dakota Women’s Business Center and coordinating the North Dakota Young Professionals Network.

“A good brand creates repeat customers,” she says. “Customers are creatures of habit and don’t like to be surprised. They want to know what they’re getting into when they go into a business. It’s one of the reasons that chains do so well — people know what to expect.

“A good brand also builds trust with your audience. When you build a brand that speaks to what your target audience wants, they believe they will get the experience they want when they do business with you. If they don’t believe their experience matches the brand message, they probably won’t return.”

A good brand should also take every opportunity to influence how its target audience thinks about it, says Scott Scaggs, creative director at Clean Design, an advertising and branding agency in Raleigh, N.C.

“Your brand lives in the customer’s mind,” he says. “It will exist whether you manage it or not. So why not do it right and guide it in a way that you can affect what the perception is?”

Building your brand

When creating a brand, think through what is true about your company and what is true about your target audience, Scaggs says. This intersection is where your message needs to live.

From there, you need to determine your brand’s voice, which includes its character or personality and what it communicates to your customers.

“We have brand discovery workshops designed to figure that out,” Scaggs says. “We go through descriptor words to help capture the right tone and personality of the brand, and the idea is to go beyond the obvious choices. Everybody says they want their brand to be bold or confident, but it needs to be more interesting than that.

“We have decks of cards with descriptor words and conduct an exercise where we eliminate the ones that don’t belong. What you’re left with, in most cases, is a more interesting set of words to describe the brand.”

One of the questions Morse-Dell often asks clients as she’s helping them develop a brand is, “If your business was a person, what would its personality be?” She also asks what types of clothes it would wear, how it would speak, what it would look like and who its friends would be.

“These are all ways to help determine a characterization of your business, which helps in brand development,” she says. “When you take these traits and start applying them to the personality of your company in everything from advertising to the way employees answer the phone, you’ll develop a strong brand.”

However, choose your descriptors carefully because your claims need to be defensible to resonate with customers, Frankel says.

“One of the biggest mistakes I see is people making claims that can be made by anybody, such as the largest, the cheapest or the best,” he says. “It is better to find a concrete, defensible claim that has legs and can last for generations. A good brand accumulates more value over time and includes attributes no other brand can co-opt.”

Frankel recommends hiring a brand strategist who can evaluate your brand from an outside perspective and create a clear and concise strategy. Too many people skip over creating the strategy and go straight to raising awareness, which almost always fails, he says.

“Ten to 15 years ago, British Petroleum commissioned a major branding agency to redo its brand,” he says. “All it ended up doing was changing the name from British Petroleum to BP and coming up with a yellow and green sunflower, and they were paid millions. But there was no strategy for the change, and to this day, people still refer to the company as British Petroleum, even though it is now supposed to mean Beyond Petroleum. It didn’t take and only served to confuse customers.”

A brand should also focus not only on the present but on the future, Mohan says.

“The common pitfall is that a company thinks about yesterday and feels it needs to make a change for today,” he says. “But today is too late. The best way to look at branding is to determine what you want your branding to say in the years ahead, which depends on your company and its market. If you create for the future, you have a good possibility of being successful.”

In addition, a brand needs to be authentic, clearly demonstrating the message it seeks to portray, Morse-Dell says.

“For instance, if a company wants to portray itself as eco-friendly, but its branding is bright neon colors and it has flashing fluorescent signs on the building, it probably isn’t going to be seen as very authentic,” she says. “Your branding should be a natural extension of your company’s values and core beliefs.”

Growing your company while maintaining your brand

Maintaining your brand is all about staying true to its inherent promise, Mohan says. Especially today, customers want the answer to one simple question: “What’s in it for me?”

“If you have a promise that is relevant to the customer, the brand will be successful and memorable in the customer’s mind,” Mohan says. “The ability of any company to stick to its promise and turn it into an executable deliverable for the customer is the best way to both build and maintain a brand. It’s all about making a solid promise and having consistent messaging, then delivering on that promise.”

During times of growth and expansion, it is critical that you not lose site of your original branding strategy, Frankel says.

“An excellent example is Disney,” Frankel says. “Michael Eisner decided Disney was a cash cow and thinned the brand out to the point where the quality and the standards were low. Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew, launched a fight to kick Eisner out because he saw the theme parks and the merchandise were shoddy. He understood the brand, while Eisner did not. He knew it was about family and magic, not the money.”

Consistency is also key when growing and maintaining a brand, Scaggs says. The brand doesn’t need to be static and can certainly adapt over time, but the customer needs to be able to identify with its core and what it stands for.

“Over the past century, the idea of branding and what is important has changed,” he says. “Many decades ago, it was enough to say what a brand does. Then it evolved in the ’50s and ’60s into advertising that talks about how the brand makes you feel. That lasted into the digital realm of communication.

“Now a brand has to interact with its customers, who demand more depth and facets. You can no longer take a single message and beat your audience over the head with it. A brand needs to be more well rounded and have a defined personality.”

While social media is a big part of customer interaction, it’s also about the brand experience, including how you interact with customers who walk through your door. Interaction encompasses everything from the way your company operates down to the smell of the store when the customer walks in, Scaggs says, as every detail has a chance to influence how the customer regards the brand.

Rebranding

Despite the importance of consistency, if your company has changed significantly, it may be time to rebrand. However, if the changes to the company are minor, avoid tweaking a brand just for the sake of change, as customers can become confused about the reason behind the change and what it means for your company, Mohan says.

“We have large aspirations to be a truly global company and continue to grow,” he says of the Indian company Mindtree. “We realized the brand that helped us the last 12 years was not the brand that would allow us to take the next 20 years head on. So we came up with a new brand that focuses more on our differentiated approach to sophisticated global customers while also appealing to younger audiences that form the global talent pool of the future.”

In the end, a strong brand attracts a loyal following, allowing a company to grow.

“If you build your brand properly, you can say, ‘From the folks that brought you Product A, here is Product B.’ And you’re done,” he says. “Or you can acquire weak or underperforming entities and rebadge them with your brand, and they will turn around in a heartbeat. That’s because your customers accept and are loyal to your brand.”

A strong brand will also help grow your customer base, Morse-Dell says.

“When you develop a strong brand that creates an experience for the customer and has something catchy or memorable, like a fun jingle or great customer service, you’ll create buzz about your business,” she says. “Your current customers will want to tell their friends, and soon, word will spread and your brand will be recognizable to more than just your immediate client base — think viral.”

Frankel agrees, saying the right branding strategy will decrease your customer acquisition and advertising costs as your return on investment and customer satisfaction increase.

“If somebody walks into a store with their buddy to buy a can of hairspray, and their buddy asks why he’s buying that hairspray when it’s 30 percent more expensive, the customer will say, ‘I know the other brand is cheaper, but I use this brand, and here’s why.’ That’s how branding works.”