What’s Your Brand?

Your brand is your value proposition; it is what you are to your customers, the marketplace and your organization. When we think of Nike, one of the world’s top brands, most of us think “Just Do It”. Here are a few thoughts on defining and strengthening your company’s brand.

Gaining client or consumer perspective: Begin by understanding what your customers want and need. What matters to them? Don’t guess, ask them. Ask past customers and prospective customers. Pay attention on social media to what they are “liking” and commenting on, hold a couple of informal focus groups or conduct a survey. Once you understand your customers’ wants and needs, take a look at your position in the marketplace.

Gaining marketplace perspective: Make your value proposition distinct. You want your brand to be unique. Scope out your competition and determine how they position themselves. Is your company different in some meaningful way? If not, you have a problem.

Gaining an internal perspective: Consider why you love what you do, and what your vision is for your company. Ask your employees and management team what makes your product or service unique. Where and how do you create value that your competitors don’t? Talk to your sales team.  Where are you getting referrals?

Reconciliation: Compare the internal perspective with the external findings. Are they consistent? If not, you’ll need to rethink your brand, and how you communicate it to all parties.

This may just require some minor tweaks, or it may require major changes. In any case, a good step is to develop an internal document that defines your value proposition and how you will communicate that both within the company and to the marketplace.

Great brands: Great brands don’t just “happen”. They are built over years, or decades, through hard work and planning. Apple, Nike, Microsoft, McDonalds and Starbucks consistently come in at or near the top of most brand rankings. Each of these companies means something to their employees, their customers, and their competitors.

Starbucks has done an exceptional job at turning their brand into the quintessential coffee shop. Despite fluctuating wholesale coffee prices and increasing competition, they continue to raise their drink prices. And despite the trend toward “buying local”, Starbucks hasn’t experienced market loss to independent coffee shops. Priya Raghubir, branding expert and Professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, believes that fans of independent coffee shops are not converted Starbucks fans — they were never core Starbucks customers to begin with . “I think there’s a goal customer,” she said of Starbucks. “I think they value the convenience, they value the welcome, they value the fact that they can find the Starbucks anywhere … and offerings are uniform.” Those customers generally won’t be wooed away by another shop, even one claiming to offer a superior product.

Not so great brands: On the other end of the spectrum is Sears. Sears was once one of the greatest brands in retail history. Today, they are a mess. Edward Lampert’s arrogance and refusal to follow the advice of numerous retail experts has played a huge role in the decline and fall of Sears. Sears’ many mistakes over the past few years could easily fill a few books. They include inconsistent advertising and messaging, poor store design and product placements within stores, under-staffing, lack of attention to customer service, confusing partnerships (Land’s End, Martha Stewart, Kardashians, etc.), and more. Today, almost no one knows what Sears stands for. It is a sad, sad story.

Just do it

I am always amazed when I encounter small business owners who don’t seem to have given any thought to their brand. They think branding is too expensive: only big firms worry about their brand. But nothing could be further from the truth. If you neglect your brand, your business will never go anywhere. As a small business owner, you don’t (and can’t) spend millions of dollars on branding. But that is not an excuse. You can improve your value proposition. You can improve consistency. You can improve communications. And many of these things can be done on a very modest budget.

Your brand IS your business. Take care of it.

About Andrew Clarke

Andrew Clarke is President of Ground Floor Partners. Over the past twenty years he has advised hundreds of small businesses on strategy, marketing, real estate and finance. He is passionate about small business, social and environmental justice, and is a proud member of the American Sustainable Business Council, Food and Water Watch, Green America, Food Consultants Group, and the American Planning Association.

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