What differentiates similar companies, making one stand out from the pack? Why do potential clients choose one over the other for their services? The answer is in the brands. Branding, while second nature to some, remains a mystery to numerous other businesses. In fact, a common belief is that a company’s brand is its logo; this isn’t the case. So what exactly is a brand? What is branding, and what does it involve?
“A brand is a company’s personality, its unique essence, that ‘thing’ that allows consumers to create an emotional connection with a company and differentiate it from other companies, in their minds,” said B.C. LeDoux, president, creative director and partner of The Glenn Group, an advertising, interactive and public relations agency with its headquarters in Reno and a secondary office in Las Vegas.
A brand is a promise that a company will be, represent and do what it says it will. It’s the foundation upon which every idea, decision and action get tested.
“[A brand] resides in the hearts and minds of customers, employees and prospects. It’s the sum of their experiences and perceptions about what your company does,” said Kassi Belz, APR, president of MassMedia, an advertising, marketing and public relations firm headquartered in Henderson with offices in Reno, Irvine and Phoenix.
A brand is incredibly valuable, which businesses often don’t realize.
“If you take Coca-Cola and add up all of its assets—people, factories and recipes—and assign a dollar figure to it and put a dollar figure to its worldwide brand, I guarantee you the brand will be more valuable,” said Randy Snow, chief strategic officer of R&R Partners, a Las Vegas-headquartered advertising and communications firm with additional offices in Reno, Austin, Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C.
Branding is the ongoing process of intentionally positioning a company in a distinctive and favorable way in the minds, hearts and souls of your target audience(s). It’s critical in that it creates emotional and rational connections with them and, ultimately, drives sales.
“You want your brand position in your customers’ minds,” Snow added. “You want your promises to be front and center. You want people to feel a certain way about you. You want people to be loyal to you. You want them to hold you close. You have to help them along with that.”
Identifying the Brand
It’s best to start the work of branding before launching a company, experts say. But the process can begin any time, and the sooner it does, the better off a business will be.
The first steps involve research, which is crucial.
“A brand launch is a very unique and interesting process. You get one chance to do it correctly because you want to come out of the chute in position correctly against competition already in the marketplace,” said Stephanie Kruse, president and chief strategist of KPS|3, a Reno-based marketing, advertising, public relations and digital firm.
Research involves exploring and understanding staff, products/services (internal) and studying both the target audience(s) and competitors (external). For the internal, determine the who, what, why and how of a company, and identify what the business isn’t. Ask questions like: What does the company excel at? What is the vision for operations? Can employees champion the brand?
Figure out demographics, needs, beliefs and desires of a target audience. Focus groups and/or surveys may help. Gathering this information outside of the company is essential.
Analyze competitors in terms of their brands, offerings, product/service attributes, pricing, messaging and more to know what already exists in the marketplace. Where should the company’s brand fall relative to your competitors’?
Understanding the internal, consumer and competitive perspectives gives the tools to hone in on a brand position, or “the white space where a brand can make a claim of distinction and live uniquely in consumers’ minds,” LeDoux said.
It’s vital that a business ensure the brand promise is true in all aspects. Customers will learn and be vocal if it’s not.
“If the brand isn’t rooted in truth, nothing else after that matters all that much,” Snow said. “People will dismiss you. Brand is belief, which is why truth is the most important thing.”
Even businesses already operating that haven’t purposefully engaged in branding have a brand. It’s what customers think of and believe about the business and offerings. A relationship between the two exists, the problem is the lack of control over it. This can put the company in a perilous position to be in.
“It can be a gamble because then you’re standing for nothing and letting customers and competitors determine who you are. I don’t think there’s a business out there that wants to leave their fate to someone else,” said Dave Kirvin, co-partner with Bill Doak of Las Vegas-based Kirvin Doak Communications, a public relations and marketing company.
In most of these cases, it’s effective to start with the brand that exists and tweak or tend to it. But that, too, first requires research and doing the foundational work mentioned above to get on track with the desired brand direction.
“You really need to understand what your clients and customers think about your company already,” Belz advised.
Delivering the Brand
Once the brand has been debated, identified and decided upon, then what?
“You can’t just say you’re X brand,” Kruse said. “You have to be able to deliver it with the right staff, right manufacturing process, customer service, all of the things that allow you to deliver on your brand promise.”
The next step is to develop a brand platform, a document that specifies the brand’s position, purpose, mission, vision, attributes, pillars, unique selling points and value proposition. Then comes the difficult task of determining and establishing a branding budget.
“This platform becomes a North Star for creating a visual and verbal identity, experiential touch points and brand proof points that allow consumers to more easily understand and experience a brand and what makes it unique and valuable,” said LeDoux.
Next comes branding internally. The company must “drive the brand promise down into the operations of the company so that the brand is not an empty promise,” Kruse said. Communicate the brand to everyone internally—employees, decision makers, committee members, partners, directors, etc.—to get them on board and bought into the brand. Tell them how to incorporate the brand into their work daily. Consider creating a guide that specifies the pertinent dos and don’ts. For example, for individuals providing customer service via phone, detail what the brand voice should be and how they should respond to common customer questions, problems or statements.
Also, ensure the brand is reflected in corporate policies and procedures in terms of hiring, job descriptions, expectations, client interactions, compensation, performance reviews and the like. Have frequent conversations with employees about the company’s values and brand.
“Everyone has to know what the endgame is, what the ultimate goal is. You have to have a commitment,” said Darcy Neighbors, founder and CEO of CIM Marketing Partners and author of the book, “Marketing Fusion: 7 Elements to Ignite Your Growth.” CIM is a Las Vegas-based marketing, advertising and public relations firm that focuses on the professional services industry.
Next is creative implementation of the brand. This is where the logo and other such elements that portray the brand—tagline, color scheme, jingle and more—come into play. These are used to evoke the brand feeling in target audiences. Other external communications—marketing, social media, advertising and public relations—can help portray the brand and solidify its position.
A business’ employees, from the CEO to the janitor, should live and breathe the brand always, as brands can take time to develop and require regular support to take hold. A brand should be communicated in every aspect of operations, from staff interactions with clients and social media messages to customer service and print materials. All communication modes should be managed so the brand stays intact.
“You have to protect your brand, and you have to hold it above all else,” Kirvin said. “Sometimes that means making hard decisions. Sometimes that means saying no, in our case, parting ways with clients who don’t fit. Sometimes that means really recognizing who you are not.”
It helps to have someone internally who oversees the brand daily, monitoring and ensuring it’s being maintained and addressing any related issues.
Don’t Damage the Brand
“If there is an employee not living the brand or if someone tries to use or change your logo, that’s addressed immediately,” said Neighbors.
If a brand is not being routinely delivered upon, it can send mixed messages. This creates confusion in the minds of potential and current customers who could then run to a competitor. The saying goes, “a minute on the lips, forever on the hips.” Brands are damaged in much the same way; it can happen rapidly, much quicker than it took to establish it and can take a long time to repair, if it can be repaired at all.
“When people get away from a consistent brand, it becomes very diluted and not synchronized,” Neighbors added. “That’s when things fall apart.”
Ideally, an established, tried and tested brand is preferred before a crisis arises, which can range from a disgruntled patron to a defective product. Further, generally, avoid rebranding or modifying a brand mid-crisis, as it typically doesn’t work. Rare exceptions exist, of course, where it’s effective to, say, announce new management, new approaches and/or a new brand. Those cases tend to be successful when the existing brand is severely damaged or off-base.
How a crisis is handled can reveal the company’s brand, so stay true to it during that phase. Additionally, when in such a situation, ensure all employees have the key messaging points and know the story. Otherwise, dissemination of conflicting information could create a brand disaster on top of the original problem.
After a brand has been in place for a while, periodically measure its effectiveness to determine the brand is making the desired impact. Most often companies see positive results from a branding program pretty quickly. Analyze sales or other performance indicators or survey the public and/or customers to have an idea of how the brand is working. Learn if their awareness, attitudes and propensity to buy, with respect to company and products/services, has changed. If a brand isn’t achieving required objectives, simply adjust it.
“Most of the time it is working. [The organizations] are just not tracking it,” said Belz.
Brands are only as effective as the organization that is administering them. With the right planning and research at the beginning, implementation and follow-through a brand is one of the best and most tried-and-true methods of a company’s success.