Every Nevada company, whether a one-man operation or a large corporation, has a brand. The difference is some businesses have defined and continually reinforce theirs whereas others haven’t and don’t.
“You’re brand is a living, breathing thing that you work on every day,” said Dave Kirvin, partner at Las Vegas-based Kirvin Doak Communications, which specializes in public relations and marketing.
The Brand Concept
Your company’s brand is the relationship your customers, other consumers and the general public have with your business and your products or services.
“It’s a collection of ideas, expectations and beliefs about you as a company. You can describe and define it but can’t pick it up and hold it,” said Randy Snow, chief strategic officer and partner at R&R Partners, an advertising, marketing, public relations, and public affairs firm with offices in Las Vegas, Reno and three other U.S. cities.
Just as you have perceptions about companies—what you think and believe about, say, Apple or your local dry cleaner—others have ideas about your business.
“Your customers and the general public think something about you,” he said. It’s not just companies; people (think Kim Kardashian), countries (think North Korea), political parties (think GOP) and nonprofit organizations (think MADD) are brands, too.
Anything done, said or delivered by anyone in or on behalf of your company represents your brand. That long list includes how your employees treat customers, how you deliver service, what your employees wear, the quality of your product, how your office appears and what your staff members post on Facebook.
Visual representations of your brand include your logo, color scheme and mascot—the sign-waving person on the street corner dressed as Lady Liberty represents the brand of Liberty Tax Service. Verbal ones are your tagline or the attributes you use to describe yourself, such as Renown Health’s “Skill. Expertise. Technology.” These cues help people identify your brand.
“They spark and ignite all of their thoughts about the brand,” said Flip Wright, vice president of strategy and innovation at The Glenn Group, a marketing, advertising and public relations company with Reno and Las Vegas offices.
Bevy of Benefits
A consistent, solid brand can let your audience and potential customers know what your company is about and what it deems important. It can assign a positive image to your business. It can reaffirm why they should choose your organization when faced with options. It can help people perceive the value of a new product or service immediately. If a brand you like and trust releases a new product, you’re more open to it than a similar item launched by a company you’re not familiar with, or worse, don’t like.
“Really you want your brand to result in favorable awareness and sales,” said Paula Yakubic, managing partner of MassMedia Corporate Communications, an advertising, marketing and public relations firm with Las Vegas and Reno offices. Having a good brand has never been more important, Kirvin said, simply because of how many choices people have today in everything from the type of gum they chew to the hair salon or barber they use. People tend to choose what they know, the brand they trust, because it’s usually comfortable and safe.
Because of the competition, it’s also more crucial than ever to be proactive in reinforcing your brand. Before you can do that, though, you must define it.
Defining Your Brand
The best time to define your brand is before you open your doors. If that’s already happened, you still can do it, at any time (sooner is better than later).
“The danger is, if you don’t do it, you could be in a position of letting outside forces dictate who you are,” Kirvin said. “You might be put into a position where you have to compete based on cost not quality or where your competition is dictating what your brand is. That’s hard to come back from.”
To determine the vision for your brand, ask you and your co-leaders these questions: What do we want our company to be? What do we want it to stand for? Why does our company matter? Why would anyone care what we do? How are we different? How are we better than the competition? What are our core values? What actions will support those values?
“You’re looking to find white space where your brand can live, be different, be true to who you are, matter to your consumer and be what they want,” Wright said.
If you’ve already been in business a while, you must determine what others—customers, potential consumers and competitors—think of you, as that’s the brand that exists for your company. Do some research, both qualitative and quantitative, to find out. Maybe you send an electronic survey to your customers, conduct some focus groups or post a poll on Facebook. Do whatever’s necessary to get the feedback. Some of the questions to ask your customers are what it is they think you do, what products or services you provide, what they expect from your offerings in relation to your competitors, how they feel about your company, what you’re doing right and what you could do better and how.
You’ll either discover your existing brand is consistent with what you want it to be or not. If it’s not, you can work to transform it into your idea for it. When EMPLOYERS, a Reno-based company that used to offer only Workers’ Compensation insurance, wanted to better hone its brand, it determined it wanted to represent and help small businesses. So it worked to become “America’s small business insurance specialist,” which allowed it to expand its offerings to include additional insurance products.
Regardless of where your brand stands, you must reinforce it at all times. That requires you to share your brand vision with everyone who works for or on behalf of (subcontractors) your company. Everyone needs to understand, believe in and participate in delivering it. When MGM shifted its brand from “The City of Entertainment” to “Maximum Vegas,” it spent four months educating its staff about it and reiterating it internally before taking it public.
“Your communication has to be external to your customers and to the world, and it also has to be internal and to your own people,” Snow said. “You have to be tireless.”
Brand Reinforcement Vehicles
Your brand needs constant support. Nearly everything your company does affects it, so you must ensure, when possible, the impact always is positive.
“If Coca-Cola thought its brand was solidified and never had to be reinforced, it would never advertise,” said Kirvin.
Your business can reinforce its brand through touchpoints, every contact or experience people have with your organization. This could be a conversation with someone on the phone, the purchase of merchandise via your website, a face-to-face consultation about services, a press conference in which you field media questions, a conference call with your investors and more.
Other branding vehicles are advertising, marketing and public relations, a major component of which is social media.
“Social media is a tool to further your brand just like any other marketing communications tool,” said Stephanie Kruse, partner with KPS/3, a Reno-based marketing agency.
If you take advantage of social media, you want to engage your audience in such a way they’ll talk about your brand the way you want them to.
“Engagement is the word of the day in terms of social media,” she said. “It’s not just blurting at them and making them aware. It’s really trying to make sure you engage them in some way so they don’t feel like they’re being talked at.”
Some ways to do so are through a “resource-rich, information-packed, intriguing blog,” Kruse said, video, imagery or testimonials—all of which are accompanied by the invitation for them to share their thoughts. “Edible Reno-Tahoe,” a Reno-based food magazine, uses social media well to reinforce its brand, Kruse said, with lots of information, recipe sharing, imagery and reviews.
An advantage to social media is it can afford you third-party credibility, the voice of consumers, for example, who review your products or services on platforms like Yelp and TripAdvisor and tell others about them.
The downside, though, is you can’t ultimately control how those conversations evolve and what people write about your company.
It’s best to have methods like Google Alerts in place to track what’s being said about your company. Listen to the ongoing conversations. If someone is bragging about your brand, engage them. If, on the other hand, someone is ranting about it, it may be best to leave it alone. Yet, objectively evaluate whether there’s validity to what they’re saying and, if so, take steps to improve whatever it is.
“Always have people [internally] looking at media, advertising, Twitter and the blogs, honestly, daily,” Snow said. “It sounds like a lot of work, and it is.”
Your company may find itself in the middle of an external issue it has nothing to do with, like Skittles and the Trayvon Martin controversy earlier this year. How you respond to a situation like that, if you deem you should, must reflect your brand.
“You have to be ready for that on a daily basis,” Snow said.
Major Media Revolution
Today’s milieu for branding is radically different from that of 15 or more years ago. People used to get their information solely from television, magazines, newspaper and/or radio and the conversation was one way and passive, a company telling the public about its offerings. Now, the public actively seeks out information, retrieves it in many more ways, particularly through the Internet with news sites, corporate sites and types of social media networks, and can obtain it any time of day or night, oftentimes in real time.
“Now it’s a dialogue,” Snow said. “I as a company say something to you as a customer. You say something back, and you say something to other customers.”
Customer communications can be instantaneous and worldwide. The ubiquitous nature of cell phones containing cameras and video cameras also plays a role. The result is companies can feel the effects of negative brand recognition quickly.
“If I walk into a restaurant and there’s something bad on the floor, I can take a picture of it with my cellphone, post it on Facebook and share it with 800 of my friends,” Yakubic said.
Today, there are many more touchpoints than in the past. Where there used to be about five or six channels through which people could connect and interact with your company, now there are thousands, Wright said.
“A lot of the time, too, you’re not even necessarily in control of those touchpoints,” he added.
Damaging Your Brand
A major way your company can harm its brand is by not delivering on the promise you’ve set forth. If you’re known for your quality, putting out a shoddy item or providing a subpar service can mar your brand.
If you do something or make a decision that veers too far from how people have come to know your company, you risk confusing them and, ultimately, damaging your brand.
If your employees post something negative about your company or a boss, co-worker or, even worse, a customer, that can spread rapidly and harm your brand.
Similarly, if anyone communicating via social media for your company does it inappropriately or incorrectly, talking at rather than engaging the public or not really understanding the brand, they can bore and turn off people, causing them to stop paying attention.
A Few Tips
Do what you’ve shown and told the public you’ll do.
“Practice what you preach,” Wright said. “If your real reason for being is to provide the best customer service in the world, then you pretty much need to do it.”
Ensure all your actions and messages are consistent with your brand. Before you act or speak, as yourself: Does this seem like something our brand should do? Does this make sense considering what people think of us? Does our audience believe we have the expertise to do this? How have we positioned ourselves before this?
“Understand who you are, live that and never stop listening to your customers,” Snow said.
Implement and follow procedures for tracking and reassessing your branding efforts and implementing changes in areas that need improvement. MassMedia measures its branding monthly, Yakubic said, and its executives get together twice a year to ensure they’re continuing on the track they set out for themselves. In one of those reevaluation meetings, they saw a need to improve quality control. So they added three steps to ensure the ultimate quality of their outgoing work was impeccable.
What To Expect
Some phenomena related to branding likely to take place in the future include the burgeoning of user and consumer review-based platforms, like Chowhound and Amazon. Already these sites are growing in use and popularity.
“To be able to try to engage and encourage reviewers, I think, is going to be important for any brand to do and make sure they’re communicating with their customers to review,” Kruse said.
Expect more and more apps for the mobile platform that will allow consumers to connect with one another, compare and review products and services, and more.
The evolving technology will allow companies to continue to “slice their audience much, much thinner,” Snow said, to identify and target niche, or vertical, markets. Certain networks like Facebook and LinkedIn already are more segmentable.
“Even large mass marketers (Budweiser, Ford, etc.) are finding niches within niches and producing specific messages for specific products for specific markets,” he added.
Today, a brand transaction can occur within three seconds, allowing people to have quick gratification in a brand experience.
“It will exponentially continue to do that,” Wright said.
More ways will emerge to obtain data about your brand and then measure and analyze it for effectiveness.
How all of this will unfold and what it will look like down the line remain unclear. What is known, however, is this, which Kirvin highlighted:
“You’ll find very few successful companies without a positive brand identity.”