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How small outfits build their brands into household names
On Aug. 12, a group of 12 fans of the Web browser Mozilla Firefox, which competes with Microsoft's (MSFT) Internet Explorer, used two-by-fours and rope to hollow out a 30,000-square-foot impression of the brand's logo in an oat field outside of Salem, Ore. The handmade crop circle wasn't the first time Mozilla diehards had displayed their support for the brand publicly. In December, 2004, a group raised enough cash to buy a two-page ad in The New York Times to thank those who had contributed to the launch of the beloved browser.
But neither of these stunts was orchestrated by a PR firm or in-house marketing guru. What's more, the more than 10,000 programmers who are constantly tweaking the open-source coding and performing quality controls on the Firefox browser are volunteers, not employees. And the 60,000 Web sites that have linked to Mozilla's site to encourage people to download the browser receive no compensation.
It's this growing community that has allowed Mozilla, a small company with about 60 full-time employees, to compete with juggernauts like Microsoft. "One of our distinguishing characteristics is that we're a small organization competing on a large playing field," says Asa Dotzler, community coordinator for Mozilla. He says the company owes its success to its users and their "passion for Firefox."
The branding success of companies like Mozilla, Pom Wonderful, Craigslist, and others show that you don't have to be big for your brand to be big. By building a dedicated group of users or customers, small companies can create formidable brand power.
How do they do it? When it comes to brand building, many of the same rules apply across industries. Chief among them is a continual dialogue with customers. "We're an online bulletin board or classifieds site, but largely speaking, what you see is a summation of what users have asked for over the years," says Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, which boasts about 5 billion page views per month.
The other key to building a popular brand is having a product or service that defines its category. McIlhenny's Tabasco Sauce is a prime example. In 1868, when it launched the product, hot sauce wasn't a brand category—Tabasco created it. Now it's a booming business with more than 300 manufacturers (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/7/06, "Who Wants $300 Hot Sauce?"). "What makes these companies great is that there's a business there first, before there's a brand," says Martyn Tipping, president of brand consultancy Tipping Sprung, based in New York.
History shows that a great idea never made it without good management and skilled handling. "There are lots of good ideas that are poorly executed. It's more than a good idea; it's the execution of the brand you represent," says Scott Griffith, president and CEO of car-sharing service Zipcar. After opening its service in Boston, New York, and Washington, Griffith's company took two years to document and distill its "operating model and brand recipe" before expanding into Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago this year.
KEY BUILDING BLOCKS.
Even if a company's product or service isn't groundbreaking in itself, it's important to find a means of differentiation. Take Travelzoo (TZOO). The company has pushed the services of sites like Travelocity, Orbitz, and Expedia a step further by testing, then compiling the best travel deals from more than 500 advertisers.
Users click through to the provider's site when they spot a deal they like. Travelzoo, along with its newsletters, has 10 million subscribers, largely due to its quality control. The site's "About Travelzoo" page states: "Your confidence in the credibility of what we're offering you is the heart and soul of our business."
Patrick Hanlon, CEO of branding company Thinktopia and author of Primal Branding, says he's struck by the consistency in the model of what it takes to build a brand. In his book, Hanlon lays out seven assets, or "pieces of primal code," that go into making a great brand: a creation story, creed, icon, rituals, sacred words, dealing with nonbelievers, and a good leader.
Never underestimate the power of story, says Hanlon. Take Pom Wonderful: Its Web site includes an entire history of the company and the pomegranate itself. "All brands are a narrative; the story is what draws us in," says Hanlon.
Once customers are in, it's often a company's value system, or creed, that keeps them coming back. Zipcar has been careful to partner only with companies that jibe with its own brand.
So far, Zipcar has successfully cross-promoted with XM Satellite Radio (XMSR), Whole Foods Market (WFMI), and Ikea, but "couldn't imagine putting a Hyundai or a GM (GM) into our fleet, because they don't fit the values of our urban environment," says Griffith. He says the trust the company builds through disciplined partnerships is a big reason why one-third of all new Zipcar business is driven directly through word of mouth.
BIGGER THINGS TO COME.
Heavy.com is another small company that holds its own in street cred. Its viral videos and clips aimed at 18- to 34-year-old guys spread quickly among the 12.5 million users who visit the site each month.
For Heavy.com's staff, the most difficult task isn't trying to invent the next big thing but rather allowing users to communicate what they'd like the site to be. The result is continual reinvention. One of the latest additions is the "massive mating game," where users watch videos of women, then answer trivia questions about them. The grand prize? A "mac-daddy date in Vegas with one of the girls."
Aside from having great brands, all of these small companies have one thing in common: They probably won't be small for long. Growth among them has been prodigious. Zipcar, for instance, expects to double last year's revenues, going from $15 million to $30 million. And Heavy.com went from more than $5 million in revenue last year to an estimated $15 million to $20 million this year.
In the end, successful companies find what their particular customers want and the most creative ways to give it to them. "Imitation is the sincerest form of boredom—it's easy to rip off someone else's great idea," says Hanlon. "The main thing to be is to be different."
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