Small Business

A Practical Guide to Branding


Define your brand identity—your product's "personality"—before you spend a dime on advertising or marketing

Talk to entrepreneurs about their marketing and communications efforts, and they'll often use the words "branding," "marketing," and "advertising" interchangeably. That reflects the pervasive confusion about the terms, says Gail Guge, managing partner of Wilkin Guge Marketing in Ontario, Calif.. "About 15 years ago, 'branding' became a buzzword in the business vernacular, and people still get the words mixed up all the time," she says.

That confusion is unfortunate, because understanding the concepts and how they mesh is vital to every company's bottom line. Studies show companies that market their products or services without first establishing their brand identities are not likely to achieve return on investment. "If you're spending money to advertise and market without being connected to a brand position, you might as well pile the money up and burn it," Guge says.

Rob Frankel, a branding expert and author in Los Angeles, calls branding the most misunderstood concept in all of marketing, even among professionals. Branding, he says, "is not advertising and it's not marketing or PR. Branding happens before all of those: First you create the brand, then you raise awareness of it."

Your Brand is Your Personality

And while many people think successful branding is only about awareness, it's not, Frankel adds. "Everyone knows about cancer but how many people actually want it? Branding is about getting your prospects to perceive you as the only solution to their problem. Once you're perceived as 'the only,' there's no place else to shop. Which means your customers gladly pay a premium for your brand."

Your product or service is not your company's brand and neither is your logo or your business card. Your brand is the genuine "personality" of your company. "It's what your customers think of you and say about you when they've left your company," says Rodger Roeser, president of Cincinnati-based Eisen Management Group, a public-relations and brand-development firm.

Your brand is what your company stands for and what it is known for. "Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what you stand for. Go around the room with your leadership and ask them what the company stands for. Settle on one or two brand pillars and build your brand around them. If you can't define your brand, your customers won't be able to, either. And the risk is that someone else will define it for you—probably your competitors," Roeser says.

The Promise You Make to the World

Steve Cecil, a copywriter and verbal-branding expert with Where Words in San Carlos, Calif., says a brand is a promise and branding is the act of devising the promise your company makes to the world. Marketing, he says, "is the strategy that differentiates your brand promise from all the other brand promises in that increasingly crowded house called "your category."

Think of marketing like a toolbox containing branding, advertising, direct mail, market research, public relations, and other tools. "Marketing represents the combination of methods organizations use to persuade their target audience toward some specified behavior such as sales," says Stephen Rapier, of Glendale (Calif.)-based The Artime Group.

Advertising, Rapier says, can take many forms: print, as in newspaper and magazine ads; outdoor, such as billboards; online Web banners; and broadcast advertising on radio and TV. "Typically, the goal of advertising is to grab attention, create positive perceptions, and prompt response while conveying information consumers will find relevant to their needs," he notes.

Your Brand Is a Lifestyle

A successful marketing strategy uses all—or most—of the tools in the box depending on the job at hand, Cecil says. "Crafting a winning marketing strategy is challenging enough even when you have articulated your brand promise and is probably impossible if you haven't."

If you have not specified your company's brand, don't spend another dime on marketing until you do. While everyone's familiar with megabrands such as Apple (AAPL), Nike (NKE), and Virgin, small companies can also develop potent brands and market them successfully, says Steve Manning, managing director at Igor, a branding and naming firm based in San Francisco.

"A brand creates an image in the mind of the consumer. It says something is different at your firm, something worth more than business as usual. If your firm is a commodity, your customers will choose you solely on the basis of price or getting something for free. If you've got a brand, you're selling a lifestyle and you can sell anything you want," Manning says.

More elements of this Special Report are available in the related items box on the upper right side of this page.

Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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