The Branding Invasion

It appeared as silently as the surprise attack of Pearl Harbor. Then, like an explosion, the buzz of “branding” hit our industry, and we’ve been bombarded by the self-appointed ambassadors of the message ever since.

We all willingly agree that it’s important and that building brand equity is a good thing, but no one ever really took the time to explain what a brand is and how you build it.  They talk a great game with the nuances of branding, but not the meaning – which should come first.

Well, we believe it’s a personal journey, discovering your brand. It is the worthy exercise of asking yourself important questions and looking objectively at your own answers.

Do you make and keep promises with your customers? Are you known in your market place for the unique attributes that make your company decidedly different and special?  Do customers believe you really will come through on your promises?

There has been a tremendous amount of hype the past several years across industries regarding the subject of branding, and the subject has rooted itself in our industry, too.  But what does it really mean?  What is a brand, and how do you strengthen it?  What impact will a strong brand have on your top and bottom line?

Just ask Starbucks and Harley Davidson.

In essence — and in my often controversial opinion — your brand is your promise.  It’s the culmination of the experiences and feelings your customers have when dealing with your company.

The brand arises organically

No advertising agency will ever tell you this, but the “brand” of companies arises organically from their business activities — their products, their business culture and their relationships with vendors and customers. It was not applied like some metaphysical bumper sticker, and it’s not something that just happens when you spend mountains of money advertising.  Sorry to disappoint you, fellow “branding experts.”

The key to branding is to ask yourself, “What do we want our customers to expect in dealing with our organization? What is our promise to them?”  Once you have the answer to that, ask “What do our customers currently come to expect in dealing with our organization?  Is there a variance between what we’d like them to expect and what they actually do expect?”  Note to self: if there is a gap, advertising won’t fix it, but it can make it worse.

Advertising is a tool — one of many — you can use to go public with your promise, but it’s not how you deliver on the brand.  Branding and advertising should really be considered two distinct and separate functions.  Branding is achieved solely by delivering on the promise of your organization.

Do you promise to be fast?  Convenient?  Irreverent and daring?  Maybe your promise is consistency or pride of workmanship.

Branding is the promise.  Delivering the promise is brand-building.  Brand equity is what you get when your promise and execution are inextricably connected and people have come to expect it.

Branding is not the color of your brochure, style of your logo or the message of your advertising.  These are tools to communicate your brand, not the brand itself.  That may sound simplistic, but many companies try to figure out what color the brochure should be before they even know what it’s supposed to do.  That’s why average response rates are so dismally low.  And we wonder why.

Starbucks has brand equity.  Nike has brand equity.  Jack in the Box had brand equity.  When it had that run of food-borne illness, it wrote a brand check it couldn’t cash and all of its positive brand equity was replaced with a new brand definition – Jack in the Box means unsafe food.

Which brings us to positioning (worthy of a whole book and probably done an injustice with just a mention in this article).

While you’re sifting through the promise of your organization, remember one critical factor that will impact your overall positioning…YOU ONLY SELL DIFFERENCES. These days “great food, great service, and fun atmosphere” are only the price of entry, not a differentiating idea.  What restaurant in the United States would say anything other than the great food bit?

Positioning is how you leverage your brand and uniqueness to achieve competitive advantage.  In marketing, you only sell differences, not similarities.  And if you’re really good, heed the word of the late Jerry Garcia, who said, “You do not merely want to be considered the best of the best, you want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”  Boy, now that’s positioning!

So take time to stop and ponder that last quote.  Do you believe it?  And while you’re considering your response, let me leave you with the names of a few companies brave enough to take a stand and own a unique position:

Starbucks – Now the fastest growing takeout operation in history, Starbucks started with a single store in 1971, opened the next one 16 years later, and now with over 6,000 units, they are one of the most recognizable brands in the United States.  Starbucks spends more money on training than advertising, and everyone on staff is a coffee expert.  It’s part of their brand, and delivering on it is exactly why they’re so successful.

Charlie Trotter’s – On the short list of independent restaurant operators with such wide spread recognition, Charlie Trotter had a unique promise that catapulted him to fame.  The menu changed every night  Trotter was there himself nearly every night.  My first visit there I wondered why there was no music and no art. Trotter’s philosophy was explained to me: if you want music, go to the opera; if you want art, go to the museum; if you want world class gourmet cuisine and 5 star service, you come to Charlie Trotter’s. They delivered on their promise that night and made it into my branding hall of fame list.

Harley Davidson – With a market capitalization that, as a percentage of sales, far exceeds those of most of the Fortune 500 list, Harley Davidson has a promise that is founded in the image.  As one Harley Davidson executive put it, “We sell the ability for a 43 year old accountant to dress in black leather, drive through towns, and have people be afraid of him.”  They’re one of the most successful and revered companies in the world today, and they’ve built their empire without reliance on advertising.  They’ve built Harley Davidson by making a promise and consistently delivering on it at every customer touchpoint.

What’s interesting is that these companies have revered brands without advertising.  They deliver on and build the brand with their daily interactions with customers, employees and stakeholders – not by blasting the airwaves.

They’re unique, they’re focused, they’re profitable, they’re the darlings of investors and they’re the envy of their competitors.

Being homogenous works if you’re milk, not if you’re a restaurant.

So does all of this just boil down to a heap of marketing jargon that does little to move your sales meter?  Well, you have to ask yourself to what degree you are effectively branding and positioning in your market place, and to what degree you are achieving consistent top line sales growth and customer satisfaction.

In the words of venerable industry consultant Jim Sullivan, “…you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.” This quote is poignant, and it applies to any failure you have ever experienced.  It does not, however, apply to successes.  In fact, past success can, in many cases, be the surest indicator of future failure.

Why is success often an indicator of future failure?

Well, ever notice how so many “men of the year” frequently turn out to be future profiles on “where are they now?”  Or how the companies that grace the covers of trade publications with force and fervency in one year, usually end up as roadkill for the closely following competitor the next year?  The reason is simple: organizations reach a plateau of comfortable success and then attempt to maintain their position by doing what has worked well for them in the past, but the formula no longer works.  Successful companies constantly reinvent themselves and make bold moves, at the risk of criticism that immediately proceeds.

The point of all of this is simply to get you to look at your own situation…

One thing is for certain, this article will not turn your branding efforts around and it will not magically make your sales better.  It can’t be done in 1,500 words or less.  The humble intent here is simply to start you asking yourself the important questions that need to be answered to more effectively market your business and grow your sales.  Lest we forget the sole purpose of marketing and branding in the first place – selling more stuff to more people more often for more money more profitably and efficiently.

Branding and positioning are more than marketing jargon, they are two powerful tools in growing sales and building sustainable companies.  But, as with any tool, you have to know how to use it.  Remember, branding is not advertising.  Your brand is your promise and delivering on that promise is brand building.  So, really think through it…what is your promise?  Are you delivering on it?  Do your customers, employees and stakeholders know your promise?  Is it being clearly communicated to them or is it locked away in someone’s head, absent from the daily operations?

Lots of questions, I know.  But then again, no one ever said that branding is easy.  If they did, it was probably someone selling advertising and trying to pass it as branding.  Don’t be fooled by these slippery types.  Bring in your team, a qualified facilitator, and get to the essence of your promise.  Also look very closely at your positioning and ask yourself if you are selling differences or touting something that is undistinguishable from competitors in the minds of your customers.

All of this starts with a desire to be more than you are today. If you want to become a more skilled competitor, a better partner, a fiercely dominant player, a more profitable entity, a more stimulating place to work, a legacy – you have to get your branding and positioning strategy down cold.It’s not easy, but it’s the foundation for achieving the levels of success and profitability you’ve always dreamed of reaching.