A GREAT BRAND CAN TRANSFORM A BUSINESS, BUT IT DOESN’T JUST HAPPEN. CHRIS BROGAN EXPLAINS TO OPEN'S ROSA SABATER HOW A FOCUSED BRANDING EFFORT CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE
This article was excerpted from OPEN Book: Branding, which provides tips and advice for building a Booming brand. Follow the evolution of a Cardmember brands featured in our new web series. Project RE:Brand in which small businesses undergo brand makeovers by design experts.
RS: At OPEN, we work with savvy entrepreneurs who are dedicated to building their businesses, but branding sometimes seems to be an elusive concept for many of them. Why do you think this might be?
CB: In the old days, as far back as the 1920s, advertising was seen as salesmanship in print, and branding was a judgment about the kind of tie the salesman wore. This perception lives on in some respects, and many small businesses overlook branding because they just see it as fluff on the way to marketing. In fact, branding is a crucial stepping-stone to successful marketing and sales, a story that people buy into along with what you’re selling.
I live in a very small town right now. Along its main street there are four or five coffee shops, all with their own version of branding. There’s one chain that can rest on its fame, but the rest have to compete by communicating why they’re different. Branding – the delivery of a promise – is critical to their success, because it creates a common cause with customers, an alliance they can get behind and a relationship that they will be loyal towards. Done right, this greatly eases the job of selling, but often it’s something people think they’ll put away until after they’re making money, which means more expense as well as missed opportunities. But it can be simple: There’s a great example of a haircutting place I visited, aimed at men, that offered a bar, massage, a sauna and so on as well. It became a social hub, commanding a huge premium over its competition, and it continues to grow successfully because it offers a distinctive, relevant experience. People spread the word.
RS: Is the kind of brand you build different if you’re a manufacturing business as opposed to a service business?
CB: It doesn’t have to be. In fact there can be a good deal of overlap to positive effect. Lots of services we want to buy can appear pretty homogenous – like a car wash, for instance. But if each part of the process is broken down – wash, wax, vacuum, pick up, drop off – almost into a series of mini-products – the way they’re communicated can be simplified and customized to directly address customer needs. And you can extend your menu at little extra cost, while communicating and pricing for a premium service. And it works vice versa too. Manufacturing can build a service story around the products it sells. You see it a lot in IT, with relentless, passionate customer service supporting successful sales: the service becomes a branded product. This concept isn’t new; it’s been around since the 1990s, but, particularly with the growth of the social web, we’re seeing it executed even in the smallest businesses.
RS: One of our Cardmember brands that I love to talk about is Happy Baby, which is making a name for itself as a leading brand of premium, organic baby food. What a great idea they had, to take a tried-and-true product like baby food and find a way to make it new. Does a successful brand always need to tap a new market or have innovation at its heart?
CB: Of course a brand needs to be distinctive, but quite often it can be just a turn of phrase that makes the difference. Look at how the iPod blew apart a very crowded market for portable music devices. It used to be about how many megabytes of storage people had, and no one even knew what that meant. Then they said “It fits a thousand songs”, and everyone got it.
There’s another example in some work I did for a client to help promote his webinar business. We came up with the term “workshifting,” specifically targeted at those businesses with a remote workforce: simple to understand and something readily ownable as a search term on Google, which let our client jump over everyone else who was trying to rank for words like “webinar,” or “remote desktop.” Making a new claim for something well known can be as effective as making a new invention: innovation can flow from language. Sometimes it’s about finding a new method for novelty, too. Look at artisanalpencilsharpening.com and you may think this is a joke. And then you realize that what may have started as a joke is now a profitable business. This person sells hand-sharpened pencils, nothing more, for $12.50, and you can see he’s selling tons of these to people who think it’s a novelty and are willing to spend the $12.50 once. He didn’t invent anything. He’s sharpening pencils. It’s a hundred-plus year old technology, but he invented an experience that made everybody feel it was a novelty and good fun. So a genuine new invention isn’t a necessity. Innovation in brand terms can equally be just about language or about inventing and communicating a novel experience of something familiar.
RS: One thing we’ve gleaned from this OPEN Book, as well as our Project RE:Brand webisode series on OPEN Forum, is that branding forces you to be very clear about your purpose. Do you think it was always like that? How has the notion of branding changed over time?
CB: Well, the term “brand” actually came about in reference to branding cattle, to designate ownership, a label of sorts, so you can see just how far the term has come. Hundreds of years ago the sign and the experience went hand in hand. If you saw a picture of the “Bull and Boar” outside an inn, it would be tied to an understanding of the quality of what you would get inside, and an expectation of consistency would grow up around it. Branding is a technology, meaning that it’s a set of ideas that allow us to anticipate a repeat experience. But I think we became lazy, and in the twentieth century began to behave as if it was all about the logo rather than about the effort it takes to deliver the promise. And that’s where the opportunity for small businesses lies, if they are willing to pay attention.
RS: OPEN has a strong social media platform to help us communicate with our customers, and we offer guidance to small businesses about how they can promote themselves as well. What opportunities do you see for small businesses as a result of the expansion in communication channels available today via the internet?
CB: The internet creates much more transparency between what you say and what you do, and as a result two things have happened. One is that big isn’t the only beautiful. Small business can utilize brands with an impact on their audiences every bit as motivating and effective as giant companies. Second is the phenomenon of the personal brand – a media brand of one identity that flows in and out of organizations, building mutual credibility by association. So if you’re a small business that has a popular blogger talking about your company, suddenly you have something that other people don’t have, because they’re just placing ads in the local press. It can be very compelling.
For example, Brian Simpson works as the Social Media Director at the Roger Smith Hotel, a very small boutique hotel in New York. Brian started out as a manager in food and beverages, but the strength of what he wrote brought more value to the hotel than its own branding. If he left and went to a large hotel chain, then suddenly people would take interest in that hotel and what they were thinking, because Brian’s own brand carries his past with it.
RS: The low entry cost of social media is obviously attractive to small businesses, but many are still reluctant to use it. Is it something you believe they should all engage in?
CB: I read a study recently showing that 93 percent of people aged between 18 and 50 have an opt-in engagement with at least one brand for a daily e-mail. Meanwhile 81 percent of entrepreneurs in very small businesses have no social media presence – and nearly 40 percent don’t even have a website. Just 15 percent use Facebook, and only 4 percent use Twitter. There’s a huge opportunity here, particularly for small businesses. For instance, my friend Joe Sorge from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, launched AJ Bomber’s, a hamburger restaurant – a small, single location business. He used Twitter to staggering effect, bringing in more than 75 percent of his business that way, and expanding his fame onto The Travel Channel TV shows. But I’m not suggesting social media as a universal prescription: While these tools are ridiculously inexpensive moneywise, they’re not inexpensive timewise. If your company’s not ready or willing to have a two-way conversation, then it’s not time to use social media. Just blurting out your coupons all day on Twitter or Facebook will give you some lift, but it’s not brand building and won’t necessarily deliver a more loyal customer. Businesses who talk to would-be customers about their interests, as well as about the company, are the people who are seeing a huge response, and consequently a huge return. If you start conversations and people respond but then you don’t reply back, you will create negative perception. Similarly, if people are having a negative conversation about you and you don’t engage, then that tells them something, whether or not it’s true. Social media is valuable but not to be taken lightly, not least in terms of the investment of your time. But it can pay huge dividends.
RS: Once you know what your mission is, it’s easier to communicate your product against that mission. But many small business owners tend to get on with their businesses without thinking too much about their mission, or their brand. Can a good brand be built in hindsight?
CB: To anyone starting out now I’d say it’s definitely preferable to think about your brand and how you’ll choose to communicate it as you establish the business. But of course it’s never too late, and if you’re still in business you’ll almost certainly have a brand by default. But whatever stage you’re at, thinking about your brand and rationalizing it will give you some control over how you are perceived. In part, your brand is an insurance policy that keeps people believing in you even if something goes wrong. And with a well-considered, differentiated, relevant and consistently applied brand, you’ll be able to access the incredible multiplier effect it can bring to your business.