How many times have you eaten at a diner that's "famous" for their pie? And how many times has the pie been mediocre? "We're famous for our pie" is a brand statement – and it's easy as pie to proclaim it. Living up to that promise is another story.
Your own brand isn't necessarily what you want it to be; instead, it's the sum of all the ways your customers experience your company. And what consumers think of your brand may be very different from the message you're putting out there.
At the most basic level, your brand isn't the work you do, but it is how you do it. If you're putting out limp pastry, that's your brand: soggy pie.
You may have agonized over your company name and obsessed about your logo. Now, you need to live your brand, every day.
"The brand becomes the anchor identifying what you are promising to be with people. There's a whole set of what look like little things that amount to something enormous when it's done right," says to Mark Stevens, CEO of management and marketing firm MSCO, and author of Your Marketing Sucks and The Macmillan Small Business Handbook.
The design of your office, retail space or reception area says something about your brand, as does your voicemail announcement and the way you answer the phone. The way you and your employees dress makes a brand statement; the music you play and sometimes even scent can contribute to branding.
"Your brand has to come through in all those different ways. If there's a discrepancy in how you think of your brand and what customers expect, that's a problem," says Lori Jo Vest, co-author of Who's Your Gladys? How to Turn Even the Most Difficult Customer into Your Biggest Fan.
Even the way you and your employees dress can support your brand, she says. For example, Vest is also managing director of television production studio Communicore Visual Communications. "We're a down-to-earth, B2B company, and our tag line is, 'Great work, sensible shoes,'" she says. "Our competitors across town target ad agencies, with producers who are more creative types. Over there, you'll see the blue hair, studs in the ear and nose rings. For their branding, it makes sense."
Clearly, the music you play in your office or store sets customers' expectations for their experience; even the music they hear when they call in and are put on old can reinforce the message. RMS Sound Studios, a Birmingham, Mich. audio production house Vest mentions in her book, produced a three-minute sound collage on the theme of waiting to not only entertain callers but also showcase their work.
But the most important part of your branding doesn't come from the design or your office, your fleet or your business card. It comes from the way you and your staff treat customers.
"Operationally, what you actually deliver and do as a company for the customer, whether that's on your website, in your store or working with your consultants, has to match the promise you made in the marketplace. It has to go more than skin deep," says Maria Ross, founder of branding and marketing consultancy Red Slice and author of Branding Basics for Small Business: How to Create an Irresistible Brand on Any Budget (Norlights Press 2010).
This doesn't mean you have to pull out PowerPoints or use a lot of marketing jargon. You can and should convey your company's brand in simple language, with plenty of examples. Remind employees that they are all brand ambassadors – and give them the resources to deliver.
Examples of companies that don't deliver on their branding are legion: A personal coach who lets walk-ins cool in the reception area without a personal greeting; the software company that claims customers are its most valuable asset but sends them into voicemail hell when they have a problem; and the general contractor who promises high-end work but is always late; all are giving consumers a mixed branding message.
You can fix such mismatches by training your employees and changing your operations, but it's just as important to be honest with yourself, Ross says. "You can't be all things to all people. What are the two or three things you're going to hang your brand on?"
For example, maybe your repair company's technicians are geniuses but they can be brusque with customers. Play up the genius angle. Perhaps the products you retail aren't so unusual, but you've created a truly inviting environment. Hang your brand on the experience of being in your store.
Whatever you can authentically deliver, deliver it the best way you can, Ross advises. "If your brand is 'cheap and disposable,' manufacture your products so they can be disposed of easily. There are market needs everywhere."
The bottom line: Your branding succeeds when what you actually do matches with the promise you're making to your customers.
Susan Kuchinskas has covered marketing and branding for Adweek, Business 2.0 and Mediapost. She writes about business, technology and culture from her home base in Berkeley, Calif.
Image credit: Phillie Casablanca