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5 Brand-Busting Mistakes to Avoid

Engaging in any one of these could sabotage your brand.

In my 25 years as a branding consultant, I've seen companies make major branding mistakes, some real doozies. One company wanted to tout itself as the most innovative, even though it spent zero dollars on research and development. Another acquired a well-respected competitor and then immediately changed its name, leaving millions of dollars worth of good will on the table. Those are obvious offenses. Many other companies make all-too-common--subtle yet avoidable--mistakes that sap the value right out of their brands. Here are five I would caution against.

Mistake No. 1:Equating branding with communications. Yes, branding includes communications. But if your branding strategy is all about messaging and advertising and nothing about business strategy or people, then you won't be able to deliver on your communications. If you have lousy customer service, telling people it's great will only drive customers away faster. But investing in training and infrastructure to improve service will enable you to market your great service and still look yourself in the mirror As more information about companies and products is available online, a great company and product are your brand's only defense.

Mistake No. 2:Branding on price. Don't do it. Basing your brand on your low price is a race to the bottom--and someone will always beat you there. Even if your prices are the same as your competitors' prices, you need to give clients compelling reasons beyond price to buy from you. The difference between the product offered by Morton Salt and a supermarket's house brand? Not much. The difference in pricing? Fourteen percent. That margin is due to how well Morton has built up the intangible parts of its brand. Establish trust with your customers, and you can breathe a lot easier when the newest competitor undercuts your price.

Mistake No. 3:Changing your promise. Like a dog sniffing at a fire hydrant, every time a new marketing vice president is brought into a company, there's a risk she'll try to change the brand, or put her mark on it. While your brand promise should be relevant and up-to-date, making a wholesale change from, say, being the educational leader to being the innovation leader will only confuse your market.

Are you ready to change your tagline or logo? Companies get tired of their own marketing way before the market does. (You live with it day in and day out. They see it only once in a while.) Remember when Jack in the Box killed its ping-pong-ball-headed CEO? Customer sentiment brought him back, but the company was smart enough to do so in a new, updated way. Whatever you do, don't let your visual brand identity and messaging force changes in your brand promise (see Mistake No. 1).

Mistake No. 4: Overpromising. The least expensive way to brand yourself is to have your customers do it for you. How do you get them to become evangelists? By underpromising and overdelivering. Fight the temptation to sound better than you are: Promise only what you can deliver, then do it to the nth degree. Are you the fastest? Then don't give customers a long voice-mail message to listen to before they can act. Are you the friendliest? Don't let your employees bad-mouth clients behind their backs. Are you the coolest? Then make sure your lobby looks awesome and has wow power.

Alongside this advice, I recommend that you focus your brand message--don't try to be all things to all people. Figure out the most compelling part of your promise and build that up, rather than try to communicate 10 different elements of your brand promise.

Mistake No. 5:Me-too branding. I can't tell you how many entrepreneurs have said, "If I only get x percent of the market, I'll be rich." You have to give consumers a compelling reason to give you their business to get that percentage. You can't expect to siphon off business from the market leader without a substantive reason. Don't try to be like other companies: Be yourself. There will be a subsegment of the market that likes what you do better than what the market leader does, and that's the percentage of the market you can skim off. Instead of emulating competitors, be different. If you're competing against Starbucks, zig when they zag. Make your d├ęcor unique, encourage customers to play board games, roast beans on site or have coffee-tasting parties. Get your own buzz on.

Steer clear of these mistakes, and you'll be well on your way to branding nirvana--being known for your compelling and differentiated value.

Lynn Parker is co-founder of Parker LePla, a brand strategy consulting firm in Seattle. She's also the author of The Reluctant Entrepreneur, and co-author of Integrated Branding and Brand Driven.

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