When it comes to starting and growing a business, there's one kind of equity that can't be measured in dollars: brand equity. It has nothing to do with cash on hand, real estate, inventory or any other tangible assets, but it's more important for the health and sustainability of the enterprise than any of them. A strong personal brand that dovetails seamlessly with a business has the power to turn customers' perception into profits. This is most important for entrepreneurs who often start businesses with nothing more than an idea and a firm handshake.
Unfortunately, there's no single secret ingredient that makes one brand succeed over another. But Entrepreneur found several business owners who have managed to navigate the rough waters of personal and professional branding to emerge with winning concepts. Here are 10 essential branding lessons they've shared with us.
Gary Vaynerchuk - Wine Library TV
Lesson No. 1: You're Already Doing It
"I don't care what business you're in, everybody today is in the branding and customer service business. Whether you know it or not, you already are."
He's not your typical wine expert. Gary Vaynerchuk spent years reading wine magazines while working the cash register at his parents' liquor store. To further self-educate, he tasted obscure fruits, grass, dirt, rocks, tobacco and wood--all tastes associated with wine. Armed with these experiences and an entrepreneurial spirit, Gary rebranded his family's business as the Wine Library and established himself as resident expert. Within five years, he grew the business into a $45 million enterprise which further expanded to include Wine Library TV. Now Vaynerchuk is the go-to guy for millions of oenophiles through an active online forum, Twitter and Facebook. To share what he's learned about branding and entrepreneurship, Vaynerchuk's penned an enhanced e-book--a vook--called Crush It!, about turning a passion into a business.
Dan Schawbel - Millenial Branding
Lesson No. 2: Define Your Brand
"I had been marketing myself all along," says Schawbel. But things really clicked when he discovered his brand was personal branding. The rest--books, videos, speaking--he says, was easy.
Even though he was in middle school at the time, reading Tom Peters' The Brand Called You put Dan Schawbel firmly on the path to his future career as personal branding strategist to Generation Y. "In a global marketplace, the recruitment process forces everyone to be a networker, the internet forces everyone to be a marketer, and the economy forces everyone to be an expert." Unfortunately, he says, too many twentysomethings don't have a polished personal brand to help them succeed in such a competitive market. Though he's only 26, Schawbel has been honing his own brand for over a decade, and he's leveraged his experiences both as corporate denizen and entrepreneur to create Millennial Branding LLC. Now in the expert seat, Schawbel is still refining and reinforcing his brand, appearing in the news on a nearly daily basis.
Billie King - Bow Tie Cigars
Lesson No 3: Leverage Who You Are
"I injected my personality into as many aspects of my business as possible. This is evident from the cigar bands to the website design, to the all-inclusive packaging concept, and my moniker. Bow Tie Cigars is me, and I am Bow Tie Cigars."
Four years ago, Billie King decided he wanted to create his own brand of cigars and named them after his favorite accessory; and theÿFDBow Tie Cigar CompanyÿFDwas born. King's cigars are sold as all-inclusive packages, a niche he's developed in order to offer his customers the best value. Each Bow Tie cigar bears an identical bow-shaped band, but different blends are distinguished by individual band colors, something King says he learned in Psychology 101. "People remember two things: shape and color. You will always remember smoking a cigar with a blue bow tie label."
Sandy Grason - Sandy Grason Unlimited
Lesson No. 4: Be Authentic
"Something about sharing my entire being, putting myself out there in an imperfect, fun and unique way resonated with lots of other people. And it's a helluva lot more fun!"
Sandy Grason's ultimate dream was to become a published author. She not only reached her goal but went on to become a bestselling author and international speaker. Despite doing what she loved, Grason wasn't exactly raking in enough to make a living. So she tried different strategies to make the business profitable. "It worked, my business exploded, but a lot of the stuff I learned left me feeling slimy and inauthentic, and I wasn't having much fun, either." Grason switched again, this time to a more authentic track. Now the CEO of Sandy Grason Unlimited, a company dedicated to supporting women in creating an opulent lifestyle that feeds the soul, is using what feels right. Her success spreads across several programs that incorporate her trademark honesty and humor, including "Rock Star Marketing Secrets" and "The Fabulous Formula: Finding Your Mojo and Building Your Empire with B.A.L.L.S. and Fabulous Shoes."
Jill Donenfeld - The Dish's Dish
Lesson No. 5: You Must Buy Into Your Own Brand
"I am invested in the idea of respecting our bodies and treating them well," says Donenfeld, "And those leanings naturally come through in everything I do, especially within the brand. It's easy if you believe in it!"
Jill Donenfeld has always had a passion for food and cooking, and she's plied her culinary capabilities in such far-flung places as Vietnam, Sweden and Madagascar. But no matter where she is--or what she's cooking--Donenfeld insists on one thing: that her dishes are healthy. Beginning with a business plan just three days after college graduation, Donenfeld beganÿFDThe Dish's Dish, a brand "built around my mission to cultivate more conscious eating habits in a way that is completely effortless." To implement the mission, the company dispatches "CulinistasTM ", personal chefs who cook in clients' homes once a week and prepare a variety of healthful, nutritious meals made with fresh ingredients. Donenfeld says the most important part of the brand concept is flexibility. "It emphasizes progress, not perfection, making it really friendly--people can wrap their heads around my ideas, internalize them, and use them in a way that fits with their lives."
Jack Child - Black Dawg Sealcoat
Lesson No. 6: Find a Memorable Visual "Hook"
Put simply, says Child, the dog sells. "We've become the largest provider of our services in most of our markets in record time. Much of that success stems from simply being able to get in front of the customer and demonstrate the value of our services thanks to Olive."
When Jack Child was looking for a catchy name for his company, the answer was right under his feet--Olive, his black Labrador retriever. "We knew we liked the black dog--How couldn't we? She's our baby--but we had no idea how truly popular it would become with our customers." Naming the asphalt sealing company Black Dawg was a start, but Olive shows up on the side of their trucks, on the website, even on Twitter and Facebook. Says Child, "I had been in business less than a month and people were telling me they had seen my job signs everywhere. The company now franchises and has added other specialty segments, including Yellow Dawg (a parking lot striping affiliate) and Blue Dawg (a power washing affiliate).
Sarah Robinson - Escaping Mediocrity
Lesson No. 7: Simplify
Robinson initially fought against simplifying her brand's name to "Escaping Mediocrity" because changing midstream is supposed to be a communications no-no. But she did it anyway, and went so far as to move to a new URL. The result? "From the minute I fully embraced my core brand, my blog, my business--everything has just taken off."
Business strategy and life coach Sarah Robinson launched The Maverick Mom, a branded blog to serve the "mompreneur" marketplace in 2008. It didn't take long for the former actor and theater director to see that her readers were a broad and diverse group looking for help to stretch into new roles--even if they were unconventional ones. Her tagline, "Escaping mediocrity one adventure at a time," speaks to Robinson's larger vision of building this tribe of "like-minded adventurers who are ready to become extraordinary forces" in their personal and professional lives. Says Robinson, "Does this mean we have to go to far-off countries and slay giant dragons? It could. Or it could just mean transforming our little corner of this world into something amazing."
Carla Birnberg - MizFitOnline
Lesson No. 8: Look Inside to Grow on the Outside
Birnberg says she's been called a rational voice in an irrational industry. "I firmly believe that this is because my brand reminds people they are the experts of their own bodies." As with fitness, Birnberg encourages reading, researching and consulting with professionals in a branding exercise. "But never lose sight of the fact that ultimately the answers lie within you."
Carla Birnberg is quick to point out that she's not the average fitness blogger. "I'm older than most, more tattooed than many, and my passions lean more toward literature than leg lifts." And that's exactly why herÿFDMizFitÿFDbrand, with its exercise videos and online support, resonate with such a diverse audience. The tagline--"because fitness isn't about fitting in"--is at the core of the brand. "I serve to remind my readers it's OK to carve out a wholly unique path to healthy living. We may all be striving for the same fit, long-living, high-energy, low-stress life, but that doesn't mean we need to take the exact same route to get there."
Leslie May - Pawsible Marketing
Lesson No. 9: Engage Customers to Build Confidence in Your Brand
Competition is tough and consumers and businesses alike want to work with companies they respect and trust. In 20 years, May has learned to build a strong brand by engaging honestly with current and prospective customers. "This can significantly help in building the trust and respect needed to grow a business and help you stand out in a sea of competitors."
Leslie May was a successful veteran marketer who began her own consulting business in 2002. But her love of animals--and growing menagerie of cats and dogs--was the inspiration to take her firm into a branded niche service exclusively to help owners of pet-related businesses. Pawsible Marketing has since spawned several other growing concerns, including Johann the Dog (selling toys and products for agility training), Raise a Green Dog (presenting tips and products for raising environmentally healthy dogs), and Rescue Me (helping lost pets find a new home), each focused on a different aspect of serving those beloved four-legged, furry friends.
Allyson Ames - "Allyson Wonderland" of Wonderland Bakery
Lesson No. 10: Grow Smart
"The Wonderland team took the brand from a sparkling logo to a comprehensive fairytale theme complete with a group of fantastical characters. That set the stage for a very memorable brand that ignites all the senses," says Sandra.
Awash in color from its rainbow-hued wall décor to the staff's aprons and filled with the fragrance of fresh-baked goodies, Wonderland Bakery is a total sensory experience. But the whimsy belies the careful planning that went into the business and the brand. Building on a love of baking she discovered at the age of five, co-owner Allyson Ames, now 24, established herself as a culinary contender throughout her teens while her partner/mother, Sondra, sharpened her skills as a businesswoman. Together the Ames women believe they have truly "Wonderized" the brand they have nurtured since 2005, adding locations, retail products, gifts, and a bestselling book. Future plans include a children's cooking show and an internationally licensed brand of toys.