The following is the fourth in the series "Marketing Like the Big Brands," running every other week in which marketing expert Jim Joseph shows entrepreneurs on a small-business budget how to apply marketing strategies used by big brands.
Truly defining your business is a critical first step in developing your marketing plan. Through a continuing series of stories, we've been examining how to build a compelling brand experience that will drive customer loyalty -- highlighting the principles of big brand marketing so that small business owners can replicate those kinds of successes. But before you can start building your brand's experience for customers, you need to take some fundamental first steps to define the kind of brand you want to be.
To guide our marketing plan, we need a very well-crafted statement of the type of business we are in, the type of customers we serve and how we serve them. We have to define what we stand for and the types of products and services that our customers can expect from us. This truly is the first step in the branding process.
At first glance, defining your brand may seem easy, but it takes some soul searching, decision making and data gathering.
Take, for example, someone going into business as a lawyer. It's pretty easy to define that brand -- a person who practices law, right? But to build a brand around his practice, a lawyer needs to determine specifically what kind of law he focuses on and what kind of client he is targeting before any marketing can begin. That means thinking through what regions of the world, categories of law, style of service and other offerings he brings to the table.
Related: 6 Strategies to Build a Global Brand
When defining your brand, put as much clarity as possible into how the brand and business is described, so that you can build a specific brand experience to match it. Here are three key steps to help you get there:
1. Make an inventory of your skills. List out what you are especially good at and what you want your customers to think of when your brand comes to mind. Your unique set of skills will form the basis of your brand definition.
2. What are your customers' needs? From your list of skills, identify those that your customers particularly need. Think through the kinds of things you do that your customers will come to you for. You should define your brand based on your ability to fulfill such demands.
3. Focus on what differentiates. It's important for your brand to be different than other similar options available to customers. Of course your brand experience will ultimately differentiate you, but being unique starts with deciding what attributes set you apart from others. Your goal is to be different and better than your competition.
Related: The Secrets of 7 Successful Brands
Let's revisit our lawyer example. A well-defined lawyer wouldn't just say he "practices law." He would be much more definitive and specific about his focus if he wants customers to see his business as a brand. So instead of calling himself a "practicing lawyer," he may define his brand as a "compassionate attorney specializing in family law in the state of California, servicing women who need help getting through the tough times in their lives."
Notice the clarity in the brand definition?
While it's important to be as specific as possible, you also want to be careful not to box your business in with a tightly constrained brand definition. For example, if a hair salon only defined itself as providing "women's short haircuts," it would close itself off from business that could come from customers seeking other hair styles, salon services like coloring or straightening and other demographics like children or men.
If it makes sense to be super specific because you have identified a strong niche market, just be sure to do this consciously. I've seen many salons that specialize in just curly hair or blowouts. If the business is large enough, those could be very well-defined, successful brands. Just be careful not to define the brand too strictly, which would close out future business-building activities.
The trick is to balance specificity, focus and differentiation with the ability to expand. When defining your brand, make sure to describe the type of business in a way that allows for growth over time.
Related: 5 Big Brand's Mistakes Solved
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Jim Joseph is the North American president of New York-based communications agency Cohn & Wolfe, part of the media company WPP Group PLC. He is the author of three books, including the latest, The Personal Experience Effect (Happy About 2013). Joseph also teaches marketing at New York University and blogs at JimJosephExp.com.