Branding is a term that gets talked about a lot, but many entrepreneurs struggle to grasp this slippery concept. How does it differ from marketing? Is it all about logos and web design? What about social media? Branding encompasses everything, says Melanie Spring, founder and chief inspiration officer at Bethesda-based branding company Sisarina. It’s not just what you do, she says, but what you are.
Entrepreneur: How has the concept of branding changed over the last couple of decades?
Spring: It used to be more identity focused. It was about building a logo and all the pieces around it. It didn’t really talk about values or how the company worked. Now we talk about branding in terms of how it makes you feel. It isn’t always something tangible.
Entrepreneur: Is it more difficult for young companies to even know their brand?
Spring: Businesses that are just starting out often know just as much about their own brand as some 30-year-old company. What we try to do with new companies and old ones is help them understand what their brand is and how they can talk about it. What’s your elevator pitch? Why should people buy your services instead of your competitors? What are your core values? It’s not just about the colors or the fonts or icons.
Entrepreneur: But that still matters?
Spring: The one tip I have for every business owner is invest in a logo. It’s better to get it right from the start. If you don’t do anything else, at least have a logo that looks good and reflects your brand. But the branding behind it has to be there. If you don’t know who you are it’s going to be hard to create it.
Entrepreneur: Authenticity is a popular buzz word right now. What does it mean to have an authentic brand?
Spring: It comes down to everything from hiring the right people and making sure they’re saying the right things about your company to making sure your values are upheld with every employee and yourself. If your brand isn’t cohesive with your core values, your clients won’t trust you. The whole point of branding is to create trust, to get the clients you want and for them to feel you’ve delivered on your promise.
Entrepreneur: Surely social media is a now a big part of the equation.
Spring: We actually built our entire business from Twitter. We realized that getting the word out and telling people who you are without pushing it in their faces is key to building a brand. With social media you have to do it well and should really focus on one or two platforms. Companies that talk only about themselves will not have a strong brand. If you’re sharing information about your industry or helpful hints that your clients want to know, people will remember who you are.
Entrepreneur: Tell us about one company that gets it.
Spring: I think Chobani does it right. They do an amazing job of creating a community around themselves instead of just pushing that they sell yogurt. They use their Facebook wall and Twitter feed to ask people to post pictures of themselves that tell a story of why they eat Chobani. People are doing their branding for them.
Entrepreneur: Last year you spent nine weeks traveling the country for your “Live Your Brand Tour.” Can you give us an example of how Sisarina lives its brand?
Spring: Every week we host a Wednesday Cup of Inspiration. Two years ago we were sitting on the couch in my office talking about how we can inspire each other midweek, and we realized it would be cool to invite other people to come in to inspire us, or for us to inspire them. Now the conference room is overflowing on Wednesday mornings with everything from people who just want a cup of coffee and some laughter to people thinking about quitting their jobs and starting their own businesses. We get a lot of clients that way, even though it wasn’t our initial plan.
Sarah Max is a freelance writer in Bend, Ore. She has covered business and personal finance for more than a decade for such publications as BusinessWeek, CNNMoney.com, Money and The Wall Street Journal. In 2009 Sarah got a first-hand look at the ups and downs of entrepreneurship when she helped launch 1859 Oregons Magazine, a quarterly magazine and website for which she is executive editor.