Battle of the Brand

Is image really everything when it comes to your business? Listen as entrepreneurs and experts sound off about whether branding is crucial for success, then decide for yourself.

Entrepreneur Chrissy Azzaro has business down to a "T." Well, down to a T-shirt, actually. Azzaro, 28, is founder of My-Tee, a 4-year-old Los Angeles fashion company. Besides its signature product-the My-Tee T-shirt-the six-employee company makes its own line of skirts, shoes, tank tops and accessories that retail from $32 to $78. Publicists and buyers browse My-Tee's trendy showroom in Los Angeles for the latest trends and clothing lines. The company has built considerable buzz: Celebrities from Hilary Duff to Courteney Cox have been photographed in My-Tee clothing. This exposure helped the company rack up $1 million in sales in 2003.

Azzaro defines her brand as sassy clothing that's casual yet sexy. Branding, she says, has built her business. "It pushed us out of the pile of other people," Azzaro contends. "Instead of being underneath 100 T-shirt companies, it pushes you to the top. Branding is very important for any small business."

Or is it? Ask a group of entrepreneurs how much branding really matters, and you'll get different answers. Some think it's really important, while others don't. Each entrepreneur could have a slightly different definition of branding, and a few might not even know, or really care, what branding is. To brand or not to brand-that's the question. And everyone has an opinion.

"Of course people are going to say 'Well, branding doesn't really matter.' It's the most misunderstood concept in all of marketing," says Rob Frankel, a Los Angeles branding expert and author of The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else (Frankel & Anderson). "Too many [businesses] dismiss branding as just identity. But it's so much more than that."

Branding, say experts, is your raison d'ĂȘtre, the well-planned coordination of every single touch point with the customer to create consistency of service within your company. In the end, branding isn't about getting prospects to choose you over someone else, Frankel says; it's about getting them to see you as the only solution to their problem amid today's media clutter and price wars. Without it, you're dead in the water from Day One. The way to get new business today is by turning your current customers into evangelists. If you don't give them something to evangelize-like your brand message-they'll have no way to communicate it to the next guy, Frankel says. "Your brand strategy should be in your business plan."

Many companies are branding-whether or not they know it, says Bob Phibbs, a Long Beach, California, retail marketing and sales expert, and author of You Can Compete: Double Sales Without Discounting (Greenleaf Book Group). Are you going to be the Tiffany & Co. of small gift shops or the 99-cent bargain store? If you don't know, your customers will decide for you-and that's a risky move for a growing company. "Think about the kids you knew in high school, the dorks and the [popular kids]. We always categorize and want to get a bead on things," Phibbs says. "The most successful businesses are doing well because they have a consistent image of what their brand means. Branding always matters."

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Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.

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This article was originally published in the March 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Battle of the Brand.

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