There's a paradox to branding, says Michael R. Solomon, a human sciences professor of consumer behavior at Auburn University and author of Conquering Consumerspace: Marketing Strategies for a Branded World (AMACOM). The more intangible your product or service, the more you need to brand. Consider insurance, which people buy because they have to, not because they want to. The most successful insurers have developed tangible symbols to humanize an intangible and arcane industry. Traveler's Insurance is known for its umbrella logo; Prudential, meanwhile, touted the instantly recognizable slogan "Get a piece of the rock."
Consumers are bombarded with messages, but they're also looking for brands that speak to them as individuals, Solomon says. Just like Coca-Cola, entrepreneurs should think in terms of brand equity, the value of their company's image factored into the bottom line. The worth of the brand literally becomes a line item in the spreadsheet. Nike's brand alone has been estimated to be worth more than $1 billion. "You can take this logic and apply it to a small company as well," Solomon says. "If someone is willing to pay a dollar extra to get the same food at [your restaurant] than they would at any other place, that's the value of [your brand]."
Shelly Mars believes in the value of branding. Mars, 42, left a career in high-tech research four years ago to launch a high-end organic dry-cleaning company, Ecoluxe, with four locations around the Boston area. Branding played a big role from the get-go. "I always thought branding was important because of my corporate background," she says. "I never thought of it as a negative."
Mars estimates she spent $60,000 on branding in her first year, from graphics and letterhead to signage and public relations. She was very strategic about selecting upscale neighborhoods and giving each location a distinctive look. She decided cleaning would be done at an off-site facility so the stores stay brighter, cleaner and friendlier. She's avoided coupons, thinking they would dilute the brand by focusing customers on price rather than the company's services. And within the community, Ecoluxe has aligned itself with events such as Earth Day to build identity around the brand.
Mars thinks her branding strategy has been worth the investment: Sales increased from $85,000 in 1999 to more than $1 million in 2003, and Ecoluxe was voted best dry cleaner in Boston magazine's "Best of Boston" reader's poll for 2002 and 2003. "Once you're very clear about your message, [branding] is important. And that should be from day one," she says. It's a brand of thinking sure to stir debate for years to come.
- Take branding beyond advertising. Business owners tend to think of branding as advertising, when advertising is just one element of branding. Instead, envision branding as something that touches every part of your business, from your letterhead and logo to how employees answer the phone to how your supply chain runs. Branding is the integration of everything about your company to create consistency for customers, vendors, employees, suppliers-and you as the owner.
- Improve your appearance. Image can be everything, whether you're a retailer or an accounting firm. If a storefront is inviting, clean and bright, people will be drawn to you. If it's dark, dank and disorderly, they'll move on. Chalk it up to human nature: Customers assume they'll get better service if your business looks nice. Maybe it's time for new paint.
- Make clear promises. What's your ultimate promise to customers? Is it quick service, cheap prices or something else? Find your promise-and deliver on it.
- Rediscover your purpose. Why are you in business? It can be easy to forget 15 years down the road why you started your company in the first place. Revisiting your primary purpose can spur new ideas and clarify your brand message.
Chris Penttila is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist who covers workplace issues on her blog, Workplacediva.blogspot.com.