Q: I'm launching a one-person hairstyling salon, and I'm extremely good at what I do, if I do say so myself. Is it possible for me to "brand" my new business, or is branding only for larger companies?

A: So you'd like to have your own one-man brand, huh? No problem. The key is to be you with all your heart.

Most branding campaigns are costumes worn by advertisers to the Media Masquerade Ball. They were the hot ticket during the pretentious baby boomer years, when blue ribbons went to those wearing best costumes. But take a look around, and you'll see that we're moving into an era of transparency. The only thing offensive these days is phoniness.

To succeed in tomorrow's marketplace, your brand must revolve around who and what you really are. You're going to have to let your customers see the real you. This means communicating in a language other than "adspeak." You know what I'm talking about, right? "Low, low prices." "Satisfaction guaranteed." "Exceeding your expectations." "Fast, fair and friendly service." Blah, blah, blah.

In the past, decisions to purchase revolved primarily around features and benefits. All you had to do was explain-intellectually-why your product was better than your competitor's. But as the overall quality of products got better, we became less concerned about buying a bad one, and a new criterion was added to the list. Now we're seeing decisions to purchase based on sympathetic vibrations, shared values, an alignment of perspectives. Today's customers are no longer just buying what you sell; they're buying who you are.

Near the end of her book The Popcorn Report, a very prescient Faith Popcorn reminisces: "It seemed to me, in the '60s, advertising was the most creative business around. The consumer world was new, wide open; ads were all creativity, no research. I loved the business when I started in it...You could feel that consumer world narrowing in the seventies and eighties. Heavy earnest research weighed down ads with somber and often meaningless promises. The consumer world was quantified...In the '90s, consumers don't believe the promises anymore. If the ad says, 'Ninety-out-of-a-hundred people prefer fill-in-the-blank,' we cynically assume that those 90 are the advertiser's 90 best friends and relatives. We know that numbers can be interpreted to mean almost anything. So, the situation now is that numbers have lost their credibility, and yet creativity isn't strong enough to stand on its own."

So if data has lost its credibility, and creativity alone is no longer enough, through what channel can you best persuade today's customer? Through the customer's own experience:

  • Refer to things in your ads that you know your customer has experienced. I call this technique "using a reality hook." You might say in your ads, for example, "Have you ever told a hair stylist how you wanted your hair to look and then he cut it the way he thought it should look? I promise I'm NOT that guy."
  • When available, include raw, unscripted testimonials. Your customer has a lifetime of experience sifting golden nuggets of truth from a world of hype and empty promises. Put this highly refined ability to work for you. In the example above, I wrote it in the way that most people talk. This is extremely unusual in advertising-and extremely effective. Don't rewrite your customers' comments. Use them verbatim, misspellings and all.
  • Deliver to your customers exactly the experience you promised them. (For those of you familiar with the Advertising Performance Equation, this is known as the PEF, or Personal Experience Factor.) Mass media is one voice speaking to many ears, and it's easy to purchase-you pay your money and you take your chances. But "interconnectivity" is one to one to one to one to one-word-of-mouth gone exponential. And it can't be purchased with money. The only way to trigger interconnectivity is to create a message worth repeating, so deliver excellence to every customer. It's the best advertising money can buy.

As the final reverberations of the baby boom fade over the horizon, we're beginning to hear the sound of the new branding, and it's the sound of something real. Today's hunger is for reality and truth. I think psychologist Carl Rogers said it best: "What I am is good enough, if only I would be it openly."

And what you are is good enough, too. Be it openly.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.