One of the most valuable assets in all of business isn't a building, a technology or a bank account. It's the combination of words, images and feelings that evokes Coca-Cola. The world's most valuable brand, worth $67 billion, belongs to the Atlanta beverage goliath, according to Interbrand, a New York City marketing company. Entrepreneurs can expand their businesses with the help of brands if they follow the tried-and-true rules of brand building.
1. Be different. Michael Sands co-founded Lesser-Evil Brand Snack Co. in Tuckahoe, New York, because he thought no one in the snack industry was providing flavorful food that was also good for consumers. "We wanted to be a brand that stood for gourmet taste first and health second," says Sands, 42. With a "Stop bad snacking!" motto that prods competitors while comforting Snackers, Sands has built his 12-person company to $1.4 million in annual sales in less than three years.
2. Know your customers and your brand. Building a brand starts with a lot of questions. "You have to ask yourself what you want the brand to embody," says David Urban, a marketing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "Then you can think about ways you might verbalize those or deliver that message in a visual way via some sort of logo." Run your choices by customers until you find a combination that generates the response you want.
3. Focus all your efforts on the brand. "Everything you do has to reinforce the brand," stresses Urban. Advertising, packaging, stationery, uniforms and e-mail signature blocks are some of the more obvious channels you can use to repeat the brand message. Other factors, such as the quality of your customer service and even the length of time callers spend on hold, may also be part of your brand and therefore must present the same branding message.
4. Start small, and build from your strengths. You can build a national brand even if you lack the bucks for a massive broadcast ad campaign, but only if you start building your brand in the places you can get the best return on your money. "Don't take a shotgun approach," Sands warns. "Go where your fish are." For LesserEvil, that was natural and health-food stores. "Now that we've built that base, we can go to the mainstream groceries," he says. "If we had gone to the mainstream groceries first, we would have been killed."
5. Protect what you have. Uncontrollable dynamics, such as changing tastes and innovative competition, can hamstring the strongest brand. But you do have control over whether you legally register your brand so it becomes a protected trademark. "It's very important to have the legal protection that registering your brand name, logo and such can provide," Urban says. "If you're going to invest all that money and effort into trying to build brand equity, you don't want somebody else to use your brand instead of you."