Four Keys to Building a Better Brand

“Everyone knows,” as a business leader, that you’re supposed to build a great brand. But the question is, “How do you go about creating it?” The idea seems simple enough, it’s the how to that seems confusing.

Unfortunately, this whole affair of building a better brand is made more complicated because different people use the word “brand” differently. Graphic artists and ad agencies often reduce branding down to logos and colors. Branding “experts” will often say it’s the emotional connection established between a company and its customers. While others will say it’s a single word in the mind of a customer (e.g. Volvo = safety).

Seth Godin defines it as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another (which isn’t bad).”

Wikipedia, that bastion of great business thought (said with sarcasm), says a brand is a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s product distinct from those of other sellers.”

However, I prefer simplicity whenever possible. So, to me, the simplest, easiest way to think about a brand (referring to a company brand as opposed to a product brand) is to think of it as “Reputation.” It’s what you’re known for—positively or negatively.

In other words, brands aren’t just positive. When you think of the brand of the IRS or Lindsay Lohan or GM (currently facing scrutiny over not fixing a 57 cent item that resulted in the deaths of several people), you have a compilation of thoughts about that brand that probably aren’t very positive.

The other nice thing about reducing the definition of brand to one word (reputation) is that it encompasses most of the above. Using that definition, the idea of building a better brand is really all about building a better reputation in the minds of your customers and prospects (isn’t that simpler to think about).

So, how can you go about building a better brand/reputation? Well, here are four keys.

I. Be Absolutely Clear How You Want People to Think About You

It is possible to influence what and how people think about you. For example, back in my old church days, I knew there were several things I wanted people in my community to think about our church.

  • That what I talked about was relevant to their lives
  • That we were made up of normal people just like them
  • That we were a multi-cultural church
  • That we were a place where people’s lives were continually being changed for the better

Since I was absolutely clear about those four items, everything we did intentionally for marketing for the fifteen years I was there was in alignment of those four things. For example, every mailer we sent out focused on relevant titles that anyone could connect to (whether they went to church their entire life or had never stepped foot in a church). Every mailer had lots of pictures of actual people who attended our church (i.e. not stock photos). Every mailer had pictures of racial diversity (and often of multi-cultural marriages). And every mailer had testimonials of people talking about how our church had changed their lives (plus our tagline was, “Absolutely, Positively, Life-Changing”).

And did it work? Absolutely. If you asked people in my former community what my former church was like they would have said, “That’s the life changing church.” Or, “That’s the multi-cultural church.” Or, “That’s the church with those great mailers with cool message titles.” And if you don’t think real pictures win out over stock images, you’re wrong. I can’t tell you how many people would say something like, “I received your mailer and looked at each picture on it and thought, ‘These are people like me. So I came.”

In other words, you can use marketing to drive what people believe about you (we completely changed our diversity ratio by continually marketing racial diversity). However, you can’t get there if you’re not clear on what brand/reputation you want to have.

So, what do you want people in your target market to think about you and your business? What images, phrases, ideas, concepts, etc. do you want people to think about when they think of you?

II. Stay on Brand Message All the Time

One of the unfortunate realities of entrepreneurial life is that most of us get bored very fast. Staying on message is not something we like doing. We like coming up with an idea, telling people about it … and then moving on to the next thing.

Unfortunately, that’s not how brands are built. They’re built over time. An individual can form an opinion about a company from one interaction (e.g. you go to a restaurant and whether you have a great meal, an average meal or a poor meal, that one experience will form an opinion). But a brand is usually formed over time as the accumulation of “experiences, stories, and relationships.”

If you were carefully reading my paragraph above about the mailers I sent out from my former church, you hopefully noticed the key phrase, “Every mailer.” We would send out four to six mailers every year to 40,000 people. And each of those mailers stayed on brand message. While the content varied, the four elements didn’t. They were there every time.

Recently, my wife and I flew back home for Christmas on a Southwest flight. Part of the Southwest brand is fun. You’ve experienced it. I’ve experienced it. And on that early morning December flight from Charleston, SC to BWI, we got to experience the funniest flight attendant we’ve ever heard. We were in stitches … at 7:45 a.m. She was hilarious! It was great brand reinforcement. Unfortunately, on our way back to Charleston, we got the least funny flight attendant. Brand killer.

It’s all about consistency of experience. If you want to build a great brand, it has to be a 100%, all-of-the-time commitment. You can’t occasionally communicate what you want to communicate. You have to say it over and over again in “hundreds” of different ways.

So, as you look at your marketing communications and your execution of your brand, are you being consistent and staying on brand message all the time?

III. Make Sure Everyone Pays Attention to the “Little Things”

While we like to think that it’s the big things that matter to our customers and prospects, that’s not completely accurate. Reputation is usually built on the backs of the little things, in conjunction with the big things.

For example, when you go to a restaurant, the chef may think that the most important thing is the food. “If the food is done just right, everything else can be forgiven,” thinks the chef. But, as a diner, you know that’s not true.

If the restaurant is too cold or too hot, that can trump the food. If the wait staff isn’t attentive or, even worse, rude, that can trump the food. If you have to go to the bathroom and the bathroom is a mess, you’re not coming back. If the noise level is too loud (or too soft), that can trump the food. If the dishwashers didn’t do their job and there are food particles on your utensils or there’s a ring in your coffee cup, you’re not coming back. If the check comes to your table and the server added items to your bill that you didn’t order, that “little mistake” may trump the food.

In other words, brands are built, not just on the backs of big things, but on the backs of all the little things as well.

For example, I’ve been an Apple guy for the past 30 years. I love the brand. However, this past fall, when they updated the OS, a new problem occurred between Apple mail and Gmail using Google Apps that took weeks and weeks to fix. That may seem like a “little thing.” But to a customer, that’s not a little thing when every day you can’t get your email unless you take all accounts offline and then take all accounts online every time you want to check your mail. That little thing caused a fan of thirty years to feel less happy and brand loyal (i.e. their reputation for a remarkable experience that “just works” took a big hit last fall).

So, as you look at yourself and your employees, does everyone care passionately about the “little things” or not?

IV. Raise Your Standards

One of my all-time favorite Seth Godin quotes is, “The first step toward becoming remarkable is, of course, to stop being ordinary.”

That’s a standard raising statement. If you want to build a better brand, then raise the standard. Don’t challenge your people to be competitive, challenge them to be remarkable. Don’t allow “okay” or “good enough” to be the standards. Challenge your people to pursue excellence. Don’t let people settle for “best practices.” Challenge them to shoot for optimal practices.

When you’re creating a product, don’t let your people shoot for creating a good product, encourage them to create a product that your customers will love/fawn over/lust for/dream about/drool over/stand in lines overnight for. You want to create “a dream come true,” for them. Accept nothing less!

When the standard is raised, that’s what your people produce. And when your people start regularly producing spectacular, you’ll have a brand that’s worth  millions.

So as you look at your team, is your standard high enough to create a truly great brand or not? If not, you know where to start.

Well, there you have it. Four keys to creating a better brand

1. Be Absolutely Clear How You Want People To Think About You
2. Stay on Brand Message All the Time
3. Make Sure Everyone Pays Attention to the “Little Things”
4. Raise Your Standards

Now, what do you need to do this week to begin the journey toward creating a better brand?

To your accelerated success,

P.S. What do you think of these four brand builders? Do they resonate with you? Do you disagree? Are there any other foundational brand building ideas you’d like to add to the list? If so, add them in the comments section below (or click here >> if you’re reading this by RSS or email).