Why branding matters for your small business

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Branding expert Robert Bean considers what small businesses need to do to make sure their customers – and clients – get maximum bang for their buck.

I was once told that if I wanted to understand anything in life, I should look to the origin. It came as little surprise then that the origin of the word ‘brand’ is a similar word: ‘brandr’.  For the Old Norse speakers amongst us it means ‘burnt’.

It then struck me that people like me have been corrupting the original meaning for many years. The simple act of burning one’s identity on to the side of one’s cattle or property ‘brands’ it as yours.

And thus much confusion about brand = logo. But these days we all know brand = a lot more than that. So, before going much further, I thought it might be useful to explore the profound question of what exactly a brand is.

Here’s a definition the accountants at the height of the ‘50s US consumerism boom tried to apply to the word: ‘The worth of a business beyond the value of its tangible assets.’

Fine as far as it goes, and reflective of a time when one’s asset-base needed to be tangible. But how would Google, Uber, and countless other modern-day service-based companies fare under that description?

Another definition, this time from a well-known ad-man goes to the other end of the spectrum: ‘Product + Personality = Brand’. Interesting.

But perhaps predictably ad-land-like given their job is to add personality  to products (and services.) In fact, in discussion about this definition I’ve heard it referred to as not just shallow, but ‘deeply shallow’.

Harsh, but probably fair. Better by far, in my opinion, is a third definition: ‘Promises Delivered.’
In other words, whatever expectations you set up in the minds of your customers – or staff, for that matter – repeated delivery against those promises will engender trust, the very cornerstone of good branding. And with trust comes preference, which, in turn, allows for greater price flexibility.

Or, in old-fashioned language, profit. In short, good brands make more money. But of course it’s not quite that simple.My own definition of what a brand is starts with an assertion that all activities within a business fall into three crucial areas:

Culture
What your business celebrates and/or frowns on, the personality of the founders/owners/leaders, the types of people you hire (& fire), and generally how you go about your affairs. Culture is the bloodstream of any business, so it needs constant attention. Weak or confused cultures contaminate and kill businesses.

Products & Services
This, after all, is what the world sees as the evidence of your enterprise’s efforts. Aspiring brand-owners would be wise to recognise the fact that at the heart of every powerful brand around the world is an outstanding product. I’m often approached by keen and clever people starting their exciting venture, looking to ‘build a brand.’ Great, I say, but let’s get the product right first. Without that, there’ll be no passing ‘Go’ and definitely no collecting your £200.

Reputation
How people see your business. This is not just customers, crucial though they are, but prospective employees, the media, the trade and other relevant third party observers. And in this digital age, there’s no hiding; what were once walls have now become windows.

Reputation management can’t afford to be something that’s just handed over to someone with ‘marketing’ in their title; it’s everyone’s job. The good stuff starts to happen when these three areas of a business merge and blend, held together by what I call the ‘Single Organising Principle.’

This isn’t fancy brand-talk, rather specific language trying to describe the binding agent that can glue an organisation together. The (unfortunately titled) SOP warrants breaking down a bit, so here goes:

Firstly, it must come from the principles the business holds true. In an SME this is often directly from the principals, so the first challenge is to establish whether or not the principals are indeed principled. This is less about moral judgement (although decency is generally to be encouraged…) more about standing for something. Bill Bernbach, a Don Draper-style advertising stalwart coined the phrase ‘a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.’ Gulp. But worth thinking about.

Secondly, and no apology for this one being hard, it needs to be single-minded. Most businesses have several (good) propositions, but which is the one that you’re going to get behind, above all others? Or, in blunt terms, what are you going to become famous for? It takes courage and clarity to identify this, but in trying to be lots of things to lots of people you’re simply storing up problems for later; the middle of the road is where you get run over.

And thirdly, it should be used to organise your thinking around the whole business. Once you’ve decided that your proposition is X, then the whole business should be structured, motivated, rewarded, challenged and measured against the delivery of X. Otherwise it’s just word-play.

Again, lest this be mistaken for mere brand-talk, there’s an economic argument for defining and expressing your own Single Organising Principle: The fundamental effect of doing so creates Alignment. Alignment leads to Efficiencies (i.e. I’m not pulling left whilst you’re pulling right.) Efficiencies allow the business to be more Profitable.

So, in algebraic shorthand, A=E, which = P. Over time, constant Alignment = sustainable Profitability, one of the key determinants for shareholder value. Or ROI. Or bang for buck.
Which brings us back to the inexorable and inescapable truth that good brands make more money.

All great in theory, but how does one actually get to a cogent Single Organising Principle? I believe there are six questions every business should ask itself during the quest. These are best asked in a workshop setting so as to encourage input from across the business. After all, people support that which they help create.

Six questions every business should ask itself

Problem Definition

Why does it matter to us to have a well-defined brand? What’s its purpose once it has been articulated? Who cares? And why? You might be shocked at how this question has the capacity to raise corporate blood pressure.

Who’s our primary audience now and, possibly more importantly, in the future?

Put another way, who is your (continued) best source of revenue? This will elicit more angst.

What are their motivations?

What’s the deeper human need they have when buying in your sector? This is about getting under the skin of what’s really driving your customers. It might not be what you think it is. Or what they tell you…

IBM realised they were selling main-frame computers to middle-management buyers who in turn needed to report back to their boards to persuade them to buy expensive, complicated and unwieldy computers. They realised these managers needed reassurance in how to sell to their bosses, just as much as they needed the facts and figures about how the computers actually worked. And so ‘Nobody got fired for buying IBM’ was born, thereby addressing real customer motivations. What could yours be?

How are you different/better than your competitors?

This is best done as a side-by-side war game, where team members are invited to make a pre-researched 10-bullet point presentation extolling the virtues of their appointed competitor. In their temporary role as sales director or CEO of the competitor they should ‘pitch’ to the group. The group in turn will respond when the pitch is over, defending your own competitive competencies.

Once this exercise has been conducted for four or so competitors, it will become clear which arguments you keep reaching for to defend yourselves with. The skill is to pick the one you believe is the most own-able and the most true to you.

What is your Personality?

This is likely to be understood instinctively in a smaller business but will need to be codified and institutionalised as it grows bigger. The challenge is to reduce the list to a maximum of four words that, in combination, define the personality that captures you – at least on a good day.

This is the personality that you’d like to project to the world, but it’ll have an important internal dimension too; your personality should be reflected in the people you hire. They are, after all, the living embodiment of all that you value. (Aren’t they?)

What is your Purpose?

By isolating the most powerful customer motivation, and combining it with your most potent competitive difference, you’ll be able to create a proposition in a single sentence which a) you know customers want, and b) you know you’re best placed to deliver.

To get there, try completing this sentence: ‘In the lives of our customers the role for our business is to… (satisfy their motivation by doing the thing we do best.’) For the rebels amongst you, you might find it easier to flip the sentence: ‘By doing what we do best, we’re able to satisfy our customers’ greatest motivation.’ Up to you. In the interests of clarity and simplicity, you will want to condense this sentence down to two words or a very short phrase. This will help with portability and memorability.

It’s then ready to be turned into a sexy slogan that powerfully captures the essence of your business for both internal and external audiences. Really good slogans become corporate elevator pitches as well as a ready-to-hand guide for how your organisation goes about its business.

Many famous tag-lines have been arrived at through this or a similar process; these include ‘The Power of Dreams’ for Honda, ‘It’s Good to Talk’ for BT, ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ for BMW and ‘Make a House a Home’ for Homebase.

Note the fact that each one of them has a meaningful internal application as well as a motivating external one. ‘Promises’ are being made, so it behoves the business to deliver against them.

Whilst the object of the brand definition exercise is not necessarily to end up with a slogan, they can become useful and highly valuable outputs from the process.

At very least they remind everyone in the business what it stands for on a daily basis.