By Shel Horowitz, Going Beyond Sustainability
When you think about branding, what comes to mind first?
- Corporate colors?
- Product placement?
- Team or event sponsorship of athletes or entertainers?
- Celebrity endorsers and spokespeople?
- The content you develop and distribute in your niche?
Here’s the shocking thing: These things are actually minor components of your brand.
If That’s True, What Is a Brand?
If those are just small pieces, then what is a brand, really? The answer may surprise you:
A brand is overall perception of your company, based on all inputs. When your customers and prospects think about your organization, they will sift their own direct experience, media coverage (favorable or unfavorable), stories they’ve heard from friends, what they believe you stand for, your ads and press releases, social media presence—and yes, the logo, colors, slogan, jingles, product placements, sponsorships, endorsements, and niche content.
In this long list, the three most important are:
- Their own direct experience with you,
- What they’ve heard or read about you from others who don’t have a vested interest (such as friends, social media contacts, and the press), and
- Whether your values align with theirs
Why Delighting Customers Is Crucial to Brand Identity
Direct experience and the experiences of trusted acquaintances are the most important parts of creating a brand. To be more accurate, a company could be creating tens of thousands of brands, because every customer and prospect’s experience of you is unique. That means customer service might turn out to be your primary branding mechanism. How people are treated directly influences how you build—or how you destroy—your brand.
Superior service has created mega-brand positioning for companies as diverse as Nordstrom and Ritz-Carlton at the high end, to price leaders Trader Joe’s, Jet Blue, and CVS.
But going for that positioning means you have to walk your talk. If you say one thing and do the opposite, what customers and prospects will remember is your dishonesty and hypocrisy. Here’s a particularly ironic real-life example: back in the 1990s, when video rentals were still a thing and Blockbuster Video was on top of the heap, I walked into my local store to rent a video. I happened to be writing one of my marketing books and I noticed a sign about how employees were empowered to do whatever it took to satisfy customers. Since this was a great example of turning employees into marketing ambassadors, I asked permission to copy the wording of the sign. In an epic fail, the “empowered” clerk told me he had no authority to grant that permission and I would have to write to the corporate headquarters. This company was NOT walking the talk.
Had they not had the sign, I would never have gotten my hopes up that Blockbuster was an enlightened company (in fact, I usually rented from an independent store). But because they were pretending to be, and because my hopes were dashed, they lost all credibility with me. Guess how many times I patronized Blockbuster after that incident? If you guessed zero, you’re correct. The once-mighty company has gone from more than 9000 stores worldwide to a single store in Bend, Oregon, USA.
And remember when BP made a brilliant case for going “Beyond Petroleum,” claiming to be a different kind of energy company at the forefront of renewables research? Until they had the biggest oil spill ever, in the Gulf of Mexico, and kissed goodbye all the goodwill they’d built up among climate activists and green consumers—oops!
Which brings us to the values that make up a brand.
Why Core Values Are Crucial to Brand Identity
BP and Blockbuster made the fatal mistake of saying one thing while doing the opposite. But creating messaging about doing the right thing and then actually following through is a powerful branding success strategy. Think about Dove’s commitment to empowering women and changing unrealistic standards of female beauty. Think about the international LEED certification standard for green buildings. Think about the ways ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s has woven the environment and social enterprise together throughout the company: sponsoring solar festivals, hiring people with cognitive disabilities in some of its scoop shops, and (perhaps most significantly) buying brownies from Greyston Bakery, a company whose open hiring policy has turned the business world upside down—and given good jobs to ex-felons, ex-mental patients, etc.
I believe these policies are directly responsible for Ben & Jerry’s ability to compete with far larger companies early on and gain traction in the ultracompetitive super-premium ice cream niche—despite having neither ice cream experience nor business experience when they started. And when Unilever bought the company, B&Js not only had enough clout to negotiate operational independence that allows them to maintain these policies today, but was able to push other Unilever brands to embrace sustainability and social justice.
How can you make a commitment to customer delight—and how can you make sure that commitment is embraced by every employee in every customer interaction?
Profitability and marketing strategist and copywriter Shel Horowitz’s mission is to fix crises like hunger, poverty, racism/othering, war, and catastrophic climate change—by showing the business world how fixing them can make a profit. An author, international speaker, and TEDx Talker, his award-winning 10th book, Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World, lays out a blueprint for creating, repurposing, and MARKETING those profitable change-making products and services. He is happy to help you craft your messaging and develop profit strategies. Discover more (and download excerpts from the book) at http://goingbeyondsustainability.com