Overcoming the Fear of Branding, Part 2

Helping clients overcome the fear that branding will somehow ‘cheapen’ their product.

respect and love for brands

(I have borrowed this image from Saatchi & Saatchi’s mostly failed concept of ‘lovemarks‘: brands that go beyond loyalty into passionate emotional attachment. Lovemarks never really got off the ground, but I still think this is an interesting way to look at branding in general.)


Last time we talked about how small business owners – especially ones who have already had some success and are looking to take their organization to the next level – can be reluctant to embrace the idea of branding their company (or their product/service) because they feel that brands are somehow fake. 

I understand: No one wants to think they’re turning their professional services firm into the Kim Kardashian of consulting.

But, reality tv stars aside, branding really isn’t about fakery, because as a small business owner you can’t ‘trick’ anyone into having an emotional attachment to you, your company or your products.  Branding is all about identifying the reasons people already feel strongly about you, then amplifying them so that it’s easier to spread the word.

In fact, your brand already exists – you just haven’t identified its components, articulated the message, and made it consistent.

How to get to a comfort level with branding

Okay, so how do you start to build a brand that’s a real reflection of what you’re already doing?  Start with these steps.

1.  What ‘story’ are you already telling about your company?

If you’ve been in business for any length of time, you’ve already been telling some kind of ‘story’ about your company.  This may involve the strengths of the founder, how you got started, your philosophy or approach.  As I’ve said before, branding is really just about telling the right story about your company. It’s hard to say your brand is fake when it’s based on a story you’re already telling.

2.  Examine the brands you personally love

I do always think it’s funny when people tell me they don’t believe in branding – but then pull out their iPhone, make impassioned speeches about whatever haircare product they use, or say something like “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”  But it’s a good opportunity to think about the notion that branding is somehow fake: If you really believed that branding was trickery, you wouldn’t be using these products.

3.  Remember that branding is really just a way to help people navigate a sea of products and services

If you walked into a grocery store, and everything in it was in black-and-white packaging without any branding at all, it’d take you hours to do your shopping because you’d have to examine every single product in the store.  Branding is really just a shortcut to decision-making, a way to help consumers/clients understand “Oh, this is what I was looking for!”  When you look at it that way, branding is really more about helping the consumer than tricking them.

4.  List your real functional benefits. 

‘Functional benefits’ are the ‘factual’ ways in which you’re better than your competitors.  They may include being cheaper, faster, having more selection, more convenient hours, better customer service, longest in the business, etc.  Make a list of them, and be honest – only include the ones which are really different from your competitors.

If you’ve done a good job of editing, you’ll end up with a list of 2-3 key functional benefits which genuinely differentiate you from the competition.

5.  What do your best clients say about you?

Most successful small businesses have a core of loyal clients who keep coming back to them again and again, and who refer them to other clients.  If you don’t already know, ask them why they love you so much.  Chances are, you’ll find their reasons have little to do with what you listed in #1.  They may like that you have convenient hours, but love that you always give them good advice; they may think you have good customer service, but love that your staff doesn’t have much turnover and they can count on seeing the same faces every time they visit your office.

What your best clients say about you to their friends and family is the best place to start when building your brand – and it’s absolutely not ‘fake’.

Overcoming the Fear of Branding, Part 1

Emotional attachments to brands has become a lot more acceptable.
But many small business owners are still sceptical. 

branding is snake oil

In my opinion, one of the most significant developments in communications in the past 15 years is the widespread acceptance of the notion that ‘branding’ is important for virtually every product, service, organization and even people – not just for packaged goods products.

It hasn’t always been this way. I remember, in 2000, making a presentation to an educational products company who needed a new website.  They were still wrestling with the fact that a transition to a web-based delivery system meant they needed a better visual identity; when I started to talk about ephemeral concepts like ‘brand personality’ and ’emotional engagement’, they started to roll their eyes and I could see them dismissing me as another crackpot marketing person who was going to try to get them to spend all their money without regard for their bottom line.

“Look,” they said, “All this talk about emotional attachments to brands may be fine when you’re trying to trick people into buying your product, like if you’re trying to convince people there’s a difference between Coke and Pepsi. But people buy our product because we provide the best materials at the best price.”  In other words, when the functional benefits of a product or service are legitimate, branding is not only unneccessary but somehow distasteful.

The DotCom era changed all that

Say what you will about the dotcom boom and bust of 1999-2001, it changed the branding landscape forever. People watched as vaporware high-tech companies which had nothing but a couple of tech geniuses and a compelling brand story managed to attract an awful lot of money – and everyone had to admit that even in boardrooms, lots of purchasing decisions were being based on emotional responses.  

Throughout the 2000s, more research was done on emotional attachments to a brands and how they affect buying habits across all kinds of market sectors.  Today, most of us accept that the products we love – and buy – the most are not necessarily the ones with the optimal combination of functional benefits and low price.  We’re not only comfortable with the fact that emotional responses trigger buying decisions, but that buying certain products and services can trigger emotional responses in return.

Branding still makes some people very uneasy
– especially when it comes to their own business

These days, I don’t get much eye-rolling when I talk to clients about brand-building and emotional engagement with brands – especially when half the people in the boardroom have an iPhone in their pocket.  

But there’s still one group that remains resistant: The small business owner.  

The successful small business owner may be just as brand-aware as anyone else, with a passion for their iPhone or their Range Rover or their Sub-Zero refrigerator. But when it comes to their own business, they still feel, somehow, that to put too much effort into their brand identity – to try to attach meaning to their product or service that goes beyond purely functional benefits like being smarter, cheaper or faster than their competitors – somehow cheapens what they do for a living.

I get it: If you’ve grown your business from nothing to a $5-$10 million organization, you’ve usually spent years trying to deliver a great product, provide excellent customer service, building strong relationships with your stakeholders. In many ways, you are the brand – so when someone comes along and says that if you want to take your business to the next level, you need a ‘brand identity’ with a ‘personality’ and ’emotional resonance’, it’s natural to fear that you’ll be pushed into a brand that seems ‘fake’ and not reflective of the very real values – and value – that you stand for.

But a good brand is anything but fake – and tomorrow we’ll talk about how to build one.

Branding: Inside Out or Outside In?

Do great brand stories come from within – or from focus groups?

branding inside out

The other day I had lunch with a big-budget marketing consultant and we got to talking about one of his clients.

“I spent most of last week in focus groups,” he said.  “We’re rebranding and repositioning the product and looking for insights from our customers as to which way we should go.”

It got me thinking:  When you’re looking to invent, reinvent, transform or migrate your brand, should your direction come from your employees or your customers?  Should your brand be created from the inside out, or the outside in?

I’m coming down firmly on the side of branding from the inside out.

First of all, you know how I feel about focus groups:  Most people, who don’t work in marketing or communications, don’t give a whole lot of thought to their feelings about brand loyalty.  That doesn’t mean they don’t have strong and complex feelings about the brands they choose to buy, use and love – it just means they haven’t spent a lot of time analyzing how they got to these feelings.  

People go to therapy for years to understand why they’ve made various choices in their lives.  It’s a bit much to ask them to explain why they’re buying your brand of margarine, or how they’d feel about your margarine if you replaced the blue mountaintop design with a green forest design.

Not having your own vision virtually guarantees a parity product.

As a marketing ‘expert’, on the other hand, your job is to think about your product, the marketplace, the gaps in that marketplace, and more about what’s possible than your customer does.  You’re supposed to be able to make the creative leaps that non-marketing types can’t make.  Most of the time, the customer’s frame of reference is only their own limited interaction with margarine or butter-substitutes, so the best they can come up with (at least in a focus group environment) is “Well, I really don’t like X…”, not “What I’ve really always wanted is a brand of margarine that made me feel the way Godiva chocolate does, from the purchasing experience to the consumption experience…”

That doesn’t mean customers are dumb or unimaginative – it just means that when you rely on non-experts to guide your vision for a brand, you’re less likely to come up with the Big Idea that will give you a brand story that stands out.

The 11-Question Marketing Strategy

getting started with marketing


You know you need some marketing.  But where do you start?

These days, most of my work is with small-but-fast-growing brands, like this and this.

I spent the first 10 years of my marketing career working with big brands, but I much prefer working with entrepreneurial companies:  They’re willing to take more risks, the limited budgets mean you have to get more creative, and there’s more room for a big vision that isn’t going to get hijacked by layers of stakeholders because you’re creating a brand from scratch with a small team of highly invested people.

The challenge in starting from scratch, however – especially when you’re working with companies who don’t have in-house marketing or communications resources, and who have never really undertaken a marketing project before – is knowing where to start.  When you’ve got a limited budget, it’s crucial to focus your resources.

So how do you do that?

The 11 questions you need to ask to arrive at a marketing strategy

Most entrepreneurial businesses don’t want to shell out $25k to a ‘consultant’ to generate some 50-page PowerPoint deck about Their Marketing Vision.  And I agree – that’s $25k they could be spending on results-oriented marketing efforts.  

Here’s how to get a good handle on what your marketing strategy should look like, in 11 handy questions.

1.  What are your top 3 business goals for the next 12 months?

All marketing initiatives need to be tied to specific business goals – with specific revenue numbers.  There’s no point in increasing retail sales if what you really need is to increase sales via sales brokers.  Answering this question will also help you arrive at a realistic marketing budget.

2.  Where do you see the business in 3-5 years?

While the answers to #1 should be highly specific (“Increase revenue on X product by X%”), the answers to this should be more ‘visioning’, like “We’d like to be the leading provider of X in X area”).  However, it’s important to keep this realistic:  If you’re currently the #10 player in a saturated market, know that 3 years probably isn’t long enough to get to the #1 spot.

3.  What are your top 3 most pressing business issues?

Are you suffering from a lack of awareness?  Not being considered in the competitive solution set?  Not being able to communicate with customers?  Operational delays?  Confused employees?  Marketing and communications can help with all of these – and sometimes it’s more effective to spend marketing dollars training and educating employees than to build a fancier website.

4.  Which of your products/services is currently making you the most money right now?

The product/service with the best margin may be the best place to start spending marketing dollars, because you’ll get more bang for your buck.  Once you’ve tested the market, you can invest in other products/services.

5.  What are your top 3 barriers to sale/sales objections right now?

Are your salespeople having trouble getting meetings?  Are they having trouble closing them?  Are potential clients having a hard time finding you, or are they worried about your credibility in the marketplace?  Do you have a great sales team but a confusing message?  Before you start undertaking television advertising, it might be best to focus on sales materials or a more coherent brand identity.

6.  What do(es) your target market(s) look like? 

This is a big one for small- and mid-sized businesses, who typically want to sell to ‘everyone’.  But when you’re just starting with marketing, the more you can segment and target narrow niches, the better results you’ll have.  It’s better to divide and conquer than to go scattershot.

7.  Do you have a ‘brand story’?

Do you know what you sell, why it’s different or better, and how it will make the lives of your customers and clients better?  In my experience, most small-but-growing businesses do have a compelling story – they wouldn’t have made it this far if they didn’t – but it’s not being clearly and consistently articulated.  Sometimes this is where an outside marketing consultant can help the most.

8.  What are your current communications assets (website, infosheets, social media, etc.)?

It’s important to understand what marketing tools you’re already using, and whether they’re working or are just placeholders.   Maybe your current website doesn’t need a huge overhaul – maybe it would be better to spruce it up a little, then focus efforts on that dormant Facebook page that already has 250 ‘likes’ and which could grow.  And don’t forget that people can count as ‘assets’:  Maybe you have a salesperson who happens to be a technology geek, who’d love to take on your social media responsibilities.

9.  What are your customers/employees/other stakeholders saying about the way you’re communicating with them right now?

The other day I talked about how great branding comes from the inside.  Employees who are on the front lines – both with customers and with management – probably have some great insight into your communications in terms of what’s working and what isn’t.  One anecdote from one strident employee shouldn’t direct your whole strategy, but if you’ve been hearing from employees and customers that, say, your website is difficult to navigate or they don’t really understand your product line, that’s probably something to consider.

10.  What does business success look like to you, 12-24 months from now?

This sounds a lot like questions #1 and #2, but it’s interesting:  If you go through these questions in this order, you’ll find that by the time you get to this question, you’ll get answers that have more to do with positioning, proposition, corporate culture, client base, etc.  Because while the answers to ‘business goals’ tend to be expressed in terms of sales and revenue, overall business success is a lot more complex.

11.  What does marketing success look like to you, 12-24 months from now?

99% of the time, marketing is a long game, especially when you’re just getting started and need to build brand identity and awareness, and test the marketplace.  Sure, the goal of marketing is, ultimately, to ‘sell more stuff’, but it can do that in a lot of ways, from driving site traffic to increasing engagement to improving customer service to improving the sales function.  So the answer to this question isn’t just “Sales should have increased by X%”, but also “Increased customer retention”, “Lower cost of customer acquisition”, etc.


I know, I know – another long post.  But whether you’re a marketing consultant or a new marketing client, I promise these 11 questions will get you an effective marketing strategy, faster than you thought.