1. Introduction: Your Brand Is What People Say It Is

What inspires loyalty in a customer? The details vary from one transaction to another, but the unifying thread is always the same: a sense of personal connection and confidence. People rarely recommend an auto mechanic because he’s got the best transmission repair skills in town. They say, “He’s always dealt honestly with me. I trust him.” The idea takes a different form at a neighborhood family restaurant: “The first time we ate there, the owner visited our table. The second time, she remembered our names.”

That’s brand in a nutshell. It’s not your company’s logo, tagline, or mission statement. “Someone said, it’s what people say about you when you leave the room,” says Carlos Martinez Onaindia, Global Brand senior manager at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and co-author of Designing B2B Brands: Lessons from Deloitte and 195,000 Brand Managers (Wiley, 2013). “It’s about perception; it’s about reputation. Why are you different from your competition?”

2. Make Your Brand Meaningful

His co-author, Brian Resnick, Global Brand associate director at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, explains, “A clear brand strategy is built from a clear business strategy. At the heart of any successful brand is that idea of consistency in communications and consistency of experience.” Your brand, in other words, tells customers what they can count on from your products, services, and people. It’s a commitment to taking care of their needs and giving them a consistently positive experience with your company.

A business focused on the quality of those experiences does more to build brand than it can accomplish by using worn-out phrases like “premier provider” or “world-class service,” experts say. “People think they establish brand by saying ‘we’re the world leaders,’ or using terms like ‘service’ and whatnot. It actually does just the opposite, because everybody’s saying that,” says John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing.

What can you say to stand out? Start by thinking about your customers rather than your company. Ask what they value most about doing business with you and what services you could add to support their businesses or make their lives easier. Direct interaction with customers gives you an edge in responding to their needs-;and that’s the core of a strong small business brand.

Know What Your Market Needs

“When people are trying to establish a brand, the very first thing they do is take what they perceive as the most important attribute to their core customer base and argue that they have it,” says Wharton professor Barbara E. Kahn, author of Global Brand Power: Leveraging Branding for Long-Term Growth (Wharton Digital Press, 2013). The better strategy? Show them that you understand the challenges they face and the benefits they’ll get from doing business with you. Instead of selling products or services, offer them solutions that seem custom-designed to their needs.

Consider Sandy Poehnelt, whose Kauai, Hawaii-based The Right Slice started selling pies at five dollars a slice in December 2009. You might not expect upscale desserts to take off in a down economy. But Poehnelt struck branding gold with a combination of fresh, locally-sourced, high-quality ingredients and fun presentation. During a stressful time, her products tapped into people’s desire for a little indulgence.

Poehnelt’s example illustrates how brand strategy isn’t the exclusive domain of big enterprises. In fact, small companies’ personal relationships with their customers can create a branding advantage. Your brand is how you respond to client emergencies, how you handle product complaints-;even the way your employees greet customers when you’re not there. “That collective experience is happening whether you control it or not,” Jantsch says.

4. Keep the Conversation Going

You can’t control it completely-;but you can guide it by listening and responding to customer needs. That means engaging customers in person, by phone, in writing, or virtually, in accordance with their preferences for receiving information.

Social media platforms give you unprecedented access to information about where you’re succeeding in wowing customers, where your efforts are falling flat or backfiring, and where opportunities are emerging to strengthen ties to the community your business serves. You can use those platforms to solicit input, which is a great way not only to solidify relationships, but to convert your most committed customers into “brand evangelists”-;people who help spread your message across what Martinez Onaindia calls “the brandscape.”

Authenticity is key: self-promotion rings false, and social media veterans tune it out. But they’re open to receiving messages that relate your brand to their interests and needs. “When you tackle it with the right spirit, you have the opportunity to make these interactions really emotional, collaborative experiences,” Resnick says. “You’re able to get wonderful real-time insights on your brand and react accordingly.”

 Make Your Position Clear

That feedback offers a fresh perspective on your strengths as a company and how you can build on them to be the preferred provider of your products or services. Will your customers appreciate after-sales support? Customized solutions? Training to get the most from their purchases? Think about how you can add value in a way that makes customers more reliant on-;and more loyal to-;your business brand.

To zero in on those points, take your branding beyond price-;someone can undercut you tomorrow. Likewise, don’t base brand on having the fastest service, latest innovation, or most creative solution-;again, someone may be right on your heels. The “sticky” characteristics focus on why your business does what it does, Jantsch says. “How does it help their customers solve their challenges and meet their goals? Hone that down to its simplest terms, and lead with that.”

“In the end, differentiation is not about differentiation from your competition,” Martinez Onaindia says. “It’s about how you engage your people and your stakeholders so they feel in their minds that you are different.”

The more you interact with your customers, the better informed you’ll be about their needs, their priorities, and their perception of your company’s value to them. And that will tell you which branding messages to drive home.

Branding Is a Team Sport

To attain those goals of authenticity and consistency, your brand must be demonstrated by every member of your team. “Every member of the organization has a role in shaping that brand,” Resnick says.

With that in mind, make brand awareness a universal job requirement. Recruit for it, and let employees know that it’s one of your criteria for awarding raises, promotions, and bonuses. And take time to ensure that your team articulates the company’s branding message consistently across all media.

“You really have to educate your employees to contribute to brand,” Kahn says. “If you don’t really have the entire company understand the brand essence and live the brand, you’re going to be off message.”

Live Your Brand

Aligning your products, services, and conduct with your message is key to maintaining your customers’ trust, loyalty, and business. Everything you do should reinforce your brand message.

For example, if being “green” is important to your business and its customers, use post-consumer content recycled paper, packaging, and shipping materials. Encourage employees to carpool, and give them paid company time to volunteer with local parks or clean-up crews. If you market products or services designed to simplify your customers’ lives, reinforce that concept in your pricing: mark items $50, not $49.95. If your core customers are young families, keep an eye out for parents who are loaded down with toddlers and purchases, and offer to carry their packages to their cars.

“People relate to the core beliefs that they live, and I think that is very attractive from a branding standpoint,” Jantsch says. “And the cool thing about it is, you can’t replicate that. It’s easy to replicate product features, service packages, and points of view, even, but it’s difficult to replicate a system of core beliefs that then infuse every element of the organization.”

That thinking informs all the branding decisions that Lexington, South Carolina nurse Misty Rawls makes in marketing her Just Wanna Melt line of organic skin care products. Her ecological focus and commitment to plastic-free packaging runs counter to some prospective customers’ preferences. But by staying true to her brand, she earned word-of-mouth loyalty and carved out a niche that attracted the attention of bigger players in the market who now sell her product line. Rawls’ experience shows the value not just of building your brand, but of keeping it true to your core vision.

Keep Your Brand Alive and Evolving

Thinking from this perspective allows you not just to tell your story, but to show why your company does what it does and why that should matter to the people you want to serve. In the process, you’ll position your brand to make a lasting impression and retain its vitality and relevance even as the market changes and customer needs evolve.

Once you’ve established a message that’s true to your business and values, it’s essential that you continue to listen to customers and stay on top of market conditions. Branding isn’t a task you tackle and complete. You must reevaluate your messaging and revitalize it as you expand operations or even reinvent your business; that will allow you to attract new customers and prospects without alienating your existing base.

“If a brand is not moving forward, then it’s going to be stale very quickly,” Resnick says. “That doesn’t mean completely reinventing yourself every year, but it really does require a keen understanding of business conditions, marketplace wants, regulatory shifts, and a host of other factors. So that type of evolution, that type of growth, I think is absolutely necessary.”

Consider corporate social responsibility. Not many years ago, customers focused primarily on a company’s business conduct. But today, many people are equally concerned about corporate citizenship. For that market segment, it’s no longer enough for business owners to engage in charitable support. They must be involved in and make positive contributions to the communities the company serves. A business with a strong yet elastic brand can integrate community engagement seamlessly into its established identity.

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