For one, it’s frustrating for these business owners because they know how valuable what they have to offer is but frequently see other businesses acquiring the kind of customers that would be a perfect fit for their business.
And it’s a problem for the rest of us because we miss out on really good products and services. We miss out on what they’re building for us and how it impacts our lives for better. Important new innovations don’t make it into our hands, and better businesses aren’t available for our benefit.
If I’m talking about your business then you know how disappointing it is to have an exceptional product or service but not enough awareness to see it take off. It falls short of all it has potential for and you don’t feel a sense of momentum in sales. Maybe a little bit, but it’s not enough.
This piece is for you, and by the end of it you’ll be aware of what you need to do to turn your business into a thriving brand that experiences serious growth.
Bridging the gap between exceptional businesses and the people they exist to serve.
There’s a lot of ideologies and approaches to marketing going around. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The hard part isn’t even as much about adopting and implementing any given strategy as it is identifying which one is relevant.
Maybe you’ve tried some marketing but it has fallen short of your expectations. Maybe you’re about to launch a new business and the stakes are pretty high for it to hit the ground running.
Either way, the reality is far too often marketing becomes white noise. It’s inconveniently present in our lives but something we’ve mostly learnt to tune out.
The reason is, we’re wired to survive.
Donald Miller in his book StoryBrand shares a conversation he had with Mike McHargue, saying “marketing is too complicated. The brain doesn’t know how to process the information… story formulas put everything in order so the brain doesn’t have to work to understand what’s going on.”
Marketing activities that aren’t grounded in an underlying story based on what’s important to your customer are generally ignored.
For every marketing activity you invest in that doesn’t connect with your customer in a deeply human way and further build their understanding of how your business exists to help them, is ineffective and most likely wasted resources.
It’s a reality that unless business owners acknowledge, they won’t become anything more than white noise and get noticed by the right customers.
You need to start thinking about your business as a brand.
What is a brand?
Often when we think of brands we think big brands like Apple or Woolworths. But brands aren’t exclusive to large businesses. A small business has a brand too.
A brand is not your product or service. A brand is the less tangible meaning that surrounds it. It’s a distinct understanding of a product, service, or company in the minds of its customers.
In the words of strategist Marty Neumeier, a brand is “not what you say it is, it’s what they say it is” (The Brand Gap).
Your company and marketing team can have a crack at influencing customers but in the end, your brand is whatever their gut-feelings are towards you and what you’re offering. Their perceptions range from a practical awareness of your products and services, to emotional, symbolic and sensory attributes and ideas about your business.
In an article by Mimi Turner for LinkedIn B2B Trends she helps us remember, “the lengths to which the human brain will go to avoid cognitive load.”
Once upon a time we had enough space in our days to compare small differences in products and their features. Now we make decisions based on gut feel.
Make no mistake though, this less tangible attribution and meaning has a very tangible and significant effect on your business. It’s called brand equity and for a lot of large, successful businesses it’s one of the biggest items on their balance sheet. Whilst you might not track it, the same principle applies to small business; the more prevalent your brand is, the more valuable your business will be.
While we can’t force people to think about our brands in a particular way, we can help shape their perceptions.
It’s a long game, and the way to do it is with a long term strategy.
What is brand strategy and why do I need it?
What is brand strategy?
Brand strategy is a long term plan to turn your business into a thriving brand that:
- Builds a meaningful business with clarity and purpose
- Is relevant to your customers and connects with them on a personal level
- Stands out in a crowded market
- Continues to grow and evolve
Why do I need brand strategy?
Every business owner that wants their business to become a brand that’s easily understood and recalled when it comes time to purchase products from your sector, needs a brand strategy.
Every business owner that wants to avoid pouring time and money into paid advertisements because it’s temporarily propping up their marketing success, needs a brand strategy.
Every business owner that wants their business to attract exceptional talent to work for them, leading to innovative and creative leaders within their team, needs a brand strategy.
And every business that’s interested in making a meaningful and positive impact in people’s lives, sustaining passion and desire within their team, and working toward a long term vision for the future, needs a brand strategy.
How to do brand strategy: 5 steps to brand strategy
It is brand researchers' Tilde Heding, Charlotte F. Knudtzen and Mogens Bjerre firm conviction that ”every brand is unique and requires its own unique recipe for success.” (Brand Management: Research, Theory and Practice)
So, the goal isn’t to give you a pre-defined formula but a strategic and creative process for developing your own brand building recipe. Here's how it works.
There’s five steps to brand strategy:
- Brand Heart: Define the heart of your brand
- Brand Story: Know how your story intersects with your customers story
- Brand Positioning: Position your brand in order to stand out
- Brand Personality: Make your brand personal
- Brand Management: Manage your brand and growth
1. Brand Heart: Define the heart of your brand
The first step for branding strategy requires a bit of digging. This part isn’t about your customer, it’s about you.
As the business owner you have unique motivations and convictions around why you started your business, what keeps you going, and where you’re headed.
It is important to articulate these things because the passion you have for your business is one of the main drivers of your long term business growth.
Identifying your Brand Heart is about intensifying that passion and helping others catch onto your vision.
Some key questions you’ll need to answer are these:
Why do you exist?
- Why did you start your business?
- Why is it important that your business exists?
- How is it a contribution to others?
What’s your vision?
- What is it that you’re bringing forth into reality?
- What are you building long term?
How do you do it?
- What values are you uncompromising on?
- How do you work when you’re at your best?
2. Brand Story: Know how your story intersects with your customers story
A lot of businesses hero themselves in their story and in doing so, push customers away. They end up hassling customers with why their business is so fantastic and their products superior, making customers feel like the business is trying to shake them down for a sale.
Framing your brand story like this leads to customer confusion about how your business not only helps them achieve their physical goals but their internal needs too. When businesses come across with obvious commercial motivation, customers move on.
Instead, customers need to know what’s in it for them. To achieve this, you need a distinct invitation that they can’t resist, and it’s delivered in the shape of a story.
- Who is your customer?
- What problems are they experiencing?
- Who are you, and how will you help them?
- What do they need to do now and what’s at stake if they don’t do it?
- How will they succeed?
By answering these questions and framing your brand story well you will make your brand irresistibly engaging and relevant to your customers.
3. Brand Positioning: Position your brand in order to stand out
In other words, don’t generalise.
By resisting the pressure to be the same as other businesses, you’re not fitting in but standing out. Good! Standing out is one of the most important elements of building a thriving brand.
If you don’t build your business around what makes you different and unique, it doesn’t matter how good your service or product is, no one will know why to choose you over others.
As business owners we often come in thinking our products and services are best. We seldom ask ourselves, but best for what?
What to one person seems better, to another seems inferior. A simple concept called ‘sonder’ suggests that everyone has an internal world just as rich and complex as yourself.
This means it doesn’t matter how much better your product is to you because to someone else they might not be measuring better with the same metrics.
Marketing thought-leader, Seth Godin, puts it this way:
“If we care about sustainability and price, then our brain has a slot for our favourite brand, and it’s the one that’s the best at sustainability and price. No surprise. But our neighbour, the one who cares far more about status within the group and luxury, has a very different brand in mind. Which is not surprising, because we’re humans, not machines.”
As business owners we need to understand, our customers are humans and not machines.
The key to successfully positioning your business is empathy and generosity.
- Empathy because you understand that your customer has a need and what they consider to be their need is true
- Generosity because you’re not here to serve everyone’s needs but to provide a product or service that’s tailored specifically to serve your specific customer
By positioning your brand with empathy and generosity you’re saying to your customer, “I’m here for you, not everyone else.”
Although it can feel counterintuitive to target a narrower audience, there’s actually more value in connecting with fewer customers that love and need your brand, than trying to appeal to a mass audience that couldn’t care less about what you have to offer.
Find your edge.
Stand for something.
Serve your specific customer.
Be known and loved by the people you serve.
4. Brand Personality: Make your brand personal
Being personal doesn’t have to mean being an influencer on social media. Making your brand personal is about understanding how people connect with your brand and how it makes them feel.
Being noticed for something special doesn’t have to be loud, but it is distinct and memorable. It’s like the hook in a good song that you can’t help but respond to. It resonates and awakens something in you that is deeply human.
Your brand personality is the hook of your brand.
Like a good song, it draws people in and appeals by appealing their senses, taste and experience.
Brand personality considers the visual and verbal expression and experience of the brand but it’s not limited to a style guide. It extends right through to customer experience and shop fit outs too. Any time your business engages with someone they will experience the personality of your brand.
These experiences impact your consumer-brand relationships—which are how customers feel and behave towards your brand and develop connection. The goal is to strengthen these relationships by creating experiences that express the brand personality.
From making people laugh with an ironic joke, to connecting with someone via an empathetic story, the consumer-brand relationship is strengthened. It’s nothing overly fancy and technical, but when you know your customer and how you can engage with them in a way that they can understand and appreciate, your customer will notice and thank you for it.
5. Brand Management: Manage your brand well
With those first four steps in place as the foundation of building your brand, you’ll need to keep on your toes as your brand moves from a strategic document to out in the real world.
Your brand is constantly evolving as markets change and new business opportunities inevitably arise.
From developing a visual identity and launching your new brand to making key business decisions and everything in between, your brand strategy plays a roll in guiding you. Building towards long term goals requires short term checkpoints. This is the work of Brand Management.
What is Brand Management?
Brand Management is the ongoing task of proactively maintaining your customer relationships, keeping an ear on your reputation in the market, and responding appropriately.
It looks different for different brands but for most small businesses this is a simple, regular check in to make sure your business and brand is still aligning with long term direction. Go over your brand strategy document and see how aligned the actual real-life expression of your business looks. Does it look more or less like your brand strategy than when you started?
If you’ve veered off course a little bit, identify why and steer the business back on track.
If you undertake any project based work to your brand or marketing, always refer back to the brand strategy to guide the direction of the project. Consistency is critical for your brand strategy to take full effect, building awareness and trust with customers.
Delivering on your promise
Brand Strategy doesn’t negate the need for you to have a really good business. If anything it demands it even more as you live up to customers’ expectations. Brand Strategy puts you on the hook for running a good business and doing good in the world.
Our world needs more businesses that bring something unique and meaningful to their customers as a contribution to making our culture more diverse and beautiful. If you can deliver on your promise to customers to make their lives better, then Brand Strategy is your framework for effective, sustainable business growth.