Your company’s brand equals your market position and value proposition. It’s your entire strategy in a single package that is as important to your customers as it is to your long-term success.
When a company, no matter its size, makes branding a second thought, it is giving itself an unnecessary handicap that can translate into slowed growth, market ambiguity, or worse. Unfortunately, it is often a common oversight in building small- to medium-sized businesses. The explanation is in part due to the misconceptions concerning what a brand is and its importance; and an often misguided priority for racing to sales before the brand promise & positioning have been established and communicated. This misstep can be catastrophic for VC-backed technology startups, where breaking through the noise is critical on the path to ‘product-market fit’ - a phrase originally coined by Marc Andreesen (of Andreessen Horowitz) to connote solving a market problem at scale.
In my experience, founders, CEOs, operations, and finance executives hear brand and tune out because marketers have done a less than satisfactory job of connecting brand with sales and growth. These same CEOs are legitimately chasing growth, a market-leader position, or funding and think that they can address branding later. And yet these same executives are often brand-loyal consumers themselves everywhere in their personal lives for cell phones, automobiles, electronics, and consumer packaged goods. They make consumer decisions based on trust and confidence in a brand and its promise. The same psychology applies to your company's brand - customers and prospects need to understand the unique problem you solve that they consider important; how you are different, and then trust you can deliver satisfaction.
Author Douglas Van Praet, in his book, Unconscious Branding, asserted that: “Humans gravitate to the known, the safe, and the trusted.” Trust is integral to purchase decisions and your growth.
The big problem with avoiding the brand discussion is that you miss your opportunity to be seen as unique, and meaningful. When your brand is vague, dull, or unremarkable, customers think of you as yet another company that does X.
If you don’t intentionally anchor your brand, prospective customers will frame your value in terms of your competition, presenting you with a steep uphill battle for you to prove how you’re different and why they should buy from you. Think RFPs, and protracted sales cycles - in the absence of clarity around who you are, who you serve and how, prospects will use these mechanisms to convince themselves you are the right solution. So, don’t leave your brand in the hands of your customers, market influencers, or worse, your competitors.
As one of my favorite authors, Marty Neumeier, puts it, “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, and company.” It’s that simple. Your brand is who you want to be in the eyes of the customer and your target market - and preferably not all things to all people (customers). Your brand becomes how they view and value you. Your brand therefore is your market positioning and unique value proposition: they are often mistakenly considered separable.
Ask CocaCola if their brand position — the real thing — was separable from the product’s value proposition. The most successful brands in the world, such as CocaCola, Apple, and Disney, know their brand confers trust, relevancy, meaning, and a solution for a specific known and important problem or need.
To establish your brand, you’ve got to create a position and message that both resonates with customers, and is believable, relevant, and defensible. Here’s what your brand should answer in the customer’s mind:
Your answers should relate everything back to the customer. Success with these questions requires addressing what they need in a way they understand. How do you get there? By targeting emotion and solving their problem with a unique solution.
The best brands work on two levels: they solve a problem and they establish an emotional connection with the audience. You accomplish these through messaging.
For Apple, the tagline ‘Think Different’ was how it defined its brand and approach to the market. That simple message told its audience that Apple, as a brand, understood and delivered quality on a unique personal level — which stood as a direct counterpoint to IBM’s corporate-focused ‘Think’ slogan. Apple’s emotional connection, loved by many, helped drive brand loyalty and an almost $3 Trillion market capitalization (as of July 2023).
It’s all about creating an emotional connection with customers based on a clearly defined message that tackles a known problem. It can be a chicken-or-the-egg problem if you try to focus solely on one side of that concern. In the best situations, companies solve the problem and make an emotional connection as close together as possible.
So, let’s return to that quote from Mary Neumeier: "brand is a person’s gut feeling.”
Think about what informs your gut. What creates the initial positive feeling for the brands you like? And how can you accomplish the same for your business?
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for companies and leaders now thinking about ‘brand’ is they need to invest in the effort thoughtfully and early. You can’t afford to wait. Your clock is running.
What will people know you for when market factors challenge growth; and competition becomes more fierce. What can you point to that defines you in the mind of the customer when you make your pitch?
If you don’t have a quick, direct answer, you need to do some more foundational thought-work. That’s often the best time to bring in some outside help to guide and provoke a fresh perspective on your company and what it means to be your specific brand.