Quick, tell us what branding means.

Okay, no snap quizzes here. It doesn’t help that people mean different things when they talk about branding. The term can be applied to a number of concepts. It depends on the context.

A graphic designer will look at it through the lens of branding design – choosing symbols, colours and other elements to convey a business’ personality. A fashion store is different from an accountant. What visual and textual cues does the customer need to understand each business? And diving deeper, what does a fashion store for teens look like versus one for mature clientele? Casual or conservative? Basic or refined? Colourful or muted?

It’s from this point of view that many people equate logos with branding. In terms of how brand is used today, the logo is a component of a company’s identity package. To complicate things even more, the term is embedded into the language of retail. A grocery store carries many brands of canned vegetables. What brand do you buy? And we won’t even go into the issue of livestock.

Three Brand Definitions

How we define brands and branding affects our perception of them. Many people equate the logo as the brand, but it’s merely a symbol that aids recognition in the marketplace. Retail conditions us to think of brands as a company’s line of products. But today, the brand is the story of a company that is affected by everyone interacting with it.

For our purpose, it’s useful to frame a company’s brand as the total of every experience its owners, employees and customers have with the products and services it provides. That’s because there’s no place to hide anymore. At one point in time companies drove their own story from the top down, broadcasting PR and advertising that said they were respectable, trustworthy, honest and fair. Short of a major incident, the company owned their brand.

But decades of consumer and media activism looking into how companies run and what they put into their products was only amped up by the growth of the internet and social media. With today’s communication transparency, each interaction affects how a company is perceived as not only a supplier of goods and services but as a citizen in the world they’re profiting from. It is that concept of perception that either aligns customers with a company or signals them to look elsewhere.

People have more options to buy than ever, and they’re willing to spend with companies they believe in. People – especially the younger generations that are becoming drivers of new consumer spending in new channels – want experiences that align with their values.

What Does Your Company Stand For

Providing good products and customer service is expected and not necessarily rewarded. Consumers, especially at the younger end of the scale, expect companies to live their corporate responsibility statements and can be punishing if your actions don’t align with your words.

None of these questions have anything to do with your product or its price, and the level of interaction expected by potential customers now means you can’t avoid answering them.

Not every company has to espouse the same values. A furrier is going to have a very different customer base than a wildlife refuge. An extreme example, but understanding what your customer values before, during and beyond a sale is good business practice. The other side is understanding what your company is all about with the same insight you bring to customer analysis.

For many consumer-oriented businesses (B2C), expressing progressive values gives space for all to be included because the potential market is large and diverse, and alienation – intentional or accidental – is quickly penalized through social media. For companies that sell to other businesses (B2B), it can be more important to know your customer’s business inside out and speak the same language they do exclusive of societal trends.

Either way, it’s important that your values and the messaging around them be authentic. Saying one thing and doing another is worse than living what your company’s culture truly is. How many companies have said they cared about the environment have been exposed as not living up to their words? It’s been enough that the term greenwashing has become a symbol for industrial companies that don’t live up to their environmental commitments.

Exposing Bad Brands

With social media’s emphasis on being critical, it’s easier than ever for badly-behaving companies to be exposed, sending PR and marketing teams into overdrive.

Your story, whatever it is, is the basis for building the foundation for your brand. A successful brand story is the key to building trust and confidence over time and that leads to long-term customer engagement and loyalty.

You want that because mere transactional sales fluctuate due to factors outside your control. A customer that views your products and services as essential is more likely to keep purchasing from you during downturns, and that helps you weather those times with less stress and more revenue than you might have had otherwise.

You see brand stories quite clearly in the large national and international brands. I won’t give examples, but all you need to do is think of your favourite companies and products to know what an effective brand story can do for sales and loyalty. And there are plenty of bad company examples too, whose poor reputation is larger than whatever good they’re trying to offer the marketplace.

Large companies start out as small companies, building their story brick by brick. It’s important to lay your foundation with strength, purpose and understanding that very soon all eyes will be on what you have to offer and what you stand for. Once you’ve taken your story public, you are no longer the sole author of your brand. The more transparent you can be, the more likely you are to connect with the customers you want.

Laying The Bricks In The Right Order

Rather than scramble when your brand story is no longer supported in the marketplace, start from a place of defining your core values. These are the first bricks of your true story, and they will draw in like-minded customers.

Today’s landscape offers an increasing number of channels both physical and virtual to sell into while at the same time competition is increasing because of the ease of access to markets. How are you going to stand out, differentiating yourself from your competition?

There is no shortcut to building long-term relationships. The bare bones econo website does little more than allow you to say, “I have a website.” If you want to make digital channels a viable part of your revenue stream, it takes investment of time, resources and capital.

Infinity Reef is a small, nimble agency that outperforms for its size and responds well to client engagement and collaboration. Contact us and we’ll be happy to have an unhurried, in-depth conversation with you.