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Everyone knows brands aren’t built overnight. The largest and most valuable corporations today are a product of years of research, planning, execution, evolution, and investment that all lead to something much more meaningful than people simply consuming goods and services.
Of course, when a business is just starting out, chances are it won’t have millions of dollars set aside to invest in brand strategy. No matter your budget, it’s important to understand the value and basics of branding, whether your business is a startup or a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
For the Savvy Startup
1. Create a brand manual.
When you’re building a brand, it’s important to put all your branding decisions in writing and visuals, so that the brand can be easily distilled. A brand manual serves as a base for all stylistic decisions about your brand going forward, so designers, writers, and leaders can refer to the brand manual to see correct uses of the logo, colors associated with your brand, your brand tone, and the values your brand wishes to exhibit. According to Harvard Business Review, your brand manual and identity should include the following:
2. Invest in brand-building resources.
Most large businesses take for granted that they need to hire people to build their brand and manage their reputation, but for smaller businesses, making that leap of investment can be difficult because it’s hard to directly link branding to ROI. However, investing in people to build your brand is important. Business experts agree that branding your business in an appealing way can make or break it. Depending on its success, your branding can be one of the differentiators in your market, it can help people feel good about making a purchase from your business, and it can also give meaning to the employees that your business relies on for continued success. Even small businesses should budget to invest in building its brand, even if it’s a temporary brand consultant or an outside agency.
3. Meet your customers both online and offline.
In the age of the Internet, customers shop differently than before. The textbook customer funnel has become a more complex journey — one where customers can easily access reviews and articles online, poll their Facebook friends for product suggestions, and search for coupons and deals. Social media also makes it easy for customers to contact brands directly or vent about brands that have given them a subpar experience. While offline branding is essential, online branding has become equally important. Your business is building an online reputation with or without you — people will talk about your business online no matter what. So, it’s important that your business be part of the conversation. Not only can you get ahead of your online reputation, but you can also glean valuable feedback and insights from your customers and be front-of-mind.
For the Established Enterprise
1. Turn your employees into brand ambassadors.
Transforming your employees into brand ambassadors is easier said than done. Happy, engaged employees who believe in your business and its vision will be your company’s biggest fans and loudest champions. While achieving this type of workforce takes years, the first steps are to ensure that your employees know what your company stands for, what it believes in, and its key differentiators. This may seem basic, but according to a Gallup poll, only 28 percent of employees polled agreed with the statement “I know what my company stands for and what makes our brand different from our competitors.” Throughout all its internal communication, your company should be referring to its mission statement and vision often. You may even want to display easy-to-remember messaging around the office and refer to your company’s key values in settings like performance reviews to help connect your employees’ jobs to the bigger picture.
2. Capitalize on brand evangelists.
The branding strategies that worked in the past aren’t necessarily the ones that work today. Now more than ever, it’s not only important to develop a brand story, but to let consumers tell their brand stories for you. Established brands already have evangelists — influencers who will tell their friends, family, and anyone who’s listening on social media about their favorite products and personal experiences. In the age of professional lifestyle bloggers, social media mavens, and YouTubers, it’s easy to get in touch with people who already love your brand, deepen their relationship with your brand, and capitalize on their built-in audience. This can be as simple as responding to a Tweet with a “thank you” or surprising a fan with free products or services.
3. Create shared value.
Creating shared value means linking competitive advantage and social responsibility — addressing an economic need while also doing something valuable for society that does not have a direct impact on the bottom line. It goes a step further than giving back to the community — which may involve volunteer work or donations to third-party nonprofit organizations. Creating shared value means building processes into the core of your business that help the greater community. For example, Nestlé has devoted years of research to develop an inexpensive spice blend that helps combat nutrient deficiency. In another example, Ben and Jerry’s insists on only using “fair trade” ingredients using “environmentally sound farming practices.” Whether it’s donating time, fulfilling a need in your community, or creating a new program within your organization, creating shared value will help connect both your employees and your customers to your brand and business.
In the end, colors, logos, and clever taglines don’t make or break the brand. It’s the experience that resonates with customers, and it’s the experience that will determine whether that “emotional aftertaste” is bitter or sweet. On the road to creating the ultimate brand experience, ensuring a positive customer experience is still the most important part of any branding strategy — then you can move on from there.