Building Your Brand

Overview  

Branding is more than just a business buzzword. It has become the crux of selling in the new economy. If the old marketing mantra was," Nothing happens until somebody sells something," the new philosophy could be" Nothing happens until somebody brands something."

In its simplest form, a brand is a noun. It is the name attached to a product or service. However, upon close inspection, a brand represents many more intangible aspects of a product or service: a collection of feelings and perceptions about quality, image, lifestyle and status. It creates in the mind of customers and prospects the perception that there is no product or service on the market that is quite like yours. In short, a brand offers the customer a guarantee and then delivers on it.

You might infer, then, that if you build a powerful brand, you will in turn be able to create a powerful marketing program. However, if you can't convince customers that your product is worthy of purchasing, no amount of advertising dollars, fancy packaging or public relations will help you achieve your sales goals. Therefore, successful branding programs begin with superior products and services, backed by excellent customer service that permeates an entire organization.

Outline:

  1. The Importance of Branding
  2. When Should You Brand?
  3. Types of Brands
  4. What Goes Into a Brand?
  5. What's in a Name?
  6. Brand Positioning
  7. Building Brand Personality
  8. Strengthening Your Core Brand
  9. Creating an Online Identity
  10. Resources


I. The Importance of Branding

One of the truths of modern business is that there is almost nothing that your competitors can't duplicate in a matter of weeks or months. If you have a great idea, you can be certain that somebody will copy it before long. And not only will they follow your lead, but they may also be able to do a better job or sell the product or service at a lower price. The question then becomes, "What competitive edge do I have to offer that cannot be copied by anyone else?"

The answer? Your brand.

Creating a strong brand identity will build mind share — one of the strongest competitive advantages imaginable. As a result, customers will think of your business first when they think of your product category. For example, when you think of tissues, more likely than not, you think of the Kleenex brand. And when you're looking for tape to wrap a present, Scotch is the brand that springs to mind. Likewise, when your child wants a hamburger, he will often say he wants to go to McDonald's. The reason behind these strong brand-product associations is that these companies have built rock solid brand identities.

"A brand is the one thing that you can own that nobody can take away from you," says Howard Kosgrove, vice principal of marketing at Lindsay, Stone and Briggs Advertising in Madison, Wis. "Everything else, they can steal. They can steal your trade secrets. Eventually, your patents will expire. Your physical plant will wear out. Technology will change. But your brand can go on and live. It creates a lasting value above and beyond all the other elements of your business."

That value is often called brand equity, or the worth of the brand. Brand equity, unlike other abstract marketing notions, can be quantified. For instance, if you owned the Marlboro Company and wanted to sell it, you would begin to value the firm by looking at the assets tied to the Marlboro brand. You would then identify the cost of the factories, patents, trucks, machines and staff." They are worth a small fraction of what you can sell that brand for," says Kosgrove. "The value of that brand is huge compared to those actual physical assets."

The importance and value of branding becomes apparent when an entrepreneur wants to sell his or her company or take it to Wall Street for a public offering or other infusion of capital. It is often the brand that a business owner has to sell in such cases.

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II. When Should You Brand?

Because of the competitive nature of business today, nearly all industries can benefit from a branded product. All of the traditionally brand-conscious industries, including fashion, restaurants and consumer goods, are being forced to continue to brand heavily — perhaps even more strategically than they ever have in the past. Financial services, which were one of the last frontiers, are even beginning to see the importance of branding by tagging banking packages and even mutual funds with catchy names. Even industrial markets, where cost is usually more of a loyalty building factor, has seen brand names creep in. For example, Tyvek, a DuPont fiber, improbably one of the best known industrial branded products.

Other industries in which branding is a must include:

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III. Types of Brands

A brand cannot be all things to all people. By definition, no one brand is going to appeal to all customers. On the contrary, branding is based on the concept of singularity — targeting individuals in a personal manner— and therefore precludes the concept of universal appeal. This is why many brands broaden and widen their appeal by creating tertiary brands or line extenders.

Although most industries and products or services can benefit from a brand, not every product needs its own stand-alone brand. Brands can be separated into three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary.

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IV. What Goes Into a Brand?

If your product or service is new or unique, thetas of branding is made easier. Since there are no pre-existing biases toward the product or service, it will be easy to manipulate customer attitudes.

More often, your product or service will have been in existence for a while and have direct competition. And if it doesn't, it probably soon will. Therefore, products that may be roughly equivalent in terms of their features need to have a brand identity that will impact consumer choice.

Brand identity is comprised of:

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V. What's in a Name?

The foundation of your brand is its name. After its uniqueness wears off, it will be your brand name against the brand names of your competitors in the marketplace. So, how can you create a name that will stand the test of time?

"First, it should be able to communicate on its own without a lot of advertising," says James Dettore, president of the Brand Institute in Boston. "It has to be easy to pronounce and have neutral to positive associations around the world, or at least in various languages. Because of the high ethnic influences here in America, you still have to have a name that crosses over many ethic and language barriers."

Some extremely successful brand names include Google, Calvin Klein, Evian, McDonald's and Nordstrom.

Many companies have committed translation faux pas when they failed to cross reference the brand's name in other languages or cultures. One of the most popular instances was the marketing mishap with the Chevy Nova. The car didn't go over well when the Latin consumers, as the vehicle's name in Spanish means" It doesn't go."

More recently, marketers at Reebok obviously didn't do their homework when they named their women's running shoe "Incubus." Apparently, no one at Reebok was aware of the nightmarish nature of the name: An evil mythological spirit believed to descend upon and have sexual intercourse with women as they sleep. The company was mortified and looked into ways it could wipe out the offending name, which didn't appear on the $57.99 shoes, but on boxes.

Besides making sure that people from all or most ethnic backgrounds will accept your brand's name, it should also be memorable and easy to communicate in packaging and advertising.

If possible, the name should also complement the overall core values of the company. For instance, Pampers was a perfect name for the diaper line that Procter & Gamble launched in the late 1970s. The name is easy to say, has positive associations, and links to the performance of the product. Besides that, the brand came out at a time when cloth diapers were still largely popular with mothers. By the name alone, mothers could make the switch to disposable diapers that were more convenient without feeling that the product would compromise the comfort, or pampering, of their child.

In cases of large companies, a brand name can help propel a product or service through the marketplace. In other instances, particularly with younger brands, the descriptiveness of the name can have a strong influence on how well it's accepted (i.e., Aleve, America Online, Performa). For others, the name has no meaning at all until broader identity building programs are built around the name (such as ESPN, Foster's Lager, Tide laundry detergent).
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VI. Brand Positioning

A. Characteristics of the Campaign

Positioning is the art of creating a brand that can persuade and realistically demonstrate its relevance to a customer's daily life to become his or her regular choice.

Positioning is not created by the marketer or the individual brand itself, but by how others perceive it. In fact, Kosgrove says that the brand is not created by the marketer at all, but rather by the customer. Marketers don't create the positioning; rather, they create the strategic and tactical suggestions to encourage the customer to accept a particular positioning in his or her mind.

For instance, bread and milk are not branded items, and despite companies' push to try and brand the two products, no company has found much success building brand equity. When customers want either one of those staple items, they usually choose what is on sale or what is available on their local grocer's shelves. Beer and cola, on the other hand, are heavily branded product categories: Consumers have formed a relationship with and will search out their preferred brands.

To position your offering properly, you need to identify the key attributes or benefits that represent the value of your product or service. That will, in turn, create trust in your brand. As you begin to understand the relationship that your customers have with your brand, you will be able to more efficiently meet their needs, wants and desires through your brand. "Positioning is everything," says Dettore. "Positioning studies identify the audience according to their needs, expectations and wants. Those drivers then come into developing products and services that best fit those audiences' needs and wants."

While marketers do not literally position brands, they can have a significant influence on how they are positioned. Several characteristics can work in a positioning campaign, such as:

  1. Relevance to a customer's lifestyle - The more apparent the connection is between the brand and the prospect's daily activities, the greater the chances are that the prospect will buy that product. Relevance, or the connection that the prospect has to the brand identity, is how customers ultimately decide which brands to buy and which they will discard.
    Ask yourself: Is the identity of the brand too young for my target market? Is it too old? Is it too upscale?


  2. Promises backed by support - Benefits need to be backed with some sort of persuasive reason to believe the product's hype. Many times, products or services have some formula or patent that is "unique" from all the other brands out there. Why do we trust Pantene shampoo, for instance? Because we believe in the brand's "revolutionary" Pro-V formula that leaves hairs strong and healthy. Why do we believe Secret antiperspirant will keep women smelling sweet? Because "it's pH balanced for a woman, and not a man."
    Ask yourself: What promises are you making about your brand? Can my products or services follow through on those promises?

  3. Message of the brand Is clear and focused - No matter how brilliant a strategy you have, you need to be clear about the message. Some examples of crystal clear campaigns include "Gillette - The Best a Man Can Get" or "Choosy Moms Choose Jif."
    Ask yourself: Are my messages in line with what I want to convey about my products and services? Are there messages that can be misconstrued? If so, how can I change them to be more accurate?

  4. Message of the brand Is appropriate - Have you ever seen a commercial on TV that seems to come from left field? It grabbed your attention, but told you nothing about the product or service, and it seemed inappropriate for what is being sold. For instance, financial institutions can't effectively work humor into their ads because the preconceived notion is that banks are not supposed to be fun or entertaining. The message that you send needs to be appropriate to the product or service you are trying to brand.
    Ask yourself: Are my advertising messages in line with the image I'm trying to convey about my company, products and services? If not, could they be hurting, rather than helping, the brand?

  5. Product Is the genuine article - Many successful companies build customer trust by claiming to be the real McCoy. For instance, Pace Picante sauce tells you that they are not the brand from New York City. Coke tells you that "It's the Real Thing," "Coke Is It" and "Always Coca-Cola."
    The copy line helps reinforce that this brand is the genuine article for that category of products. Even service companies can make claims to being the real deal. AT&T's True Voice lets its customers know that they are receiving a level of clarity above what other telecommunication companies carry through their fiber optic lines.

    Ask yourself: In what ways are my products and services more "genuine" than my competitors'? How can I emphasize those elements to give the brand a competitive advantage?

B. Types of Prompts in a Campaign

Once you determine the way in which you can reach your market, the next thing to look at is how you are going to lure your customer to try your brand. That method is called the "positioning prompt" of the brand.

A brand can evoke several different types of prompts. Be aware, however, that positioning prompts are not verifiable scientific hypotheses, and there is a great deal of interpretation and high degree of risk that is involved in choosing one positioning over the other. That's why it makes sense to look at alternative positioning types before deciding on which one you will attach to your brand.

1. Quality positioning - Perception of quality is probably one of the most important elements for a brand to have and can be combined with any of the other prompts below.

"If you look at the most profitable companies in the country, they have a very high perception of quality, and it may be different than measured quality," says Kosgrove. "Somebody can come in and say, 'My product is better.' Look at the computer industry, for instance. People say that Apple is a better product [than the PC]. But PC manufacturers will say that the PC is better because more people believe in it. You can talk about how your product or service is better, but you have to get people to believe in it."

Quality, or the perception of quality, lies in the mind of the buyer. Build a powerful perception of quality, and you will succeed in creating a powerful brand. Al Reis and Laura Reis, authors of "The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding," say the best way to increase perception of quality is to narrow the company's focus. When you narrow a product's focus, they explain, you become a specialist rather than a generalist, and a specialist is perceived to know more, or be of "higher quality" than a generalist.

Another way to build the perception of high quality is to simply attach a higher price tag to your brand. Most people think that they know a high quality product from another, but in reality, things are not always as they seem. For example, does a Rolex really keep better time than a Timex? Does a Mont blanc pen write better than a Cross? Do Sony radios get better reception that Sanyo's? Do Calloway Clubs really improve your golf game? Not really, but all of these brands carry a perception of higher quality because of their higher prices.

Believe it or not, high price is a benefit to some customers. It allows the affluent consumer to obtain psychological satisfaction from the public purchase and consumption of a high end product. Of course, the product or service does need to have some perk or difference to justify the higher price. For instance, Rolex makes a heavier watch than Timex. Mont blanc has a fatter pen than Cross. Calloway clubs have a bigger head than Titleist. Each of these characteristics gives the perception of quality, but they don't necessarily improve performance.
 

2. Value positioning -- Although at one time, items that were considered to be a good "value" meant that they were inexpensive, that stigma has fallen by the wayside. Today, brands that are considered a value are rising in popularity amongst consumers. In fact, packaged good brands, especially cereals, experienced a backlash when their prices rose too quickly. Private supermarket labels, as well as smart companies like Quaker, which introduced a breakfast cereal that aims at undercutting brands like Kellogg's or Post, have found a strong market. Southwest Airlines is probably the best example of how a company has been able to offer discount prices and still keep a strong brand identity. In fact, most of the other major airlines have followed Southwest's lead by rolling out value-priced flights under new, co-branded names.

3. Feature-driven prompts -- More marketers rely on product/service features to differentiate their brands than any other method. The advantage is that the message is clear, and the positioning will be credible if you stick to the facts about the product. Unfortunately, feature-orientated stances are often rendered useless if the competition comes out with a faster or more advanced model.

4. Relational prompts -- One of the most effective ways to create interest in a brand is to send out a positioning prompt that resonates well with potential buyers. For instance, Sketchers equates sneakers with cool and that characteristic passes to all who wear them. When Apple was down on its luck in the overall computer marketplace, started asking computer users to liberate themselves from the PC camp and" Think Different." Jeep has created a car and branded apparel for rugged individualists. These brands have achieved positioning based on who buys what they sell, not solely by what they sell.

5. Aspiration positioning -- These are positioning prompts that offer prospects a place they might like to go, or a person they might like to be, or a state of mind they might like to achieve. The now defunct Joe Camel mascot for Camel cigarettes infuriated parents, anti-smoking lobbyists and the federal government for promoting an identity of cool that young people could aspire to and achieve through smoking their cigarettes. And a new campaign from IBM has random people exclaiming," I am Superman," because they use a new version of the Lotus Notes software program.

6. Problem/solution prompts -- As the name implies, problem/solution prompts show the consumer how a sticky situation can be relieved quickly and easily with the brand or service. What problem/solution campaigns lack in imagination, they usually make up for in directness and credibility. Packaged good brands tend to be the most frequent users of problem/solution prompts. For example, frozen meals cut meal preparation time to minutes. Detergents and cleansers also make good use of these prompts.

7. Rivalry-based positioning -- By definition, positioning deals with how one brand is thought of compared to its obvious competitors. Therefore, the idea of a rivalry-based position might seem redundant but many campaigns take this approach. Laundry detergents, for one, are constantly going head-to-head to prove which one has the most power to lift stains. Other campaigns that challenge consumers to be the judge have cropped up between car companies, garbage bags, even between search engines on the Web.

8. Warm and fuzzy positioning -- Underneath our capitalist driven needs to consume, we are still docile and emotional animals. As such, many marketers play on our feelings. In the book, "Building Brand Identity: A Strategy for Success in a Hostile Marketplace," author Lynn Upshaw writes, "How people feel about a brand is oftentimes need- or desire based, which means that emotional or psychological approaches can oftentimes be very effective as positioning prompts."

Need proof? AT&T's commercials are often tearjerkers, asking friends and family to "Reach Out and Touch Someone." Volvo hints that through purchasing their Swedish import cars, you are buying the only real way to "Drive Safely."

9. Benefit-driven positioning -- Other brands base their entire positioning on the fact that they give back to the consumer. Discover credit card, for instance tells customers that "It Pays to Discover." Use the card and get money back. Discover was among the first major credit cards companies to provide its users with a financial incentive for using their card. Now nearly all credit cards offer some type or reward, be it frequent flier miles, discounts on gas or store purchases.

C. Determining Which Position Will Work for Your Brand

To determine which position will work best for your company, ask yourself what business you are really in. Similarly, determine what the benefits are for your products and services. If you sell computers, for example, you maybe in the business of:

If you sell travel packages, you may be in the business of:

Next, focus on relevant reality-based customer benefits. After completing the necessary research and reviewing the relevant examples of positioning, your marketing team should be able to describe a precise customer benefit that can be addressed in some way by the brand. The team members must be clear on what customer benefits are being offered and how they are based on real life needs and desires. To accomplish this, have them answer the following questions:

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VII. Building Brand Personality

Brands that carry with them a true persona, and the beliefs and experiences similar to a personality make a brand rise to a new level. After all, it's hard not to like someone with a good personality. In matters of branding, a personality helps to humanize an otherwise inanimate object or service so that a prospect's defenses are lowered. An attractive brand personality can pre-sell the prospect before the purchase, reinforce the purchase decision, and help forge an emotional link that binds the buyer to the brand for years to come. In such cases, "you are more willing to overlook flaws and search for strengths," writes Upshaw.

According to Kosgrove, small-company brands usually take on the personality of the entrepreneur who owns them. It's hard, he says, for an entrepreneur to create a brand that is a 180-degree turn against what the founder is like. Therefore, if the founder is a high adventure sports enthusiast, the brand will probably not be the favorite of a conservative investment banker. "A brand is everything that your customers know about you," says Kosgrove. Every contact they have with you helps to build that brand, good or bad. An entrepreneur or founder, to a large extent, is the brand because the personality and the interest of the founder is going to have a lot to do with the way that the company is perceived by others."

One entrepreneur whose personality permeates every aspect of his brand is Nicholas Graham, founder of Joe Boxer. The off-beat, humorous line of boxer shorts and loungewear that the company produces bears the distinctive image of the zany Graham himself, who is best known for unorthodox marketing antics like shooting an underwear-laden rocket into space and holding an undergarments "fashion show" on a transatlantic flight on Virgin Airways.

A brand's personality can offer the single most important reason why one brand will be chosen over another, particularly when there are few product or service features that are different between competing brands. The personality gives the consumer something to relate to that can be more vivid than the perceived positioning of the brand.

The personality, in some ways, is much more real than the other aspects of the brand because it is the outstretched hand that touches the customer as an individual.

Although a strong identifiable personality is not imperative, it can make it easier for customers and prospects alike to understand what the marketer has to offer. Even more important, a brand with a distinctive personality presents the would-be buyer with something he or she can relate to as an individual, a practical prerequisite for success in an increasingly individual-driven marketplace. Personality is usually shown in three ways.

  1. Provider-driven - Provider-driven images are popular with services because there is a greater need to build confidence between the provider and seller since there is usually an intangible product on the table. Brands that lean heavily on the provider image include insurance companies and financial institutions. Prudential's "The Rock" and Allstate's "You're in good hands," show that the brand is trustworthy and their brands reflect the same attitude.
  2. Image of the user - Other brands like to show that the people who use the brands are people that you could be friends with, relate to, or want to be like. Many companies with branded products geared toward Generation X and Y use this tactic. However, these generations are also skeptical of marketers and are keenly aware of when a brand is targeting them.
  3. Image of the product or service - As strange as it may sound, packaged products often take on a personality that consumers can relate to. Whether through a mascot or an animated figurine, products come to life to give consumers more than just a brand to trust, but also a face. For instance, the Pillsbury Doughboy's laugh reinforces that the product will make your family feel good.

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VIII. Strengthening Your Core Brand

A. Co-Branding

Although it has become somewhat of a fad amongst companies, co-branding is a way for businesses to extend their brand's identity and cut expenses by partnering with compatible products and services. For instance, Tropicana and Chiquita have made numerous fruit juice concoctions by blending their respective specialty flavors. And Betty Crocker uses real Hershey's chocolate in their brownie mix. And financial companies have even jumped on the bandwagon. A slew of credit card companies has-been teaming up with retailers to offer co-branded items such as the L.L. Bean credit card.

On the Web, co-branding, or what is better known as strategic relationships, are rampant. Besides content swaps, companies invite branded products and services to be sold from their sites in what are known as affiliate programs.

Co-branding works because it creates new excitement for the brands involved. One brand teams with another to offer a product with an enhanced (or seemingly so) benefit. However, before you jump into a co-branded relationship, ask yourself if the excitement that the deal will bring will build the brand or sabotage it. Sometimes a co-branding strategy isn't as advantageous as it may seem, particularly for small companies that oftentimes get overshadowed by larger partners. The larger company receives the added benefits from the smaller company's product, but the smaller company's brand doesn't really receive much attention.

Check that your potential partner is not only compatible with your product but also that it won't eclipse your own brand. For instance, Intel's Pentium Processor campaign has-been so successful that many computer buyers don't care whether they have an IBM or Hewlett-Packard or Dell computer. Instead, their question is, "Does it have Intel inside?" In fact, Intel has been so successful at marketing their brand that the industry now benchmarks the performance of other semiconductor chips based on Pentium by calling them Pentium-like Processors.

No two brands have exactly the same impact on the consumer. Therefore, one partner in every co-branding partnership will receive more attention than its counterpart. If that risk is accurately assessed and accepted by the junior partner and it's still a net gain for its brand identity, then the partnership is sound.

B. Identity Contact

Identity contact is the sum total of all information and experiences that a customer or prospect has with a brand. As you can imagine, there are many different ways that a customer can have contact with a brand in such a way that it communicates his or her identity.

"It's the marketing team's job to prioritize identity contacts and to judge how they might contribute to the brand's identity, and in what way they are relevant to the realities of the consumer's everyday life," writes Upshaw.

For example, if a software company comes up with a new version of one of its programs, more can be done than just change a copy strategy and run new advertising; nearly all of the brand identity contacts can be manipulated to increase emphasis on the new functions of the software. For example:

The following chart details some other popular examples of brand identity contacts:
 

Brand Example Brand Identity Contract Contribution to Brand Identity
Pep Boys Follow-up phone call after servicing the car. Reminder that the auto maintenance shop cares about customer service; method to check up on efficiency/courtesy of service department; opportunity to remind customer of upcoming sales.
McDonald's Ronald McDonald Houses for the families of seriously ill children. In addition to its humanitarian value, RM houses remind parents of McDonalds' commitment to the American family.
MCI Electronic billboard tabulating how much MCI customers have saved by using its services. Brand-name registration in compelling way; reminder of savings positioned; revisable numbers send signal that MCI is on top of what's happening in prices.
Nike Advertisements with athletes of Olympic or star stature. Close-up of Nike logo on shoes of player in NBA championship or on Tiger Woods in PGA Gold Tours. Brand associated with the best athletes in their sport; reinforcement of superior quality or product and prestige of being worn by winners.

Source: Building Brand Identity: A Strategy for Success in a Hostile Marketplace

Identity contacts are important because they can set a tone for subsequent contacts with the company and the brand. GM's Saturn is one brand that has been able to establish the commitment of the brand before a customer even walks into the showroom." Saturn said, 'We are not going to sell the car; we are going to sell the company's brand,'" says Kosgrove. "They say 'We are a different kind of car company, and we are going to prove it.' They do that by making sure that every point of contact with a customer is going to be completely different. When a customer enters the showroom, they see people in matching polo shirts rather than suits, and the showroom itself is clean and friendly, not slick. And when there is a service problem, they give coffee and doughnuts to the people when they come in, instead of being crabby with them and making them wait."

The result, says Kosgrove, is that the brand is known as just what they said it was — "A Different Kind of Car Company"— even though they are still selling the same products that every other car company is.

C. Grassroots

Grassroots marketing is a form of branding that has really hit its stride in the last few years. Sponsorships of everything from local baseball teams to non-mainstream musical events have been sought by marketers looking to carry their brands into the customer's backyard.

Vans, a shoe company in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., has led the way in sponsoring events that their younger customers care about. The sneaker company has become synonymous with alternative sports by hosting events in the skateboarding, BMX biking and snow boarding categories. Besides just sporting events, events where shoes are a prerequisite, the company has done well stepping into other areas of their customers' lifestyles. Vans sponsors the very popular alternative Warped Tour, an alternative music festival that combines other types of cutting-edge live entertainment. Last summer's roving tour featured punk and "ska" bands as well as pro demos from skateboarders, in-line skaters, rock climbers and BMX bikers. In past years, the tour has also featured the Mega-Pump Climbing Wall Competition and Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation.

Nantucket Nectars has also garnered fame by using grassroots promotion strategies. The juice company sponsors two Winnebagos to roam the countryside and entice consumers to become "juice guys."

Smaller companies, while they may not have the budget to get involved with paying the gas and living expenses of sending two employees on a cross-country jaunt to spread the word about their brand, can easily sponsor community events. East Providence Cycle, a bike shop in East Providence, R.I., for instance, tune-up students' bicycles on a local college campus to get them ready for the back-and-forth trips from the dorms to classes. The business also sets up makeshift service shops off area bike paths on sunny summer days.

"You want to look at what your customers care about," says Kosgrove. "If you have a retail business in a neighborhood, you may want to focus on a charitable or community organization in your neighborhood and make a commitment to it so people understand that you are committed to the community. Ask yourself: What do my customers care about, and how can I get involved in those things?"

D. Word of Mouth

Whether it is planned or not, word of mouth is well worth the effort it takes to generate it. "Word of mouth is still considered the most potent marketing communication of all because it's dispensed by the most credible sources of all — ordinary citizens who don't carry a built-in bias of commercial sponsors," writes Upshaw. "When your company is lucky enough to be the beneficiary of word of mouth, your identity problems may be over, and your capacity problems may just be beginning."

Some of the better known beneficiaries of word of mouth phenomena: the Wii, the videogame system sensation of Christmas 2008 that sent parents into shopping frenzies, and Zhu Zhu Pets, the hot toy in 2009.

Snapple also hit it big when kids started passing the word about the delicious iced tea beverage. The company capitalized on that by highlighting the word of mouth phenomena in its television ads, going out to ask people who wrote to the company if their passion for Snapple was really true. In one memorable ad, the ex-Mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, visits a young fan from the Midwest to ask if he really believes that" Snapple is the only good thing to have come out of New York."

For Web-based brands, word of mouth can work extremely well. For instance, the company US Wings, which sells genuine military jackets and gear, has never posted an advertisement online. Instead, the company has relied on word of mouth to promote its brand and Web site during its four-year history. The founder, Sergeant Dave Hack, says that by staying true to its mission, the company has been able to generate positive promotion on the Web. "We are selling something with quality and value. People are going to tell other people," he says. "It snowballs, and you end up with something that is very positive."

While it is difficult to intentionally generate a positive word of mouth branding strategy, it can be done if you have the right product and the right strategy. It also doesn't hurt to have something extremely unique, be it the product or the promotional vehicle.

One word of caution: Brands that are propelled by word of mouth often run out of steam quickly since most tend to be just fads or trends. Competitors are also quick to duplicate the product or service being hyped. Once strong word of mouth is achieved, the company needs to convert the brand into something that will sustain the hype. For instance, after Snapple's success, nearly every beverage company came out with their own line of iced tea — each one with a different gimmick, be it sun-brewed, spring-filtered, ginseng-fortified, or some other herbal concoction. After the onslaught of the copycat brands, the company's earnings slid. Snapple was smart to sell its brand to the Quaker Company in 1994 for $1.7 million.
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IX. Creating an Online Identity

Online companies are putting branding to work with remarkable success. "The Internet helps promote companies' products in a very efficient manner and especially to all audiences in all parts of the world," says Dettore. "Typical advertising media hit only a segmented or regional strategy, so the Internet is one of the most cost effective ways to brand."

Kosgrove says that companies that want to build their brand online may actually have an advantage over brands in the physical world since there is the opportunity to start freehand have new associations. "Any long established brand has had bad experiences, and there are mistakes that have been made in the past," he says. "Whereas if you are fresh and new, you have a clean slate."

In short, e-branding is very important and must be taken into consideration. John Lynch, from Synnetry, an online marketing firm says, "Sites need to be branded so that the consumer can have confidence in the site and is willing to make a purchase there."

Some tactics to build an online brand include:

1. Selection and speed -- Online brands don't usually tout themselves as cheap. The main benefit is that they are going to be fast, and they will have a large selection.

That tactic is certainly true with large online stores such as Amazon, "The World's Largest Bookstore." The company can't offer the warm, friendly environment that Borders can, says Kosgrove, but they can promise to ship you the book of your choice practically overnight.

2. Customization -- Another way that brands can differentiate themselves is by providing online customized solutions and products for visitors based on information that they plug into registration forms.

The Web allows companies to take on new edge or benefit that a company would not be able to use in the real world. For instance, a pet food brand on the store shelf does not have many choices about the positioning of its product. Online, however, a company can brand itself as more than just a dog food supplier, but rather as an animal nutrition expert, says Lynch. The site can walk visitors through a personalized analysis based on the animal's needs and activity level.

Once the information is entered into the database, answers are compressed, data is cross referenced, and information telling you which formula of food your pet should be consuming is spit out. "Then it isn't just a bag of dog food, but nutritional care for your animal," says Lynch.

There is no way that a pet food company would be able to gain that brand identity in the real world. "What pet store owner is going to carry that message for the ped information telling you which formula of food your pet should be consuming is spit out. "Then it isn't just a bag of dog food, but nutritional care for your animal," says Lynch.

There is no way that a pet food company would be able to gain that brand identity in the real world. "What pet store owner is going to carry that message for the pet food manufacturer to the pet food buyer?" asks Lynch.

"Through the Internet, they are allowed to create a better position for themselves than they could if they were going through regular distribution channels."

For additional reading on this topic, see Personalization Strategies to Attract and Retain Customers.
 

3. Using Interactivity -- Creating services that other Web companies don't have will ensure that your brand is stronger than the rest. Luckily, the Web is the perfect place to do just that. Unlike other media, online customers can interact with the brand and its identity in a way that no other medium can offer.


Ways to increase contact and keep your brand in front of people include creating:

4. Build a community -- Community is the other buzz online. If your brand can stimulate a community around it, then it has a powerful ally. For a community to be successful, you need to have a category that will engage people and spur them to want to talk with one another. For instance, people seem to never tire about the wonders of the Apple computer. The company's brand is the focus of debates and discourses in the computer world. Customers, prospects and critics of the brand have strong opinions about what they like and don't like, which leads to many opportunities for community interaction.

Some other points to keep in mind when building an online community include:

5. Form Strategic Alliances -- Like co-branding, strategic partnerships between Web brands can help strengthen identity, enhance visibility and increase revenues for companies.

"If someone comes to your site and sees you link with other people that they respect, they are going to feel good about being on your site," says Kosgrove. Good alliances on the Web allow traffic to flow between sites that have a common interest.

One way that synergistic sites can partner is by swapping banner ads. "If your site sells ties, it would be good to form a relationship with a store that sells shirts. Anyone who buys a shirt is going to want to buy a tie," says Lynch. "Synergistic sites can swap banner ads usually without any fee being paid."

One of the best ways that an e-commerce site can partner with other sites is to embed themselves within another company's site. For instance, each time you purchase a package from an e-retailer, chances are that you are also giving business to UPS or Federal Express. Both shipping companies invite companies to use their software to calculate shipping weights and secure deliveries to the purchaser's home. Federal Express also allows catalog companies like Lands End to move Federal Express data to their own Web sites so that Lands End customers can track their packages' progress.

Dell Computer Corp. partners with smaller computer dealers online to let customers configure their own computers. It may look as if you are on Joe's Computer Shack Web site, but actually Dell has lent Joe software so customers can customize their PC. "The best sites in the world, in terms of traffic and selling, are the ones that you don't even know that you are going to," says Lynch. "You are not spending all the promotion money, and you are multiplying your promotional money by many times because you have other people who are trying to get people to go to their site who in turn are at your site.
 

6. Building credibility -- Since competition is only a few clicks away, the standard for customer support must be higher for the Web than it is in the off-line world. The most essential aspect of customer support on Web sites is to respond to every request for information with accurate answers or corrective actions within competitive time frames.

"If your other communications look warm and friendly and you brand yourself as service-oriented, but  your Web sight is impossible to navigate and doesn't have an email response or is just kind of clunky, people are going to say, 'I thought you were someone else but now I know who you really are'," says Kosgrove.

So be sure you do your homework about what goes into a strong Web site. This is of the utmost importance when you are building a new brand or bringing a new brand to the online arena. Some of the basics that your Web site should have include:

7. Dedication to Service - Online customers have little opportunity to see your brand's dedication to service. If your customer service skills aren't up to par, however, it's likely that a customer won't come back to interact with your brand or your site.

Despite that logic, market watcher Jupiter Communications found that 42 percent of the top-ranked Web sites either took longer than five days to reply to customer email inquiries, never replied, or were not accessible by email.

"This effort illustrates that many Web sites have been unable or unprepared to respond to the flood of user questions that come in via email from their sites," says Ken Allard, group director of Jupiter's Site Operation Strategies. "Answering thousands of questions per month is an enormous challenge for sites offering complex products and services, especially if they never had a traditional call center. Yet companies that delay responses to user questions instantly lose a significant degree of credibility and user loyalty, and not responding perpetuates the consumer notion that using the Web site is not a reliable method of doing business with that company."

One way to solve the email deluge is to take advantage of "auto-acknowledge" software that responds to all incoming requests stating that the question was received and estimates a time frame for how long it will take to respond to the question.

While email is the primary communication tool, it is not the be-all, end-all of customer service. Companies that want to attach a sense of dedication to their brand should think about having a call center, support staff or other communication tools that will help strengthen the relationship between your brand and customer.

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X. Resources

Books

Al Reis & Laura Ries, "The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding" (Harper Business, 1998)

Lynn B. Upshaw, "Building Brand Identity, A Strategy for Success in a Hostile Marketplace" (John Wiley, 1995)

Greg Helmstetter, "Increasing Hits and Selling More on Your Web Site" (John Wiley, 1997)

Web Sites

Ecommerce Weekly

The Brand Institute

Virtual Promote

Web Marketing Today

Lindsay, Stone and Briggs

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