building brands
Jon Parker details how to build a brand people love.
Image credit: Sheldon Popiel

I’m sometimes afraid to mention the B-word. Too many people think of brand as a slick, glossy sheen applied to products or services, a ploy to get people to buy things they don’t want, or more than they need.

To me, brand is the opposite of a surface sheen. A brand should reflect and define what your company cares about most — beyond revenues and profit margins. The brands we love (and the brands that last) tap into grander visions that resonate with their customers on a deeper level. In short, great branding is where commerce meets humanity.

 I co-founded and helped lead brand strategy for Veer, a stock photo company whose design-driven philosophy and innovative marketing pieces created a powerful brand. In our new stock video startup, Dissolve, I am reminded of three imperatives for building a successful brand.

1. Define your Why and identify what you hate

As Simon Sinek states in his book Start With Why, and in this excellent

TEDx talk, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Apple stands for creativity and putting user experience first, thus forever changing the way we think about computing devices. TOMS sells millions of shoes, but its greater mission appeals to globally conscious customers.

What do you stand for? If you aren’t the owner, what is the story of the people who started the company? Values and passions drive success. They should form the bedrock of your company. For happier, more productive workers, hire people deeply aligned with your values. This human spirit drives famously successful companies like Costco, Google, and Amazon.

Spend some time thinking about what you are vehemently against

in your industry, what problem you solve, what you hate. You should be passionately for something and confidently against what you see as the scourge of your industry. Dyson hates clumsy vacuums, Apple hates boring and mundane design. What are you revolting against? This perspective works especially well for startups without a large customer base yet.

2. Find your tribe. Forget the rest.

Everyone is egocentric. People buy from companies they identify with. Think beyond age or income demographics to the feelings, desires, habits, and self-images of your customers. Go deep with your best customers — survey them, market to them, and be willing to be unpopular with the rest.

A great example of finding your tribe is Subaru. The company determined four “thematic pillars” that led to intense customer loyalty — longevity, safety, versatility, and adventure — and built killer campaigns to evoke these values. Subaru knows that 30 percent of owners buy with cash, so dealers give incentives accordingly. It knows that 70 percent own dogs — translating to ads with dogs, wildly successful Facebook pages about dogs, and Subaru Super Bowl dog walks with 80K+ registrants. What do you know about your customers? Go deep with them.

Subaru caters and speaks to its most ardent fans with equally ardent authenticity. By doing so, word-of-mouth attracts new fans, broadening its customer base. You can spend millions appealing to unqualified prospects and those who just “don’t get it,” but the cost of conversion is high. Subaru knows the secret to a strong brand is to make the right people love you, not simply to have everyone know about you.

3. Ensure brand consistency in all that you do

The most common perception of “brand” surrounds a company’s brand identity: its logo, slogans, look, and voice. With so much in business being out of your control, it’s critical to maintain a high level of consistency everywhere your brand is represented. Consistency goes hand in hand with trustworthiness and integrity — critical factors when asking people to click “buy” and enter their credit card numbers.

Beyond the logo, look, and voice, everywhere a prospect or customer interacts with your company — every “touchpoint” — is an opportunity to reinforce your brand values. Your customer service and return policies, the way your employees answer the phone or greet customers, the kinds of events you sponsor and charities you donate to — all are reflections of your brand. Be consistent and considered.

In today’s socially connected world, a brand is also a conversation with customers who expect authenticity and responsiveness. Some studies show 90 percent will recommend your company after a positive social media experience.

On social channels, your brand is a fragile, living thing requiring constant monitoring. The guidelines for these platforms need to be formalized, in line with your values.

Defining your brand makes business decisions easier

Is this all a lot of work? Yes. And can great branding save poor operational management? No way. The mechanics of business remain: operate efficiently, earn enough profit to grow (or at least enough to stay competitive), and know where you’re going.

But a well-managed business combined with a razor-sharp brand strategy will simplify your life. Your brand philosophy should guide decisions when you’re faced with revenue challenges, partnership opportunities, and more: Should you move into an adjacent market? Do you pay employees top dollar at the expense of growth? Should you sell to Google for $3 billion? What’s your long-term vision, and how are you communicating it to your employees and customers? A clearly defined brand lessens ambiguity in the face of big decisions.

Let these imperatives guide you — and go make the “B-word” a great thing in your business.