Image "Stand Out from the Crowd" courtesy of Stephen Kinsey (fauxhead)

Image "Stand Out from the Crowd" courtesy of Stephen Kinsey (fauxhead)

"A brand is a customer experience represented by a collection of images and ideas; often, it refers to a symbol such as a name, logo, slogan, and design scheme. Brand recognition and other reactions are created by the accumulation of experiences with the specific product or service, both directly relating to its use, and through the influence of advertising, design, and media commentary."  --- Source: American Marketing Association.

Everyone is a brand these days. It began with Martha Stewart and Oprah, and has extended down to the latest generation of 18-to-30 year olds, who express their identities in terms of brand. As in, "it goes against my brand to do that."

These days it matters even more to invest resources towards crafting your brand and there is one very simple reason: social media is unforgiving.

What’s your company’s brand and how are you making sure it’s relevant? When we engage with a new client who isn’t sure, or who wants to reposition, the first exercise we carry out is a brand audit. Only then is it possible to articulate your brand in an authentic way based on: core purpose, vision, strengths, values, and benefits that are relevant to the target audience(s).

Social media broadcasts your brand

You know that social media is essential to communicating your brand. Managed well, it can be a terrifically effective medium. It’s also a double-edged sword that can broadcast a poor customer experience or a broken promise. Staying away from social media doesn’t solve the problem – all that happens is that the conversation will go on without your participation. Forbes Magazine published a list of 10 Brand Marketing Trends that Should Dominate 2013 and six of the trends attest to the influence of social media:

  1. Brand accountability
  2. Brand trust
  3. Brand flexibility
  4. Brand experience
  5. Brand crowdsourcing
  6. Brands as social influencers

Your website, logo, and ad campaigns are just the tools you use to express your brand. When customers are quick to tweet or post, businesses must work harder to ensure they set expectations and deliver according to their brand values. So, what are those values? How can you discover the right combination of product benefits and customer experience for your brand?

Audit your brand

A brand must be relevant, which means you should conduct a brand audit from time to time to review and refresh. Too often, a brand refresh goes no further than a new logo. A true brand audit takes into account the definition at the start of this blog post:

"A brand is a customer experience represented by a collection of images and ideas; often, it refers to a symbol such as a name, logo, slogan, and design scheme.”

The customer experience must be at the centre of your branding efforts. This matters more than a snazzy new logo or website. You need to differentiate on benefits that go beyond faster, cheaper, better. You need to connect on an emotional level as well.

Consider Starbucks: we know the coffee is overpriced, but they provide an experience that satisfies both emotional and physical needs so we’re willing to pay more. How about Apple? Online retailers and big box electronics warehouses sell Apple products for less, yet the Apple Stores are always packed with customers who happily buy from expert, caring sales staff.

Describe your target audience as a persona: what makes them tick? What are their influencers and who do they trust? What demographics best describe them? How do they make decisions? What keeps them up at night? What are their needs, wants, and aspirations?

Interview your own company: everyone, from the CEO to the forklift driver, has their own view of your brand. What do they feel and see in common? What’s authentic about your culture? What do you do? How do you do it? What makes you different?

Then ask: why should the customer care? It’s usually very easy for companies to articulate what they do, how they do it, and why they think they’re different from the rest of the market. But if there is a disconnect between the experience you deliver and the experience the customer wants, it really doesn’t matter. If you can’t articulate why your product or service matters to your clients, they won’t understand why they should use your solutions instead of some other.

A brand audit exercise will help you zero in on your brand values. Brand audits are part of the P.A.C.E. methodology which we use to guide clients through a digital marketing strategy. Be our guest: download the free P.A.C.E. workbook.

Live your brand

In social media, authenticity matters. Your brand is under scrutiny, so avoid adopting brand values that your corporate culture can’t sustain. There’s always the temptation to copy what has worked well for one of your competitors rather than create something original. But it wouldn’t be you. It wouldn’t be authentic and your customers will smell a rat. It’s far better to invest in strategies or campaigns that involve your stakeholders, internal and external. Create the right experience that communicates your brand's unique values.

Stick to your brand guidelines: once you are able to communicate why your customers should care, you can work on branding deliverables: brand guidelines that ensure your messaging is consistent across all of your marketing channels, from website content and search marketing to social media. Consistency in your message is key. Own that message and incorporate it into everything you do.

Let your brand guide your business decisions: your actions communicate your brand values. Take Hyundai as an example. Their slogan is “New thinking. New possibilities.” When the economic downturn hit, they launched a Job Loss Assurance program in January 2009 that let customers return their cars if they lost their jobs, without any further financial obligation or impact upon credit ratings. This brought buyers into showrooms and boosted Hyundai sales during a time when competitors such as Honda faced sharp declines ins sales.

When Hyundai ended the program two years later, only 350 customers had taken advantage of the Job Loss Assurance program while the company sold 435,000 cars in 2009 and over a million since launching the program. This was a tactic that aligned perfectly with their branding.

Measure effectiveness, stay flexible

Your brand valuation is one reflection of how well you execute on branding, from messaging consistency to business value. The ultimate measure of successful branding is sales, from new customers and return customers (brand loyalty).

Regular measurement lets you know whether it’s time to test out different marketing tactics – and gives you the data you need to make adjustments. A good brand should accommodate change because change is a market reality. Successful brands learn from the past but always look forward. Just because a campaign worked well last year doesn’t mean it automatically gets a spot in this year’s campaign schedule. You should expect to review, tweak, and refresh your image regularly.