A brand image is the sum impression of a company’s “personality” in the minds of customers. It can be at the same time factual and imaginary. Brand image develops over time as a result of customers’ cumulative experience across numerous touch points. A strong brand image results in an overall favorable impression of the company and its products and services and fosters a sense of trust.
A common misconception is that brand creation involves designing a great logo, a smart marketing plan, or well-crafted communications materials and advertising. It’s true, these are essential to a strong brand image but don’t do the entire job in and of themselves. Consumers are smart. Telling them how great your products are doesn’t work. The old model of big corporations forcing brands into the market is over. With the advent of the Internet and social media, consumers now have a much greater influence in the market.
Customers form a brand image by drawing their own conclusions about a company or its products. So, how do you encourage that to happen and in the right way? How do you ensure that those conclusions are accurate? An excellent place to start is to focus on who you are rather than what you want people to think about you. Consider what your consumers want and need and what they desire rather than what you want them to have. Connecting with them intellectually is important, but engaging them on a visceral, emotional level is essential. If you’re going to build a strong brand in today’s world, here are a few things to consider:
The first in step in branding is defining who you are, what you stand for, and what makes you unique. Engage in an honest evaluation of your organization and ask yourself these questions:
- What is my unique proposition and what is it that makes my company or products relevant and desirable?
- How can I offer value that my competitors don’t?
- What promises and commitments can I make to them and am willing to stand behind?
- What values am I committed to and for what do I want to be known?
Define these carefully and apply them consistently. Let these values guide every decision you make. Make sure everyone in your organization understands them and keeps them top-of-mind. Your brand values should permeate your entire culture—from your annual report to the way the receptionist answers the phone.
In ‘n Out Burger is a strong brand built mostly on word-of-mouth. The company does very little advertising but became very successful by understanding who they are and never deviating from their core brand values. They offer high quality, simple food at a reasonable price. They keep their menu limited, choosing to do a few things very well and consistently delivering a quality product. This simple approach separates them from competitors who continuously update their menus. Customers trust them to provide a uniform experience no matter what location they visit. The result is a customer base that is fiercely loyal. They have learned what their customers expect and work hard to provide it consistently.
Know Your People
A brand never becomes strong by trying to be all things to all people. Define for whom your product or service is intended and focus on them. Know who your ideal customers are and make an effort to understand their particular needs and desires. What problems will you solve for them? Can you make their lives better? How will you engage with them? How can you give them a more substantial stake in your company and include them in your culture?
A helpful exercise to better define your customers is creating personas. Based on research (from interviews, surveys, and the like), create fictitious characters that represent particular segments of your market. Define attributes that are typical of that customer genre. For example, say your company sells an innovative automatic guitar tuner that winds guitar strings to perfect pitch in seconds. A persona representing a typical customer might be:
Persona Name: Andy Axeman
Background: Professional musician, plays 3-4 shows per week
Demographic: Mostly male, age 25-35, income of $25,000 – $45,000 per year, urban, single
Goals: To build a fan base, play more lucrative gigs, and become a better performer
Challenges: To spend less time dealing with gear and concentrate more on music; to avoid losing audience engagement by stopping to tune during performances; to avoid tuning by ear in a noisy environment
How we can help: Make it easy to keep multiple instruments tuned and ready on stage and reduce setup time
Marketing Pitch: Keep your stringed instruments perfectly tuned even in a noisy environment
Creating personas can make it easier to visualize your customers as real people, understand their needs, and appeal to them emotionally as well as intellectually.
Today, customers are in the driver’s seat. Your business will thrive or fail based on whether or not they feel an affinity for your brand and what it offers them. At the very least you’ll want to develop a deep understanding of who they are, what they value, and how best to communicate with them.
Keep it Real
Trust is the foundation of a strong brand. To earn that trust you must prove yourself trustworthy. Always be honest with your customers. Always tell the truth—not what you want them to hear. If you make a mistake, own it. Mistakes are never good, but by attempting to cover them up, you may lose your customers’ trust and never get it back. Customers can forgive mistakes if you admit them and do your best to make them right.
Recently, Volkswagen installed software in many of their diesel cars designed to falsify emission test to make them appear to run cleaner. After it was exposed to the public, brand analysis by Gallup revealed that 4 out of 10 consumers were much less likely to buy a Volkswagen in the future. While the company has since admitted the transgression and has apologized, that betrayal of their customers’ hard-earned trust has tarnished their brand image. It could take many years to regain the loyalty that was lost.
One of the worst things you can do is imitate a more successful competitor. It may be tempting to ride on the coattails of their success, but that won’t get you very far. Chances are, those companies are successful because they identified and leveraged their unique strengths. You should do the same. The key to making your brand stand out is not imitation but differentiation. In the same way that no two people are exactly alike, companies have qualities that make them unique. Identify yours and build on them.
Develop a voice and visual style in your communications that is uniquely yours—one that matches your company’s “personality” and values. In addition to a great logo and tagline, establish a unique tone of voice in your writing and be consistent in the use of typography, colors, and images. It’s always a good idea to hire a brand specialist to guide you through this process and create a visual “vocabulary” that is all your own. Avoid using stock images when possible. It can be very confusing to your customers if your competitor happens to use the same photos or illustrations as you—and it does happen. Creating a library of custom images to be used for multiple purposes makes good branding sense and may even save money in the long run.
Tell a Story
We’ve established that every brand has unique qualities. Each brand also has a story all its own. It might include your company history but, most importantly, it should describe your vision. Take some time to write yours and use it as a basis for all your brand communications. If you have a clear story, it will be easier for customers to understand and relate to you. A good brand story will make it easier for them to care about what you have to offer and become emotionally invested.
The term story, however, can be a bit misleading. It’s not a narrative to publish and distribute, although there may be times this would be appropriate. Instead, it’s a conceptual thread woven through every communication your company has with the public whether it’s from your website, blog, literature, product packaging or from the lips of your sales or support personnel.
Finally, while your story is about your brand, the focus should be on your customers and how they benefit from what you provide for them. Good branding is a partnership between you and your customers.
Starbucks is an example of a great brand story. It started with a commitment to great tasting gourmet coffee but developed over time into something much more. Many other companies were selling good coffee, but Starbucks noticed early on the difference between American coffee shops and the coffee culture in Europe which centers around small espresso bars. These are not only places to get great coffee but are social hubs as well. With this in mind, they set out to make Starbucks not only a great coffee bar but a community as well. The products, furnishings, music, and décor were all designed to provide delightful customer experiences for a young, hip demographic. The story is less about the company than the experience it provides.
Keep it Simple
Let’s face it. Grabbing attention in our communication-saturated culture is a challenge. According to Yankovich Consumer Research, the average person sees or hears as many as 5,000 marketing messages per day. That’s a lot of competition! To have any hope of being noticed, you must have a compelling message and convey it as simply as possible. Today, any message that requires more than a moment to absorb will likely be overlooked. In branding, it’s axiomatic that less is more.
There’s a lot you could say about your products but don’t try to say too much. While they may have a host of great attributes, the only ones that matter are those that make your customers’ lives better. For example, think of all the amazing technology and programming that went into creating Apple’s SIRI. Detailing the technical intricacies that went into the product might be interesting to some, but to the average consumer, it’s irrelevant. All that matters to them is that they can ask their phone a question and get a quick, helpful answer. Focus on the features that benefit the customer most and save everything else for the technical documents.
Show, Don’t Tell
To say a picture is worth a thousand words may sound cliché, but it’s absolutely true. Research confirms that we remember visual images more easily than words. Using photos or illustrations to tell a story can be more effective than writing. Most people are lazy readers. If something looks like an effort to read, people will often move on. A picture, on the other hand, can be processed by the brain almost immediately. What’s more, images can have an emotional appeal that doesn’t come across as readily with words alone.
Great images can send implicit messages about a product’s quality or reinforce a brand’s personality. Apple does an excellent job of using quality images to enhance the perceived value of their products and, by extension, their brand.
According to Psychology Today, while most people believe they make purchasing decisions based on rational analysis, in reality, most choices are heavily influenced by emotion. Strong brands appeal to customers on an emotional level as well as a rational one.
In fact, shoppers are often willing to pay more for a name brand product even when there is a cheaper generic alternative with the same features. Most purchases are made at a subconscious level and not always for practical reasons. A woman may be more likely to buy a pair of shoes because she thinks they will make her look attractive than because she believes them to be well made. A man may choose a BMW over a Toyota because he believes it will make him appear more successful even though either would fulfill the practical need of getting him from home to the office.
The most successful brands create a powerful connection to the consumer by appealing to their emotional needs whether they be greed, desire, social acceptance, envy, fear or altruism. People are less interested in what a product can do than what it can do for them. If, as a brand, you tell your story in a way that resonates emotionally and fulfills a customer’s basic needs, you will be much more likely to develop a long-term relationship of trust and loyalty.
The Internet and social media have revolutionized the way the world communicates much like the printing press did in the 15th century. Upwards of 60% of Americans use social media multiple times each day—and that number is growing fast. Over the last decade, business communications have changed fundamentally. Technology has made it possible to have ongoing dialogs with customers, and they increasingly expect it. The advantage of social media over traditional advertising is the opportunity to engage with your customers rather than merely pitch to them. When a customer feels like they’re being listened to rather than talked at, they will be more likely to feel an affinity with your brand.
When using social media, it’s important to provide customers with information that is useful and relevant. Convey information that is so engaging people will want to share it. Make an effort to foster dialog. It’s not enough to push information out. Make sure you reply to comments, ask questions and do whatever you can to make users feel like they have a voice and that their voice matters to you.
Some companies, like Apple, have been successful creating products that people need before they know they need them. Most successful products, however, are a response to an existing need. The days of creating a product and forcing it into the marketplace are gone. Savvy companies today listen to their customers and develop products that solve real problems for them. Customers expect to have a voice, so why not use social media to give them a hand in product development? Try using surveys or contests to solicit their input as to design, colors, and features. Use that information to guide your product design and brand messaging. By the time you launch your product, many of your customers will already be invested.
You don’t necessarily need to have a presence on all social media platforms. Focus on those that are most appropriate for your particular brand. For example, LinkedIn is great for B2B. Instagram is a logical choice if your brand is inherently visual. Pinterest is ideal for brands related to fashion or other products directed at women. Due to its immediacy, Twitter may be the best way to keep your audience up to date on breaking news, product updates, promotions and to offer coupons and discounts to reward loyal customers. Facebook is a must for horizontal markets because it has over a billion users worldwide and its demographics are broad and varied.
Finally, write content that is relevant, friendly and conversational. Whatever platform you choose, be sure to post material that is consistent with your brand’s strategy, personality and values and is uniform in tone and voice.
Your brand image is everything. Like a garden, it requires constant tending—but can become unhealthy through neglect. However, by paying close attention to how you present your brand and the quality of customer engagement at each customer touch point, your brand will become stronger and flourish over time.