Friday 30 January 2015

Grow Your Brand in Uncertain Times

The Perfect Time to Analyze Your Brand is When Times are Tough

Written by Robyn T. Braley

When economies are threatened by war, trade uncertainty,  natural disasters, pandemics, domestic unrest or changing customer needs, it's time to reassess and realign your brand. 

During the recent COVID lockdown, governments had to intervene in the economy to help companies survive. In a free enterprise-driven province like Alberta or a state like Texas, being forced to accept that reality spoke to the severity of the situation. 

Many companies made it through. They adapted, adjusted and carefully managed their operations as they find ways to survive by finding new markets. 

Other companies were not so lucky. One of my clients manufactured huge five-million-dollar processing units for the petroleum industry. Their market disappeared overnight. 

They couldn't realign themselves to make new products that customers needed. They went into bankruptcy. 

The bottom line is that small business can do little to influence such uncontrollable forces. It is what it is and will be what it will be for the foreseeable future. 

Threats or Opportunities 

As a leader, it is difficult to stay positive when your company is faced with a potential crisis. How you approach the challenge is a personal choice. You either shrink back and let the market forces prevail or you fight back, adjust your focus, and find new opportunities. If the latter, describes your company, you must be prepared to do whatever it takes to survive. Plain and simple.  

While the economy is a threat to some, it provides opportunities for others. Thinking 'We can' rather than 'We can't' will cause you to see possibilities where you thought none existed. 

Never forget the childhood lesson of the little engine going up the hill.

I spoke at a Property Owners, Rental Property, and Broker's conference about having tough conversations in a tough market - ours! After my session, I met two Rental Property Owners who had travelled from a neighbouring province. They had cash in hand ready to buy properties at distressed prices.

I know what you're thinking! That is a positive for the buyers but a negative for the sellers. Not necessarily. 

The sellers may be eager to be free of the obligations associated with operating in a depressed economy. They may welcome the opportunity to pursue new avenues of business.

Revisit Your Vision 

When was the last time you thought about your vision for the company? Is it as vivid today as it was when you started it? 

When I work with new clients, I take them through a discovery process to help me learn about what they do and to clarify their needs. One of the last questions I ask is, 

What will your company look like in 5 years?

Some clients are taken off guard. They can't describe what they feel their company will be like 5 years out. I'm sure they had an idea, but when I asked the question most drew a blank. 

If you can't verbalize your vision in a few short sentences, ask yourself that question, then, write down your answer. 

Expand and refine it until your vision statement becomes laser-focused. It should be clear, relevant, authentic and future-looking. Most of all, it should be easy to describe to others. 

What’s My Brand

Once you have clarified your vision it is time to analyze your brand. Ask these questions!

What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? 

You've often heard me say or post my definition of a brand. "Your brand is what others think it is." Ask yourself these questions. 

  • What do clients, employees and collaborative partners think your brand is?
  • Is your brand as relevant today as yesterday?
  • How can it be adjusted to meet current conditions?

The process of analyzing your brand doesn't have to be hard. Just ask your customers and other stakeholders.

I have conducted customer surveys on behalf of many large and small businesses. Each one involved person-to-person telephone calls or meeting one-on-one with people we had never met. Some included cold calls to a control list. 

Some required interviews with customers located in other countries while others were local. The purpose of each questionnaire was to look for solutions and direction. 

In each project, we asked hard questions. With some, we clarified problems my client was suspicious about. With others, we identified problems our client didn't know about. That resulted in some difficult discussions when reporting back. 

Others identified new opportunities or confirmed high satisfaction rates and strong customer relationships. When we cold-called into a control group, we often identified new customers. 

Just Talk to Your Customers

When you ask the right questions, you get the right answers. I craft 8-10 questions that included open and closed questions. I lead from those requiring simple answers to more complex. The last question I ask is this. 

If our roles were reversed, what question would you ask?

This always produces gold. I've prompted highly sensitive information based on the high-trust relationships built with complete strangers (to me) through the first questions. 

In most situations, the clients 

Who Ya Gonna' Call!

While I'd welcome the opportunity to work with you, it may be beneficial for you to undertake the project on your own. Contact 10-15 key customers and go through the questions by telephone or in-person meetings. 

For this kind of information gathering, I recommend live conversations rather than online programs like SurveyMonkey or even email. Voice inflections, pauses, and tone of voice can speak volumes.    

Active Listening

  1. What are they saying? 
  2. Are common answers? 
  3. Are they skirting issues by giving non-answers? 
Be prepared to dig down by asking additional questions that aren't on your questionnaire. Journalists are taught that each new question should be based on the answer to the previous one.  

Select a cross-section of employees and ask the same questions.

Trapped in Your Head

You’d be amazed at how many small business owners have never gone through even a  branding exercise. Don't get me wrong! They often have an idea of what their brand is in their minds. They just never say it out loud. 

Simply put, need-to-know thinking is old-school thinking. Real growth happens when employees, customers, potential customers, suppliers and industry influencers have a clear idea of what your passion and purpose is. 

To be honest, some business owners enjoy early success in living out their big idea. But, they never get around to writing down their brand definition in a way that can be explained to others. 

As the company grows, that can lead to conflicts, misunderstandings, and lost customers and employees. 

Brand affinity depends on customer and employee loyalty. Offering quality products or services and being known for exceptional after-sales service is the result of living out your brand. 

What Does It Mean?

The word brand is thrown around in different ways and contexts. Marketers offer complicated explanations that often cloud the real meaning. This is my more complex definition.

Your brand is what others think it is. It communicates vision, values and principles. 

A brand defines the characteristics that set your company apart from the competition. It makes a promise that customers can believe in. It tells the story of who you are, what you stand for, and the unique selling proposition you deliver on.

When you think about it, successful brands are built around a central idea that is compelling. They offer real as well as perceived value to all stakeholders. A distinctive brand positions a company and gives it a competitive advantage.

A brand is your story. Whether you own a small business, a Fortune 500 company, a not-for-profit agency or are a lone wolf entrepreneur bootstrapping your company into existence, the success of your brand strategy will be measured by how well it tells your story. It must engage customers and compel them to buy what you are selling. 

More Than a Logo

A brand is much more than a logo. To torment our designers at Unimark Creative, I love looking over their shoulders when they are creating a new logo.

After a moment of feigned reflection I’ll say, “WOW, that is amazing art. But, does it have meaning?” Then I walk away having ruined their day.

Logos, corporate colours, websites, social media, sales strategies, service programs and every other brand delivery method “puts a face” on the inner meaning of your company.  

Putting lipstick on a pig or a mask on a cow doesn't make apork chop into steak or vice versa. Neither the lipstick nor the mask will cover up the truth of what is on the inside. The pig will still be the pig and the cow will still be the cow.

It Means Something

I often tell the story about the dog food company that invested millions into a national marketing campaign. They hired the best research firm, the biggest advertising agency, a world-class PR company and renowned social media gurus. They rolled out an amazing marketing program.

The weeks passed. Sales continued to slump. Panic set in! 

The company increased its marketing budget. Sales slumped further, so they increased it again.

Taking Action 

To the upper management and their army of consultants, the reason was obvious. The company sales team didn't understand how to leverage their brilliant marketing ideas.
In desperation, the company flew their regional managers and sales champions back to head office to explain it to them. There was tension in the air as the President took the stage. 

He launched into his presentation with an air of confidence. He shared motivational quotes and stories. Of course, he backed up what he was saying with engaging PowerPoint slides with compelling videos. 

He explained the brilliance of the campaign and how each part had been carefully crafted to integrate with the other. There could be no mistaking the power of the campaign.  

Throughout the presentation, he dropped comments and observations that made it obvious to all in the room that he felt the root of the problem was the sales team. 

They just weren’t doing their jobs! They didn't understand what caused them to meet their quotas in spite of all the tools they'd been given. 

At the end of his talk, he threw out a rhetorical question with a threatening tone, “So, why isn’t this working?”

The room was silent. No one wanted to be the one to go on record explaining what each of them had discovered during months of being on the ground in the front lines. 

Finally, an older, grizzled, salesman at the back of the room slowly rose to his feet. The floor assistant made his way down the row with the audience microphone. 

The gentleman cleared his throat with a raspy sound that was amplified through the room. His voice echoed through the hall as he shouted his opinion of what the root of the problem was. He said it slowly and clearly!

“Sir, the dogs won’t eat the dammed dog food!”

To state the obvious, the core of your brand must be the quality of your product or service.

What’s in a Name

The essence of the brand – its quality, relevance, and value must be at the core. The ideal name will reflect the meaning of your brand.

When I mention Nike, Fedex, Starbucks, Disney, NHL, Sony, Walmart or IBM, most reading this will have an immediate image of what those brands represent.

Finding Truth

To determine where you want to go, you must know where you’ve come from. Analyzing your brand requires honesty and transparency. 

Leaders of successful brands clearly understand what their brand is, who their customers are and why it matters. They know their brand's strengths and weaknesses. 
When analyzing your brand, warts and blemishes are often revealed along with those moments of extreme brilliance that moved your company to a new level. 

In the search for truth, it is important to recognize failures so that the lessons learned can be instructive when shaping the future. Most often, careful analysis will also reveal many things your company has done well in building its brand. 

Your Opinion Matters

Please share your comments below. What have I missed? What caused you to think differently?  

For Rotarians and other service club leaders – Explaining My Rotary Club’s Brand


  1. This is a wonderful blog about branding product this blog is so helpful because everyone can easily do publicity of their brands i appreciate your thinking and work thanks for sharing this blog and keep sharing

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  2. I have been your silent reader for long.. Now I think you have to know how much your articles have inspired me to do better. This is very insightful and informative. Thank you for sharing. I would love to see more updates from you.

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