by Mike O’Toole
Instinctively, every small business owner understands the importance of brand equity, even if they may not be able to define the idea. Marketing-speak aside, brand equity is how your customer recognizes why you are different and better than the alternative.
Brand equity is built on that customer’s direct experience with your product or service. This experience, repeated over time, creates equity or value in your brand. And it serves as a shorthand in the buyer’s mind that separates you from everyone else.
Brand equity is what creates loyalty that carries beyond price or the occasional product or service bump in the road. It is the quality that motivates your customers to recommend their friends or colleagues to you.
Everyone wants brand equity. But building it, when you are more likely to qualify for the Inc. 500 rather than the Fortune 500, can be a puzzle. Particularly when the role models for brand equity are global icons like Coca Cola, Volvo, or Sony—hardly your peer set.
The good news is that the path to building brand equity is clear. Here are five simple steps you can take to get started:
1. Clarify your position
The first step to building brand equity is to define your positioning: the single thing your company stands for to your customers. Single is the operative word here. Good positioning forces hard choices.
To define your brand position, get the key leaders in your company together. Decide what makes you different and better than your competition. This might sound blindingly obvious, but most small businesses are too busy responding to customers or making payroll to do a lot of introspection.
You don’t need an agency or consultant to get started. There are a couple of good exercises out there that you can do on your own. A simple one that I like is the Positioning XYZs:
“We are the only X that solves Y problem in Z unique way.”
X is the category of the company, product, or service or other offering you’ve chosen to own.
Y is the unmet need of your target audience.
Z is the differentiation, advantage, or key positive distinction you have over your competition.
2. Tell your story
Clear positioning is critical, but positioning statements are internal touchstones, not external expressions. Your next job is to make it interesting, to imbue the rational positioning with emotion.
All brands are stories, and a good way to get started is to document and share your best corporate stories: the founding insight of the company, the times you went to extraordinary lengths to take care of a customer, or the background behind the big product breakthrough.
The good news is that with ubiquitous broadband access and Web-based applications, it is within every company’s grasp to share these stories more broadly through rich-media video and audio.
B.Good (http://www.bgood.com/), a small restaurant chain in Boston, has done this well. It’s a burger joint that promises “real food,” positioning itself against the typical fast-food burger and experience. The real food story begins with the stories of the “real people,” the founders whose corporate values are based on their experiences growing up at their uncle’s restaurant. You’re reminded of these stories when you’re in the restaurant or checking store hours online.
3. Bring it to life
Once you have the story, you need to bring it to life. Make sure that the way your company looks and feels to the outside world matches that truth. This leads to questions about your corporate identity: Do the basics (starting with your name and logo) make the impression you want? And your broader system for communicating to the market: Web site, brochures, your retail environment.
A client of mine talked about his Web site as a “corporate veil” that obscured what made the company special. Does your corporate identity reveal the best truth about your business, or does it hide it?
4. Start building brand before they buy
Think beyond the transaction. Brands begin at the transaction level, but the brand experience goes much deeper. The opportunity to create a brand impression starts long before the buying decision. The principle is a simple one: Give away an artifact of your brand for free. In the professional services world, this means a taste of your service or your intellectual property. Here are two creative examples:
Igor (http://www.igorinternational.com/) is a naming consultancy based in San Francisco. It has built a methodology—and a client list that rivals those of much-larger branding agencies. That methodology is laid bare in a 100-page guide to naming that it gives away—without any registration requirements—on its Web site.
This move is both generous, in the spirit of Web content “wanting to be free,” and also incredibly shrewd. The naming guide is rich, detailed, and outlines a very clear process for naming. Igor understands that giving away IP (intellectual property) doesn’t cost it business—but it is its lead business generator.
It doesn’t have to be just IP. Peet’s (http://www.peets.com/), the coffee retailer, allows customers to send their friends an “eCup,” an email redeemable for a free cup of coffee. This is an ingenious way to enable the fiercely loyal customers of Peet’s to promote the brand themselves.
5. Measure your efforts
Here are a few direct ways to measure the progress of your brand:
Ask your customers. Survey a subset of customers, prospective customers, and (ideally) people who chose a competitor over you. You’ll be surprised at how candid people will be about your strengths—and your weaknesses. Make sure you ask the most important question in any customer research: Would you recommend us to a friend or colleague? Research (check out www.netpromoter.com) has shown that the willingness to recommend is the most important indicator of brand health. This research can be done quite cheaply online, using free or near-free tools like KeySurvey (http://www.keysurvey.com/) or SurveyMonkey (http://www.surveymonkey.com/).
Check your search rankings. I don’t know all of what Igor measures, but I do know it fares very well in what is perhaps the most important measure of them all: organic search results. Type “product naming” on Google, and chances are you’ll see Igor come up in the top three listings (the earned ones in the middle, not the paid ones on the top or side).
Monitor the social media conversation. In most categories, consumers are holding a very active and candid conversation about the brands they love and hate. Check out what they’re saying about you in blogs, bulletin boards, and vendor-rating Web sites (http://www.technorati.com/ or http://www.yelp.com/ are good places to start).