So, you're curious about when your business should formally invest in branding. Great question.
Before we attempt to answer your question, let’s define a few terms.
Brand, according to “the father of advertising” David Ogilvy, is “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”
And according to Forbes, your brand “is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name. It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your name brand offering—both factual (e.g. It comes in a robin’s-egg-blue box), and emotional (e.g. It’s romantic). Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it. It’s fixed. But your brand exists only in someone’s mind.”
Positioning, then, is how your brand is delivered and communicated to different aspects of your target audience. For example, certain aspects of your brand could take prominence over others depending upon the pain points and needs of a subset of your market demographics.
Okay, enough of that, let’s address your question about investing in branding.
For many small to mid-size businesses operating in a localized market, brand building has been an organic by-product of one thing: staying in business.
In such cases, brand is difficult to separate from reputation and word-of-mouth awareness. A business has succeeded (it might not be profitable but has stayed operational), grown its client or customer base through strong performance and the “brand” has evolved accordingly.
Formal branding is not something on your annual business plan agenda and is certainly not part of your budget. After all, your business has come this far and has lasted this long without investing money in branding. So why start now?
Among a slew of difficult questions faced by growing businesses, engaging in a formal branding and positioning process often flies under that radar until it’s too late.
So, then, as the owner of a growing business, when is it appropriate—and even more importantly, necessary—to engage an outside marketing and branding agency in a formal branding and positioning campaign? Let’s take a look at four key signals that your company should invest in a formal branding and positioning process.
You Have Plans to Expand Your Market
The business plan you’ve created with your leadership team includes growth beyond your current market. This could involve expanding into a neighboring county, another state, multiple-states or even going national.
The critical factor here is as you expand, and the farther you move away from your local comfort zone, the less awareness exists of your track record and strong reputation, i.e. the “brand” that evolved naturally along with your localized success.
Where a mere mention of your company name in local circles created all the good vibes needed to get in the door and get that first meeting, your name and brand carries little to no door opening juice in new markets.
As you attempt to penetrate new markets, you’ll encounter new and more intense competition where securing even an initial meeting will require far more work and effort. Without a formal, intentional and professional brand projected across all of your materials and a positioning strategy that tailors the presentation of that brand to different markets, your business will be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to penetrating new markets.
Your “Storefront” Has Been Neglected
Your business has been successful. You are growing, slowly and steadily. You keep winning business. But you have not updated your website or collateral materials in five years. Your “storefront”, or the materials that carry and project your brand to the market, needs a facelift to match your business plan’s stated expansion goals.
Granted, it’s been easy choosing not to invest in a new website or in refreshing your brochure. Business has been fine. No one complains. However, now that you’ve tapped out the local market, your “storefront” is more important than ever, in that it will determine—particularly in the case of your website and digital presence—how potential new clients or customers perceive your operation.
This is not about investing $100,000 in the most technologically advanced website ever. It is, though, about investing in a website that is modern, on message and that speaks to the pain points and needs of all your target audiences, both local, regional and national, as applicable. This is about all of your materials across all mediums- print, digital, business cards, letterhead, brochures, signage, office design, social media, radio and TV—projecting the same brand values and identity.
An outdated “storefront” and fragmented brand presentation across your materials will hurt your business development efforts in markets less familiar with your word-of-mouth reputation. It could, eventually, hurt your ability to win local business as well.
In-House Branding Efforts Failed
You set ambitious goals for growing your market, and fundamentally understood a formal branding effort was a key to success. Like many business owners, you thought those best suited to branding your company were those working for it. This is the best of both worlds: branding done by those that live the brand. And I don’t have to invest budget dollars in the process.
Despite the best intentions, the team you put together to brand your company fails, not because of a lack of effort or passion or commitment, but because the customer or client always comes first. And that client or customer is not your company; it’s those organizations paying your company and your staff salaries.
Branding work is complex, time consuming and requires the expenditure of a tremendous amount of thought capital. What’s more, it also needs to be done objectively. In both these areas, it is nearly impossible for an internal team to successfully build and implement a formal, objective branding and positioning strategy while being asked to perform their “regular” jobs at a high level.
The key here is recognizing where your company is in its lifecycle. For start-ups and businesses just hitting their stride, branding has to be done in house. It is a necessary evil, so to speak. But for businesses that are growing rapidly and want to grow more, for businesses that have the capital to invest, keeping things in-house is no longer necessary. In fact, it's counterproductive.
Either your clients will suffer or your brand work will suffer. Luckily, for you, your team chose your client’s happiness over brand development. If you’ve tried to do the branding process internally and failed you’re not alone. It’s the most logical first step for any business owner, but one that very often is doomed from the start.
When you have the financial means and are aggressively pursuing growth, hiring an outside agency with branding expertise and experience will add a layer of objectivity to the process, and, if they know what they are doing, maximize the input of your team without overburdening them and disrupting day-to-day operations.
This will require a financial investment as well as giving up control to a trusted partner, but the long term benefits to your organization, clients and staff cannot be understated.
Your Competition Has Upped Its Branding Game
As you’ve kicked around the idea of formally branding your organization, you’ve taken a peek at your competition, both local and beyond. What you’ve found is not good.
A few of your main, local competitors have a new website with a blog, videos, case studies and client testimonials. It looks good. It’s functional. It’s easy to navigate. And tells a cohesive brand story.
Somehow, they’ve done what you could not. They’ve invested time and money to revamp their “storefront” and showcase their brand differentiators in a way that speaks effectively to multiple target audiences.
And when you take a peek into the markets you want to penetrate, you find both a higher number of competitors and a higher density of competitors with strong branding programs.
This is a threat on two fronts: (1) Your local competition is investing time and capital in branding, which means they are aggressively pursuing your market share; and (2) Your ability to penetrate new markets might be more challenging than you originally thought.
Growing your business is a numbers game, for sure, but it’s also about communication and emotional connection. If you connected with one or more of the signals detailed above, it’s time to engage an outside firm to brand your company.
Branding is not the be all and end all for company success. However, those companies that can combine skilled data analysis, outstanding customer service, innovative service and product development and tell people that story via branding excellence will win the day.
They won’t continue to grow and thrive by relying on word-of-mouth generated business (though it always helps). They’ll win the day because they’ve armed their business plan with process, intent and a formal branding and positioning platform that connects with the people it seeks to serve.