I recently gave a presentation for the Consumer Health Summit (CHS) about the fundamentals of building a long-term, sustainable brand. When I was thinking about what might be helpful to a room full of founders, this was the topic that came to mind because it’s arguably the most valuable asset when building a consumer-facing company, yet it’s often the piece that gets the least attention and the smallest investment.
I’ve seen it time and time again… founders building companies with great product concepts, stories and purpose with no investment in the brand itself. Brand investment is often an afterthought or seen as an incremental spend that is the first to go on the budget chopping block.
As a result, brand building has become a lost art.
As someone who “grew up” working in big advertising agencies with formal processes for building and refining and communicating and living brand, I’m admittedly obsessed with brand building. Whenever I see a new product, I’m consciously and also unconsciously evaluating the brand. Guess what… we all are doing that. It’s a key factor in determining the products we buy, the places we go, the clients we want to work with, the way we see the world.
Iconic brands stand the test of time:
- They are market leaders and perform better than other companies in their same space
- They hold the pricing power, and their customers are less price-sensitive
- They are more scalable and have the ability to diversify their brand into a variety of markets
- They are less volatile and respondent to fluctuations in the economy/market, and are more resilient through times of economic uncertainty
- They can acquire customers at a lower cost
- They have an “unfair advantage” in terms of customer loyalty
- They are able to attract and retain talent in ways other competitors are not (think: Google)
- And they have the greatest appeal/value to investors, retailers, and other shareholders and partners
This is why it’s worth investing in building your brand. Meaningfully investing. And treating the brand itself as a fundamental and critical component of growing your business.
After 20 years of building brands, here are a few key questions — each of which should be easily and consistently answered by you, your employees, your partners, retailers, and the rest. Once that’s the case, you’re building an iconic brand.
1. What does your brand stand for?
This may sound like a simple question. And again, ideally it would be. But oftentimes, we have a long, drawn-out explanation for this versus a simple, one-line statement. Or even a word.
Think about iconic brands and how you’d describe them. My examples: Apple = creativity, Nike = performance, Coca Cola = happiness. These are brands that have established and reinforced their brand ethos over and over again, often over decades.
You and your consumers (and partners, etc.) should have the same understanding of the brand and, while the words might not be exactly the same, the feeling or impression should be.
Knowing what a brand stands for, creating a universal concept and then communicating it over time…that’s what establishes a brand.
2. Why does this brand exist?
Not, “Why does this product exist?”
Every brand has a founding story. In every episode of Shark Tank, at some point, the investors want to know, “How did you come up with this idea?” That’s because context matters and people don’t just want to know what the product does or what the product can do for them — but also, how did this product come alive in the first place? What’s its reason for being?
This is the unspoken role brands play in the lives of consumers. We know the story of Apple, we know the story of Facebook, and those are the stories that get told year after year, decade after decade. Well, your story matters too.
As someone running a PR agency, I can attest to the power of a true, authentic story and how media and, as a result, consumers, align around this in a meaningful way. So often it’s easy to take the story for granted because as a founder, you’ve told it over and over and it may seem commonplace. You shouldn’t take it for granted — it’s the truth and intention that sets the brand in motion and establishes — again, over time — why it’s important and how it will align with someone’s lifestyle, needs and/or values.
Only your brand has your personal story. And as long as it’s authentic and true, the story can be a valuable and ownable part of the brand.
3. Who are you?
This requires a mindset shift from “What” we are to “Who” we are.
Too many companies only think of themselves through the lens of “What.” It’s easy to focus on the product(s) or service(s) because that’s functionally what you’re doing and selling day-in and day-out.
What are we? We’re a PR firm. We’re a nutrition company. We’re a snack bar. We’re a doctor’s office. And so on.
But what customers, partners, and investors align with isn’t just the “What.” Sure, they may need a PR firm or a snack bar, but guess what: there are tons of these available so the “What” simply isn’t enough.
It’s the “Who.” Who are you? What do you care about? What is the personality of the company? What is the culture? What sort of people work with you and for you? Why do you do what you do?
These human characteristics and values are what draw people in — and are ultimately the building blocks of your company’s mission, rallying cry, and what you stand for in the world. And they differentiate you from every other snack bar.
4. How does your brand behave?
This is why customers fall in love with certain brands, and completely ignore others.
How your brand behaves is a reflection of all the things the brand says it stands for. Because behavior is how we show up in the world, and a brand’s behavior is the sum of all the people who work with and for the company. How a brand acts in the world — both small acts and big ones — indicates to consumers who and what a company is really about.
Consumers want to know where you draw the line, what your ethics are, how you handle problems when things go wrong, and how you choose to foster humanity in the world. Every company, whether it realizes it or not, has a behavior — and every single day, the way that company interacts with customers, responds to investors, or even shares its voice in public conversations, shows its true colors.
People are watching closely.
5. Why does your brand matter?
Impact has become an expectation. Consumers expect that every brand or company is proactively doing things to make a positive difference in the world.
It creates real pressure: should you align with a non-profit? Should you create a one-for-one giveback program? Should you give a portion of sales to your local community? We often brainstorm these things with our clients and guess what, it’s not as simple as coming up with something that’s going to look good to consumers.
The most meaningful impact, no matter how small the investment or act, is one that’s authentic and sustainable. A successful CPG founder recently mentioned that no giveback program is too small. I love that because often companies are so busy trying to figure out the big thing that they avoid doing the small things and end up doing nothing.
This question around legacy and long-term meaning is an important one and should be part of every big conversation about a company’s or brand’s future.
What will you leave behind? How will you be remembered?
Recently, Recess founder Ben Witte shared that he’s building his brand for the future versus today. That impacted me and reminded me of the importance of creating space for innovation and evolution in brand-building. Brands in the future may look different due to the radically evolving media and digital landscapes and the way consumers interact with brands in new ways each day. Build your brand for the future: take chances, do things differently, and stay open-minded.
Your brand is living, breathing, and evolving over time, and by managing it consciously and proactively, it can be your most valuable asset.