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Local businesses have a very pragmatic attitude about branding: they ignore it. Many of them are more worried about meeting payroll, making rent, paying taxes, and other cash crises than something “abstract” (or highfalutin) like branding. Branding is just another luxury item, like a long vacation.

That can be a huge missed opportunity, especially if your business or service is commodified or facing intense competition.

The “growth trap”

When facing strong competition, local business owners get trapped in the formula “new customers = sales = cash.” It’s a trap because it keeps you running in place. You must sell the same item — every day — to a constant stream of the same people. New products, services, coupons, discounts, offers, promotions, deals — just to stay in place.

There’s a great quote that captures the futility of the growth trap:

“…without a clear differentiating idea attached to a brand, all you’re left with to motivate buyers is price. But your competitors can cut prices, too, so without strong branding, prices will fall, as will profits.”

Kevin J. Clancy and Jack Trout, Brand Confusion, HBR March 2002

Branding isn’t just for “the big guys.” Small business owners can and should use branding techniques to strengthen their business.

Branding can unlock greater profitability that comes from higher gross profit (pricing power) and lower customer acquisition costs (customer loyalty and word-of-mouth referrals).

This article presents gives three steps for local business owners to follow to get started on a branding campaign.

1. Stop thinking about customers. Think about audiences.

Thinking about your customers as customers is short-sighted and tempts you to get caught in the “growth trap.” Inward-focused businesses think “What can I can sell?” to sell more stuff to generic consumers.

Audience-focused businesses think in terms of “What does my audience need?” That question forces you to understand, then think about, how to satisfy the wants and needs of real people, not faceless consumers.

When you care about an audience, you transform your business. You are not just selling products or services; you are selling emotions, solutions, and satisfaction, which are experiences that come with a higher margins and better reorder rates!

There’s an even more important reason to think about audiences, not customers: traditional promotional tactics in traditional media (pop-up ads, unsolicited emails) have waning influence. People just fast forward or your all attempts to intrude on their day.

Even paid search marketing (with ready-to-buy customers) is downright impossible unless you have a keen insight into the person behind the search query. Imagine creating an AdWords campaign without understanding a buyers’ concerns, motivations, and interests.

An audience focus is essential for your content marketing program. Audiences thrive on interesting and useful content. Your campaigns must establish relationships with people who know, trust, and (hopefully) like you. And then propagate that relationship to their friends.

When you sufficiently understand your audiences’ needs, they come to you. Opt-ins, likes, clicks, and shares are the new lead gen. When you make it a point to think about your customers as distinct audiences, you will necessarily create more effective ads, blog posts, emails, and other promotions.

Finally, having an audience focus sharpens your senses to detect the new “new thing.” Since you already have a deeper relationship and appreciation for your audiences, you have a more instinctive feel for what new products or services they want.

You never have to sell because your audience will always want to buy.

2. You already have a brand, but maybe not the one you want.

Customers infer all sorts of things when they interact with your company. So the real question is: are you managing that experience or just letting it happen?

Here’s a partial checklist of the brand signals you’re probably already sending:

  • Your style
    • Fonts and images and colors in your office decoration, signs, ads, and, of course, business cards.
    • Style, cleanliness, and consistency of employee uniforms.
    • The cleanliness of your office.
    • Company vehicle signage and decoration.
    • The cleanliness of company vehicles.
  • Your personality (and that of your employees):
    • Does everyone use the same language to describe your products or services?
    • Does everyone project the same attitude they answer the phone or meet a customer?
  • Your reputation:
    • Is your online presence (website, business citations) consistent or confusing?
    • Do you have at least a 10:1 ratio of current good vs. bad reviews?

While it may not be practical to orchestrate every customer interaction. The good news is that the message of your brand is already within your control. Read through this checklist and consider making a deliberate decision to take control. Make each interaction with customers and potential customers meaningful, communicative, and purposeful.

3. What should you say?

Marketing guru Seth Godin said it best:

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.

Your brand is a shorthand signal to tell your customers (audiences) what they can expect. It is irrelevant and even damaging if that signal is confused, unfocused, or inconsistent with reality.

The best place to start is with a single sentence that captures the essence of what your company is all about. It’s called a brand positioning statement and it is not easy to do.

Doug Stayman, Associate Dean at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, has a great checklist for your brand statement:

  • It is simple, memorable, and tailored to the target market.
  • It provides an unmistakable and easily understood picture of your brand that differentiates it from your competitors.
  • It is credible, and your brand can deliver on its promise.
  • Your brand can be the sole occupier of this particular position in the market. You can “own” it.
  • It helps you evaluate whether or not marketing decisions are consistent with and supportive of your brand.
  • It leaves room for growth.

Cornell also offers this handy online brand position statement generator to help you get started.
Small and local businesses often don’t think about traditional branding, often because they are distracted by sales-focused priorities. But basic branding doesn’t need to be expensive or complex.

Good branding principles are essential to overcome the growing ineffectiveness of intrusive, sales-focused advertising and promotional tactics.

Thinking about branding can unlock more long-term value for your business by lowering customer acquisition costs and improving gross margins. Define your brand and weave it into everything you say and do, then work to grow an audience for your content. Your sales and profits will follow.

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David Brooks

About David Brooks

David S. Brooks helps clients identify profitable web strategies using PPC, organic SEO, marketing automation and landing page optimization. Prior to founding his company in 2007, David held leadership roles in corporate communications, marketing and investor relations at manufacturing and technology companies. He is co-founder of HealthPlatforms, Inc., and has worked for other start-ups in the healthcare space.

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