Start-ups and small companies ask the same questions when they first contemplate a formal marketing program: Do we need a brand yet? Can we even have a brand when we are this small? How do we build a brand from the ground up?

The answer is no, you don't need a brand - generic foods get just as much shelf space as Coca-Cola. But you should want a brand for your company.

When I work with companies that are in the preproduct, venture capital phase, I encourage them to define a working brand from day one. I do this because a brand definition at early stages can communicate that you want to build customer loyalty, not just sell. It demonstrates that you are serious about marketing and that you intend to be around for a while. Internally, it articulates your company's value and explains why you're in the market. These are important messages to your employees, customers, and investors.

What Is a Brand?
A brand is a strong, consistent message about the value of your company. You control the message through marketing, advertising, customer service, and all interaction between your company and the market.

You don't need to be as large as Coca-Cola to have a brand. Building a brand involves the same process, whether your company is two weeks or two years old, whether you have 100 employees or none. Here is how a brand typically develops:

  • Step 1: Define the message. What is valuable about your company? Why do your customers care? What's so different about your company? The answers to these questions should form the core statement about your company's service, product, relationships, and culture: You are faster and have better service (Federal Express); you have unrelenting, perfect customer care (Nordstrom); your products are edgy, new, and high performance (Nike).
  • Step 2: Build the image. How does this translate to your overall image? Both visually and verbally, you need to consistently communicate the company's message about its value.
  • Step 3: Market the image. How can you aggressively get the word out? The message means nothing until your market hears it. Your marketing and advertising campaigns need to communicate the company's value and establish its image.
  • Step 4: Live the message. Is the message real? Does the customer agree with you? Here comes the tricky, long-term part: You need to deliver on the implied promise. The customer's experience must match the image, or the whole house of cards crashes. If you market your company as faster and better but the customer disagrees, the brand suffers.

In reality, this process is not linear, but circular. Your brand will evolve in response to the customer and the evolution of your market and products. For example, if you have a small business or start-up, you may believe that the value of your product and company lies in one area. As you market your company and product, your customers may communicate that they value something else. Then your product and company may evolve toward that new value, bringing you to new markets.

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