The other night, I was talking with a few friends about how to build a brand for a company. Yes, I know that seems like off-beat dinner conversation, but you have to understand that one of the people at the table was my friend Julie McHenry.

Julie's been in the marketing and communication field for over 20 years, and she's got some pretty impressive credentials. In the early 1980s, Julie co-founded a public relations firm, and one of her first clients was a new software company -- Microsoft. That firm, now called Waggener Edstrom, is still Microsoft's leading PR representative. Julie later co-founded another PR firm, Wilson-McHenry.

Julie is now president of Communications Insight, of San Mateo, Calif., which specializes in communication strategies for technology businesses.

Most of us think a "brand" is just the name of a company. But Julie set me straight. "The brand is the emotional personality for the company. Branding isn't just a logo that you slap on or a fancy ad campaign. The brand is the essence of the company."

Thinking about a company's brand as its personality was helpful. Just as your own name becomes associated with your personality, the name of a company becomes associated with its personality.

"With a one-person business, the brand is really wrapped up in that one person -- whether they're intense, energetic, warm, or cool," Julie explained. "As the company grows, the personality is determined by everyone and everything -- from how the phone is answered to the website to product packaging to how partners are treated."

But how important is the name itself in shaping the company's personality? Would Starbucks have been able to expand as rapidly if it had a less unusual name, such as the Peet's?

"Absolutely," said Julie, explaining that Starbucks grew because of how the company was operated. "There's a law of diminishing returns on how much time and money you spend developing a name. It's about execution."

Nevertheless, most of us do spend a lot of time thinking about our company's name. Should it be descriptive, clever, off-beat, or particularly memorable?

"If you're starting from scratch, you have the luxury of choosing words that have more marketing meaning. As to clever, it depends on what type of business you're in...Memorable is more important; you want people to remember your name."

To assist you in thinking through some of the issues if you're in the process of figuring out a name for your company, I've put a "Business Name Comparison Chart" on my website,, where you can evaluate your potential choices.

To help visualize a "personality" for your company, Julie suggests getting the top people in your company together and having them answer these questions:

If your company were each of the following, which type would it be:
-- a car-- animal-- color-- beer-- department store

"The VP of sales may think the company is a tiger, and the president may think it's a parrot," says Julie. "This gets a conversation going about what you really want your company to be."

She also suggests you ask your top five customers the same questions. "You may want to be the Nordstrom of your category, and you find out you're considered the Wal-Mart."

And what if your customers don't think anything about you? "Then you're not communicating any personality; to them, you're just a blank."

Instead, sit down and define your brand attributes -- your company's personality, and then be consistent. Consistency is critical in developing a brand. "Choose a set of words that describe your business and don' t change them," said Julie. "Keep it simple and consistent."

In the end, of course, a personality -- whether for a company or for a person -- isn't about words; it's about how you behave. What do you promise and what do you deliver? How do you treat other people -- your customers, your employees, your vendors?

"Credibility, integrity, honesty," said Julie. "Today, the way people make decisions about purchases -- whether a new pair of shoes or a huge order of commercial valves -- they first look at the credibility of the company. A brand needs to embody that credibility."

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2002

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation's most widely-read small business column and is the author of The Successful Business Plan, Wear Clean Underwear, and The Successful Business Organizer. To receive Rhonda's free business tips newsletter, visit