You recently opened up a restaurant in a crowded city, with plenty of other restaurants in the area. Most have loyal customers, so what's going to attract newcomers to your business, and keep them coming back in a competitive market? Your brand promise and brand delivery.

Working for a number of companies like Best Buy, Procter & Gamble and eBay, Mike Linton, who currently serves as chief marketing officer for Farmers Insurance, found that successful branding occurs when a combination of three key elements are in place. Here, Mike talks about those elements and what he believes are essential to building any brand.

Q. Why is branding important? How is it different than marketing?

A. A lot of people tend to think that branding and marketing are the same thing. But a brand is much more than its marketing. A brand is the marketplace's perception of all of the interactions with your business including marketing, customer service, product performance, and any other customer touch points, which also include third party opinions.

The brand is the value proposition you promise to always deliver to your current and potential customers. Over time delivering and exceeding that promise to a customer builds a trusted relationship and they become engaged with your brand. This is brand loyalty and critical to retaining customers and growing your business.

Q. What does a "solid value proposition" mean to your business?

A. Every successful brand is built around a central value proposition. Some brands--a quick service restaurant or online retail, for example--may be focused on convenience or price. Others may choose to concentrate on things like luxury or breadth of choice. A value proposition is a combination of your offering, your pricing, and how you present both to consumers versus competition. For example, at Farmers, part of our value proposition is making sure that every time a customer interacts with us they come away feeling smarter about their insurance options.

Your brand is a contract with the customer to deliver or exceed that promised value proposition, every time. This value proposition has to be based in fact and it has to be achieved on a regular basis. It can't be something that sounds good. If an airline says, "We're always on time," but has late flights it's horrible for the brand as the promise is broken.

Look at what your business does best versus your competition--top-notch service? Fast results?--and build your brand around that value you're providing.

Q. Why is the customer's insight so important?

A. Your messaging needs to focus on why a consumer should purchase your product or service versus all of the other choices they can choose from.  In order to get that messaging right, you need to know who your target market is and why they should choose you. Taking a shot gun approach to branding by trying to be all things to all people can compromise high quality and great service, waste a great deal of time, money, and allows other, more focused brands to take your customers.

For many businesses, understanding what customers want might be easier than you think. If you interact with customers regularly, you can ask them and perhaps set up a mechanism to talk with them on a regular basis. Any business, large or small, can set up a focus group or send out a survey. You also likely have a lot of data on hand: what are people buying from you? When are they buying it? What are they saying on social media? Look at your competition and ask the same questions. Try changing things up. Use a different marketing message or boost email frequency. See how that impacts things in the short and long term.

The best brands tend to design their product or service for their most demanding consumer, the one who cares most about the benefit you're selling. For example, if a shoe company designs a line for a professional athlete, those shoes will likely meet the needs of your average athlete. When you seek to satisfy the most discriminating customer in your category, you'll find that you are also able to meet the needs of almost everyone.  

Q. What about the third pillar--"consistent performance"? What does that have to do with branding?

A. A brand is an accumulation of consumer touch points and experiences over time, which equal the sum total of all their interactions, including experience, marketing, customer service interactions, what they've heard from friends, etc. Inconsistencies get noticed and amplified. It's important to deliver a positive experience for consumers every time they interact so that the brand promise is believed and the brand is resistant to competition.

This, of course, is easier said than done. Every company has off days or makes mistakes, and every company has to deal with dissatisfied customers. The solution? Don't fight it; go fix it. The sooner you can acknowledge that your brand failed to live up to its value proposition, the sooner you can set about making things right.

At the end of the day, your company doesn't own your brand; the consumer does. It's your constant job to make sure the brand you champion is the better brand your customer experiences.

Published on: Jul 13, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.