Great brands stand for something. That means clearly defining your brand--but how do you do that?

Here's another in my series in which I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. (Check out some previous installments at the end of the article.)

This time, I talked to John Parham, the president and director of branding at Parham Santana, an agency that focuses on brand extension for clients such as Kohl's, PBS, Barbie, and Food Network.

You say a small business needs to know only two simple things to define its brand. So let's start with the first one.
Rule No. 1: It's better to be clear than to be clever.

We learned our own lesson on this one. Until recently, we described ourselves as "Experts in Store." Sounds clever, but it meant too many things to too many people. So we changed it to "The Brand Extension Agency."

It's not poetry, but it is clarity. And clarity is what matters most.

To use you as the example, a focus on brand extension could limit your client base, though.
Not really. Every business is a brand, and every business can extend its brand.

Take magazines. Most magazines have seen their print ad revenue decrease due to the Internet. We helped Better Homes & Gardens enter the retail market with branded furnishings and décor. Better Homes & Gardens has a powerful emotional connection with its readers, and that made for a great opportunity to extend the brand.

We decided to be selective. We help big names--magazines or otherwise--define their extendable equity and grow their revenue streams.

There's nothing more satisfying than walking into a room where people are counting on your specific expertise.

Still, purposely narrowing your potential client base is scary, especially for a small business struggling to gain a foothold.
I think you've found the right focus when you're scared. It's scary to say, "We do this," even if you do it incredibly well.

But you don't have to wall yourself off. Your target window is a specific expertise. We often handle major, comprehensive branding assignments that involve everything from circulars to in-store to Internet.

I'll still buy a steak from Red Lobster, because they know how to cook.

Give me an example of how clear is better than clever.
Walmart is one. Its earlier branding statement, "Always Low Prices," was certainly clear but hardly inspirational. They shifted to "Save Money, Live Better." It's not Shakespeare, but it does resonate--and it provides an emotional element that was previously missing.

It bugs me when marketers move away from clarity and equity for cute and clever. Take Avis: For years their slogan was, "We try harder." Now their slogan is, "It's your space."

To me, get in and get out is what matters most when I rent a car. Who cares about the "space"?

Today there is such parity with car rentals--and almost any category of business--and what creates distinction is often the role an associate will play. I'll go to a grocery store because the guy or gal at the register smiles and knows my name. I don't care about the "space."

I like the idea a company will try harder.

Which I think leads nicely to your second point.
Rule No. 2: It's better to be different than to be better. (From a branding point of view.)

Most consumers have already made up their minds about who is "better." I can spend a billion dollars trying to convince you I'm a better agency than a bigger brand consultancy down the street.

I'll have much more success if I say, "Have you considered a brand extension agency?" Then I'm not saying I'm better; I'm saying I'm different.

You probably don't have the bucks to outspend everyone else, but by carving out a distinction, you can easily set yourself apart.

Take Volvo. Years ago, it carved out the "safe car" niche. If Volvo tried to say it was better than Mercedes, that's a subjective battle no amount of advertising might have won.

I know a bike shop that does that. It sells bikes, repairs bikes--everything. But the brand has carved out a real niche by advertising its bike-fitting services to optimize the bike setup for the individual rider. That automatically creates a "performance" image.
That's a great example. By focusing, you can be different. Then you can establish the credentials to support that difference. And your difference can then extend to and reflect well on the rest of your products or services.

One easy way to identify important differences is to think about what you really enjoy about your business. What are you passionate about? Where do you have the most fun? That's what we did. We loved finding ways to help brands extend their equity into other opportunities and channels.

To be effective, you'll need to be selective, so why not select what you love to do? Your odds of success will automatically increase, because all of us work harder on the things we enjoy the most.