When we launched the Credit Karma platform in 2008, we were offering free credit scores at a time when consumers were used to deception from other companies, often getting pulled into expensive subscription programs when they thought they were getting their credit scores for free.

Because of this, one of our first goals as a company was to elevate our name above everyone else's. We've done this while consciously attempting to avoid making negative statements about other companies, and we've tried to always put actions before words. It's left us battling competing impulses at times--accentuating our own positives, without directly calling out another company's negatives--but I think we've learned to walk this line well.

It's an ongoing process still, but I'd offer the following six tips to any entrepreneur looking to build a strong, positive brand.

Brand building is a little like politics

You see it in politics all the time, where people are faced with a choice of smearing their opponents or accentuating their own positives. We've always looked at our brand-building efforts like we were running a campaign. Our choice has been to not call out our competitors. You can still speak loudly by talking only about your own positives, because it organically points out that others don't share your strengths.

Find the tone that works for you as a leader

Learning to focus on your company's positives while still accentuating your competitive point of difference takes practice. In the beginning, you get a lot of input on the best ways to do this. But in the end, you need to work with your strengths as a leader. I've found that I'm most comfortable--and our company's image best-served--by shying away from talking points and focusing on creating genuine conversation with our members and the media. Every leader needs to find what works for them.

Negative companies risk turning off potential customers

There's a good reason for why it pays off to focus on what your company does well, because negative rhetoric can be a red flag for consumers. People are bombarded with corporate messaging constantly and are more adept than ever at picking up on things that are overly negative, disingenuous or indulging in unnecessary spin to make another company look badly.

There's a way to compete gracefully

If you are called on to engage in a direct dialogue about another company, it's important to keep your sense of humor. Maintaining a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone lets people know that you have a sense of self-awareness and little desire to jump into battle. More often than not, there are ways for two companies to engage nicely. In many cases too, displaying a sense of fun can result in a PR-win and make a company seem appealing to consumers.

On a broader scale, look at competition as part of a wider dialogue

If someone criticizes your company, use it as a moment for reflection on how you could improve. If they're not right, simply stick up for the truth. Engaging in a straightforward dialogue as a company--not just with the media, or other companies, but everyone--has been one of the more powerful ways for understanding and shaping our brand.

Always look at the bigger picture

It may momentarily seem like an appropriate reaction to snap back at another company that has made a dig at you, but something that is a preoccupation on the internet one moment is quickly forgotten the next. Think about where you want to be as a brand 10 years from now. It's not worth putting that in jeopardy for the sake of a short-term publicity bump. Brands take a long time to build and people have long memories. Perceptions aren't changed overnight.

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Published on: Apr 21, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.