Every business owner I know has worked hard to build a brand and recognizes the critical value of instant brand recognition and leadership. You have done everything to register your brand legally, for example, including domains, copyrights, patents, and trademarks. Yet, as an outside advisor, I often see slippage overtime on protecting your brand, which can be costly.
The specifics of these shortcomings are hard to nail down, but I was impressed with the good summary provided in a new book, Make It, Don't Fake It, by Sabrina Horn, a C-suite advisor, speaker, and founder of Horn Strategy.
I add my insights here to her top six key strategies for keeping your brand authentic and above reproach:
1. Avoid changes that may compromise quality or image.
We all strive to reduce costs and improve efficiency, but the ultimate test is the potential to erode values, culture, and brand image. Every change has possible downsides, and it's your responsibility to quantify and balance these against benefits. Don't let your bean counters devalue your brand.
For example, a few years ago Wells Fargo seriously damaged its brand trying to grow the business by creating accounts without proper customer consent. This resulted in lawsuits and fines, angered many new customers, and the Wells Fargo brand is still recovering.
2. Evaluate the brand impact of proposed market moves.
The push is always on to grow your market with new geographies, new products, and new market segments. Yet every change can cause brand dilution or competition you don't need. Always check language nuances and translation issues. Moving in or out of the wrong market can kill your brand.
Most of us can still remember when Ford expanded into Brazil with the Pinto model, not realizing the translation had a negative sexual connotation, which severely hurt Ford's brand in many countries for all models. There are many comparable examples of big hits.
3. Recognize that employee morale impacts your brand.
If employee morale is down, your brand will be negatively impacted. Thus you need to see and be seen with your people and walk the talk. Don't wait for quarterly morale surveys or feedback from HR. Ask employees for feedback, and commit to fixing problems before you feel the brand impact.
4. Never argue with customers, public or private.
Pay close attention to social media and online feedback, and never respond defensively. Create and truly listen to your customer advisory council, and focus on removing opportunities for them to be disappointed. Customers, more than advertising, make your brand image in the market.
Of course, we can all agree that the customer isn't always right, but it does your brand no good to debate the issue. The best approach is to listen and learn from them-- and clarify your brand marketing, customer service, business model, or just find the right customers.
5. Accommodate and integrate multiple cultures.
As you expand the business into new geographies and market segments, focus on culture inclusivity rather than trying to manage multiple subcultures. Use global online influencers and common values to seek communication across groups, and keep the focus on your brand rather than differences.
In this age of the Internet and global communication, it is virtually impossible to isolate individual subcultures, and market your brand uniquely to each. Attempts to do this have resulted in more confusion than value, as well as high management and marketing costs.
6. Differentiate your brand based on a higher cause.
Be different based on a unique value proposition, not just better quality or cost. Know yourself as well as your customer, and make your brand a statement that they can relate to, and want to be a part of. Keep you image authentic, fresh, and harmonious, and firmly based in reality.
For example, TOMS shoes differentiated their brand of common shoes by highlighting a higher purpose from founder Blake Mycoskie of donating a pair of shoes to the needy for every pair sold. He found that the return was far greater than the cost of donated shoes.
Building and protecting your brand is the ultimate responsibility of every business owner and leadership team. It supersedes all other responsibilities, and should be top-of-mind in everything you do.
Don't let the day-to-day pressures from customers, competitors, and scaling push you into shortcuts that look good on paper today, but may damage your brand image in the long term.