Many years ago I owned a toy company. At the time, I heard an interesting philosophy on branding and packaging: that you should design your toy’s package so artfully that when children opened it and touched your product, they were just a little disappointed. Maybe this sold more toys in the short run, but I can guarantee it didn’t in the long run. Because when perception trumps reality, your brand is the loser.
What do your current customers think of you? What do potential customers think of you? Most importantly, are these perceptions accurate? In other words, how close is your brand identity (who you are) to your brand image (who people think you are)? It’s an important question that’s often overlooked.
Ideally, your brand image and brand identity are one in the same. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way – at least not without a lot of time, effort and flexible decision-making. Most small businesses spend the majority of their branding efforts strategizing how they want to be viewed and communicating their vision via advertising and other promotional vehicles. They spend very little time following up to see if they’re making progress or if they should be headed in a different direction entirely. Yet, as the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.
Here are a few simple ways you can assess where you stand in your customer’s mind – and see if that stance squares with where you should be.
1. Contact customers you’ve gained within the past year and ask them why they chose your brand. Granted, it’s not always easy to ask a customer to rate your product or service. Worse yet, it can be difficult to get an honest answer. Interviewing customers is often like peeling an onion: you take it one layer at a time. It requires time and patience, as well as an attitude that makes your interviewee feel they can safely give any answer.
2. Call current customers and ask them what differentiates you from your competition. Another way to approach this is to ask them the first thing they think of when they consider your brand, then the first thing they think of when they consider a competing brand. Again, this takes time and patience. You may be surprised at their answers, but accept them without argument (e.g., “Actually, Mr. Jones, our competitor charges much more when you factor in shipping and handling…”). Remember, you are researching perceptions, which may or may not be true, but are valuable nonetheless.
3. Are you receiving repeat business? If so, from whom? Look for commonalities in the types of customers who are coming back to your brand. Contact them to get a feel for the source of their brand loyalty. Hopefully they are returning to your brand for reasons you include in your advertising. If not, reconsider your brand promise.
4. Is your business growing by referrals or word of mouth? This is always a good sign. Publicity is more valuable than advertising because it’s not been paid for. What others say about your brand carries more weight than what you say.
5. Follow up on lost sales. Contact customers who chose a competitor over you and attempt to learn what led to their decision. Frame your call in nonthreatening terms and communicate up-front that it’s not a sales pitch.
6. Can you recite your brand promise or mission statement off the top of your head? Branding should play a role in all aspects of your business. If your mission isn’t guiding every decision, there’s a disconnect somewhere.
The more market research you can conduct, the better. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to learn what your market thinks, but you do have to spend time and energy. If the proof is in the pudding, it’s time to get out your spoon.
Author Note: John Williams is Founder and President of LogoGarden.com