In the third part of this four-part series, IRCG Associate Consultant Dan Horan offers distributors a pragmatic way to narrow the gap between their current brand and their ideal brand by employing patience, humility and outside-the-box thinking. (Did you miss the first two parts? Get caught up by reading Part 1: What Makes a Brand in B2B? and Part 2: The Difference Between Good Branding and Great Branding.)
When is the last time you took steps to manage your brand? Considering how your company and your target markets have likely changed over time, you can’t let your brand be something that just happens to you. You must build your brand with intention.
For most distributions, there is no need to build a new brand from scratch, nor is that possible. Instead, distributors should aim to turn their existing brand equity into something stronger and more cohesive, taking control of what they already have.
Brand building does not happen overnight; it takes work and attention. In a perfect world, you would have months or years to craft, test and refine every element of your brand. In reality, you have a business to run and often need to be building your brand on the fly and in your and your employees’ spare time.
Here are three steps to help you balance your idealistic view of what your brand could be with a pragmatic assessment of what you can realistically achieve.
Step 1: Assess your brand
Before you start building your brand, you must first understand how your brand is currently perceived. While there are plenty of formulaic assessments out there that claim to be able to tell you your brand’s strength or value, the best brand assessment comes straight from your customers and potential customers.
As I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, be wary of relying too much on your sales team for customer insights. With only a single, internal input source to guide you, you run a high risk of falling victim to your own “echo chamber,” hearing only what you want to hear. Getting honest input directly from customers may make you feel uncomfortable, but it is required for an accurate brand assessment.
Don’t limit these conversations to just your best customers and your friends. Talk to a diverse group of customers/potential customers, including ones you have low wallet share with. Don’t try to sell your products or the added services you offer during these conversations – just ask questions and listen.
If you receive negative feedback, or if your customers’ perceptions are vastly different than your own, it can be intensely discouraging. Resist the urge to justify or defend your own position by recognizing that the feedback you’re receiving is a gift, an opportunity to make meaningful changes.
Another way to better understand your current brand perception is to compare yourself to the competition. Ask yourself: What niche do you fill in the marketplace? How is your brand different or unique? How do you compare to the other regional or national players? For the most meaningful comparison, consider your five biggest competitors (local, regional and national), and ask yourself how your brand is positioned to each – not just by strength or size, but by how your brand is unique and differentiated.
If your best answer is good people with great service, I would start looking for another source of employment. Everyone claims to have good service, so what do you offer that the competition does not or cannot?
Step 2: Envision your ideal brand
In a perfect world, how would you like to be perceived in the marketplace? How would you like customers to view your company, your products and your services? Even if you’re not clear on all the details, outline the basics of what your ideal brand would look like.
This idealized brand (how you are perceived) isn’t the same as your ideal business strategy (what you do), so it’s important not to confuse the two. You should also keep in mind that even with all the time and money in the world, you won’t be able to be all things to all people; even idealized brand strategies have tradeoffs.
Once you’ve outlined what your ideal brand would look like, ask yourself what your plan would be to get there if you had total control, unlimited time and unlimited resources. That plan is your Ideal Brand Strategy.
Step 3: Reconcile your Ideal Brand Strategy with reality
Chances are good that there is a sizeable gap between how you are perceived in the marketplace now and how you’d like to be perceived. It’s also likely that there are many things outside of your control, and you’re limited in how much time you can invest in a branding project. The reality is that you may never achieve your ideal brand strategy, but you can begin to narrow the gap and make purposeful decisions on where you want to invest.
Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly investing in your brand through every customer interaction. So building a realistic brand strategy means not just deciding what new things to do, but also what things to stop doing. Many of your new brand actions will be replacements for old ones, helping you to make the most of limited resources.
You should also consider the size of the gap between each element of your current brand and each element of your ideal brand. If an element of your current brand is drastically different than your ideal brand, you need to consider whether it is worth the time, effort and money to change that perception.
Don’t write something off just because it might not have been part of the original plan. Think about what would happen if you embraced or doubled down on a certain perception instead of trying to change it.
For example, you might not have wanted to be the low-cost choice, but if you are already perceived that way, remember that there is value in the brand equity you already have. Consider the existing equity and the cost of building the same level of equity (especially if competition is fierce for a particular perception) if you choose another direction.
Finally, when it comes to brand strategy, remember that aspirational is good. You should feel like your strategy is pushing you and is a stretch to achieve, but don’t go too far. If all your brand goals are pie-in-the-sky, your execution will suffer.
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