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Improving branding in the digital age

The scope of branding has expanded tremendously with the proliferation of social media and the multi-platform outreaches that are possible in the digital age. In general, anything you do should be consistent with your “human brand” – the image you wish to portray should adhere to your core values and your messaging should be attuned to that.

In this day and age, you have to assume that people are going to find out who you are and what you do if people are engaging with you and your business. Your goal should be to control the narrative to your best advantage.

Success can arise by understanding, and adhering to, a few questions and concepts, such as:

1. The nature of branding in the days of social media

2. The steps involved in creating a human brand

3. The do’s and don’ts to be aware of

4. Objective and subjective measure success

5. Defending your brand

Read on to gain an understanding of each of these areas, and more!

Business Strategy Digital Marketing Industry Info

Improving branding in the digital age

Improving branding in the digital age

As a small business owner, you probably react to a branding-related conversation with an all-knowing shrug (“Hey, I already pay out of my nose for it”) or a slightly bemused expression (“We’ve tried a lot of things, but we can’t quite tell what works or doesn’t”). 

It’s understandable. Some of these reactions are created by the constant maelstrom of change that the conventional definition of branding has gone through in the digital age. However, it’s not sufficient to hand-wave at the topic; branding can make or break your business.

A core philosophy we articulated previously captures the essence: “Creating and propagating a human brand … aligns with the other components of your necessary digital transformation.”

Creating a Human Brand

The process of creating a human brand in this day and age should involve some key aspects.

Assume that there will be a perception created among your potential customers and neighbors regardless of whether you actively create and promote a brand or not, given the power of the feedback loop on social media.

Your business-related actions will garner attention. In order to ensure that the attention is positive, your “look” needs to align with your core values and exude positivity in front of the world.

Is This Too Much?

This may seem vague, or a lot to digest and implement, but the task is not insurmountable. In fact, it boils down to a few questions and concepts. They revolve around the following:

  1. What is the nature of branding in the days of social media?
  2. How can you take step-by-step measures to create a brand, keeping in mind the concept of the human brand you should build and the image you want to project?
  3. Do’s and Don’ts of creating a brand
  4. How do you measure success?
  5. How do you defend your brand?

Let’s consider these and other relevant topics one by one.

1. The Nature of Branding in the Internet Age

The definition of business branding has evolved dramatically with social media.

Conventional branding used to revolve around visual clues (e.g., designs or symbols) that made the company (e.g., the McDonalds’ Golden Arches or the Nike Swoosh).

The internet age has pushed us way beyond this notion of a “created” touch, feel, and sight experience. Now, every company (through its website, products, services, customer service, and message) is continuously creating—or destroying—a brand image, regardless of whether they are actively trying to do so.

Social media allows every customer or visitor to your website an easy avenue to speak about your business. They can readily influence the image that a third party may form of you, without spending one second on your website or 10 minutes visiting your store.

What Does That Mean, Exactly?

As mentioned above, classical branding revolved around visible cues and marketing fluff. A company could “project” an identifiable image and reasonably expect that image to occupy the minds of their prospective customers for a while, regardless of their physical actions. 

Think of Geico ads, for example. How many people used to call Geico because they loved the Geico ads, only to find that they did not have the solution they were looking for? Maybe you’ve done so yourself.

This has completely changed with social media. Your company logo or name, the design of your product, and how you advertise and/or package the content is still relevant, but they’re only a part of what socially active customers may comment on.

2. What is the Image You Want to Project for Your Business?

Realize that your brand is always going to be out there, unless you are hiding in a cave somewhere, in the social media age. Therefore, you must focus on creating a “human brand.”

The Total Experience Counts

Advertising efforts, customer service, and reputation, juxtaposed with the visual projections of conventional branding, will quickly go viral via social media. If your business, or even personal profile grabs the attention of the surfing and viewing public, it can become extremely relevant or even dominate the perception of viewers and visitors. 

So, it has truly become a case of “It’s not what you say but how you say it.”

Visitors, purchasers, employees, suppliers, even neighbors—none are invisible to the general public. Assume that they will comment about their experience through multiple social media channels. These pronouncements will create an image that can either help or hurt your business. So, put your best foot forward to ensure that it’s the former.

Is this Evolution a Problem or Opportunity?

You could treat this as an impediment, but why? Think of social media channels as the opportunity of a lifetime to get your name and reputation established.

For example, being known as a business owner who supports employees and provides great customer service may quickly establish a great reputation on social media. A demonstration of social responsibility or community support is likely to be a big draw to a broader audience who may become your customers one day or refer a family member or friend.

3. How to Create a Brand: Do’s and Don’ts.

Positive brand recognition may be driven by who you affiliate with, the work ethic you display, the way you treat your employees, and so on and so forth.

For the points below, we discuss the brand image projected by the business, although as a small business owner your personal brand is as important as, and firmly linked to, how people perceive your business.

One of the key factors is to enhance your customer’s experience at every touchpoint—from ordering to speed of delivery to packaging—then on to after-market customer service.

Let’s delve further.

Create a Brand around Customer Experiences

Marketing studies continually find that customers will either lose interest or get mad when forced to endure bad (e.g., tedious) buying experiences and/or suffer through bad customer service.

There are rare exceptions, but unless your product is truly unique—at least in the local/regional market—your brand will struggle to overcome bad customer feedback.

There is a bright (flip) side, though. The companies that have developed a good reputation in this regard can capitalize on the positive feedback. If you can get there, make sure that your branding mentions it.

Stretch to Create a Human Brand

The focus on creating a positive customer experience should naturally extend into creating a human brand. The more you come across as accessible and sympathetic, genuinely caring about providing the best value, and an all-around decent person, the better your brand will project based on customer experiences.

If you have nailed the process of providing a great customer experience, extend the same courtesies to your employees. Make them feel like part of the team. In our Operations related article, we discuss how automation can relieve your key employees from the burden of performing low value, repeatable tasks and how to encourage employee growth.

Empowered, happy employees treat customers well, and you will reap the rewards through positive feedback from your patrons, visitors, and neighbors.

Bottom line:

You can advertise and build your brand through your website, social media, apps, and so on and so forth. Before you start, though, think long and hard about whether the message that you are putting out there is consistent with how you want people to think of you and your business.

Promote Associations That You Can Be Proud Of

As we’ve discussed before, we are past the age when picking a random stock image or an abstract symbol is going to jump-start branding—although there is something to be said for splashes of colors or a distinctive “look” that makes a neighborhood storefront stand out to locals.

To produce a scale effect in terms of a positive brand image, consider associating with other businesses, personalities, or recognizable images that you want visitors and customers to associate with you.

We discussed how Nike, Red Bull, or State Farm showcase athletes. As a small business owner, you may not be able to afford that, but there are other avenues. A neighborhood group, such as PETA or MADD perhaps? Sponsorship for local concerts? Advertising with religious communities and highlighting your involvement with a local or regionally focused charity?

Choose an image that you want to project and stick to it. If you run a franchise, work with corporate to figure out how to use their national branding to your maximum advantage, then add local content to drive the message home.

Distinguish between Brand Loyalty and Price Loyalty

This is a familiar trap for middle managers in large businesses and many small businesses who may stock bigger ticket items. The classic examples could be cars or software, but any small business owner likely has at least a few items that they would like to upsell at a decent price.

Many customer-facing employees spend their days trying to entice every price conscious customer to buy the next unit of the product or service being offered, without realizing that this approach may not result in a win but instead result in huge problems.

First, the product is likely getting sold at a razor-thin margin. At times, it may be sold at par or even below (“for marketing, boss!”). Before you give into this thinking, stop to determine where you are going with this philosophy of promoting sales at all costs (literally!!).

There may be two practical, long term problems after your sales reps manage to push sales with deep discounts. Not only have you have created a reputation for bending back on price or perks (with one customer at first, but word can spread like wildfire on social media if you are the cheapest game in town) but, perhaps more importantly, your business is now focused on customers who are not as profitable for you to pursue as you’d like them to be.

This, in our opinion, can form a key differentiator between a successful and a ho-hum brand strategy. Sales at all costs may seem like an apt approach to gain market share, but what it demonstrates is that you have zero branding power.

If, on the other hand, you focus on creating an image that customers flock to, price can be a secondary concern. Do not be desperate to sell the next unit, without concern about who you are selling it to—that strategy could effectively place your business on a hamster wheel. 

Distinguish between Lift from Branding and Non-Branding Promotions

This is somewhat subtle. When businesses exist for a while, especially in this digital age, they usually create a brand one way or another (omission or commission), as we discussed earlier.

Let’s assume that (a) you have made specific attempts to brand, and then (b) you continue to run promotions. When you have systems in place to track the enhanced engagement from customers or actual sales events, you should take care to distinguish between the effects of your existing brand and the specific “lift” from a promotion event.

4. How to Measure Success

This topic could fill a book. Here, we will only discuss the philosophy. You will see how it applies particularly to situations where small businesses begin to spread their wings.

When customers are attracted to what you offer (due to your branding efforts), the results are reflected in three ways:

  • Interaction
  • Engagement
  • Participation

In this age of constant feedback through social media, it should be easy to discern customer and visitor responses if you set up your system to track them properly.

We illustrate using an example of a website-based marketing/branding strategy.

How to Track Branding/Marketing through Online Activity

Here’s how you can define the progression of online exchanges with your customers:

  • Interaction: If your website or direct customer reach out elicits a first level response from a prospective customer, you can track the event through clicks on a web page or link, or the number of times that visitor watches a video or opens an email. 
  • Engagement: If a visitor proceeds further, you have their attention. For example, they could provide their email address to receive content, comment on a post, or maybe sign up to receive alerts or bulletins. If you’re lucky, maybe they pre-order.
  • Participation: This step hopefully happens after a client buys something. Does a customer leave a positive comment about your service or product? Will they remain signed on as a member of your community? If they show up to your promotional events and begin to refer others, you have full participation.

However you track specific occurrences, your automated system should be robust enough to define and track “tangible” events. Each of the above steps are measurable, so you should be able to tell whether or not your marketing and branding is working.

5. How to Defend Your Brand

If you’ve built up a brand, whether by direct action or happenstance, the next step is to assess your brand’s vulnerability to poaching activities. Like many other matters, even this conventional threat gets more multidimensional in the social media age. 

Legitimate competitors with similar products and services always pose a threat. But nowadays, you must be careful about internet trolls and hackers. The former could go after your image (or posts, if you are active on social media) on a whim, while the latter can do serious harm through stealing customer lists and other intellectual property.

Your first task is to identify the assets that you must protect on a priority basis.

If your business brand is vulnerable to poaching, whether by legitimate competitors or internet trolls, your brand should be protected.

What Assets Should You Protect?

Five of the most important assets to protect, branding- and marketing-wise, are:

  • Intellectual Property (including business know-how or descriptions)
  • Customer Lists
  • Employees (and knowledge gained through experience)
  • Data (about your core business operations)
  • Reputation

So, What Should You Do?

Without getting into too many details, the internet, which has opened up new channels of attack, also provides some solutions you can pursue.

There are brand threat assessment and cyber security options that you can avail yourself of. The good ones offer 3600 protections on the five areas mentioned above, and more.

We can help you select a suitable package—those that allow you to detect threats early (based on specific criteria you can set up), enhance cyber security (based on rules you set), and help to eliminate threats (if any have materialized) as you move forward. 

The Final Word on Branding and Brand Management

As we have mentioned throughout, branding and the “art” of brand management is—or can be—both easy and complex in the digital age. 

We are not trying to be enigmatic; the possibilities are indeed limitless for prominence or obscurity, fame or notoriety. It’s not just the click of a few buttons, though. It requires thought, followed by strategy, then execution and reinforcement.

Ultimately, the proper mindset, a few building blocks, and attention to detail could get you started on the road to a solid reputation.

If any of this feels difficult, contact us. Unravel is here to help.