Every week as SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wednesday on Twitter from 8-9 pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with Deb Gabor @Sol_Marketing. Deb Gabor is the CEO of Sol Marketing and author of Branding is Sex. This brand dominatrix and investor pitch whisperer with legendarily bad travel karma is also an empty nester, Midwest transplant, winter sports fanatic, an obsessed pet owner.
SmallBizLady: WHAT IS A BRAND – AND WHY DO YOU NEED ONE?
Deb Gabor: Branding is so much more than just a logo and a color scheme. Branding is the sum-total of all of your relationships, emotional connections, and promises you make to your customers. Branding happens in 360 degrees and at all touch points. Your customers define your brand, but you own it.
If you don’t control it yourself, your brand will take on a life of its own. Disaster happens when you let your audience own your brand. Do you want the media, social media followers, or dissatisfied customers owning your brand?
SmallBizLady: HOW IS A BRAND MORE THAN JUST DIFFERENTIATION FOR YOUR COMPANY, SERVICE, OR PRODUCT?
Deb Gabor: Branding is so much more than just being different for the sake of being different. It is about building strong emotional connections with customers. That’s a seriously smart business move that will have an enormous impact on growth and profitability.
It is not enough to brand yourself on the basis of what you do differently or better or faster or cheaper than anybody else, because those are things that other companies can imitate. As soon as they see you out there in the marketplace doing it and customers gravitating towards you, they’re going to start doing it too. That is just the nature of what happens in markets. It’s the swarm mentality. Soon your differentiating feature is no longer different. So all the brand capital you’ve built up promoting how you’re different is wasted. You’ll have to start over building your brand on something else.
The brands that win are the ones that create an enduring story and bond with customers in a truly emotional way; they make themselves indispensable to their customers.
SmallBizLady: HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU HAVE A BRANDING “PROBLEM?”
Deb Gabor: Here are 10 indications you may be having a branding problem:
- Your company’s sales people each use a different “pitch” to potential customers
- Your employees can’t explain in casual conversation why your company exists or what it does
- Your revenues are tanking, or growth is stalled
- “Me too” brands have entered the market and are stealing share
- Your desired brand identity and image don’t match
- You can’t answer the question: “what does our customer actually think of us?”
- You can’t answer the question: “how does our brand elevate our customers’ self-concept?
- You are unable to express a singular benefit your brand provides (one that NO other brand can)
- You feel a consistent negative vibe throughout your entire brand ecosystem
- You don’t know how your brand gets customers laid
SmallBizLady: WHAT IS THE CONDITION OF “IRRATIONAL LOYALTY,” AND WHY DO YOU WANT TO CREATE THAT CONDITION FOR YOUR BRAND, REGARDLESS OF THE SIZE OF YOUR COMPANY?
Deb Gabor: The ultimate goal of branding is to create a condition of irrational loyalty. When your customers consider using a competitor’s brand but ultimately feel like they’re cheating on yours, THAT’S irrational loyalty. You are so into a brand that, no matter what it did to you, you have so much positive juju built up in your emotional bank account for this brand you’d still go back and buy from them.
Irrational loyalty for a brand is like the love a parent has for a child or you have for a pet. No matter what they do, you love them to their very core. Irrationally loyal customers say things such as, “I love the whole experience,” or, “I like how it makes me feel,” or, “I like what that brand says about me.”
SmallBizLady: WHOSE JOB IS BRANDING?
Deb Gabor: This question is one of the main issues that stand between a company and a powerful brand. It doesn’t matter if you are a small business owner with five employees, or you’re the CEO of a billion-dollar company, the answer is the same…Branding is everybody’s responsibility.
Contrary to commonly held beliefs, it is not the responsibility of some marketing manager or the person in charge of campaigns or the person with “brand” in his or her title. Organizations that benefit most from branding are those where everyone in the company is a steward of their brand.
The companies that do the best are the ones in which the people at the top of the organization lead the charge for branding. In those companies, it’s often the CEO, but it’s also the COO and the CFO and the CTO and basically anybody with a “C” in their title who takes up the cause and drives the strategy through the entire organization. In order for it to work, however, every single person must feel ownership and responsibility for the brand.
SmallBizLady: IN CREATING A BRAND, WHY IS THE CUSTOMER MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU?
Deb Gabor: Your brand isn’t about you; it’s about “them”. When people imagine my job as a brand strategist, they usually picture a marketing whiz sitting in a closed off boardroom, brainstorming and crafting a perfect brand. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
The reality is, branding doesn’t come from your company or from a person or agency you hire. Branding comes from your customers. Your brand lives in your customers’ needs and desires, as well as their perceptions of and connection to you. Branding is not an inside-out activity; it’s an outside-in activity.
In other words, real branding comes down to getting inside your customers’ heads and then working inward from there. What do your customers think? How do they behave? What do they need? Where do they go to get it? Where do they shop? How much are they going to spend? What’s important to them? How does it make them feel? And how does it advance them in the goals that they have for their own lives?
SmallBizLady: HOW CAN CREATING A BRAND FOR A SINGLE IDEAL, “UNICORN” CUSTOMER HELP YOU EDGE OUT THE COMPETITION?
Deb Gabor: Great brands know that creating a brand with a singular unicorn customer in mind leads them to relentless competition-killing focus. The one thing that needs to be at the center of your brand is your customer. Some business owners have a hard time understanding this, but your brand isn’t about you. Your brand exists to bolster your customer’s self-image, lead them to achieve their goals, and help them become the kind of person they want to be.
Accomplishing this requires you to think carefully about your ideal customer. The ideal customer archetype is something that serves as a guiding principle for everything you do in branding and gives you a singular, highly identifiable customer persona toward which to point your brand’s story. You brand to an ideal customer; you market and sell to individual customer segments. I’m not against segmentation; I am for focus. The ideal customer archetype is a fleshed out, detailed, hypothetical profile of your ABSOLUTE ideal customer. This doesn’t need to encompass everyone who might engage with your brand. The ideal customer is the single customer who will spend the most money with you over the longest time because he or she has so strongly bought-in to your brand experience.
SmallBizLady: HOW WAS MASLOW A MARKETER, AND WHAT IS THE BRAND VALUES PYRAMID?
Deb Gabor: In Marketing 101, professors taught us that customers make rational purchase decisions. However, as a student of branding and marketing over the past 25 or so years, I’ve learned that reason informs, but emotion persuades. The practice of branding requires digging a lot deeper into your customers’ needs, wants, and desires and then trying to uncover the inner stories customers tell themselves. To really understand branding, we need to understand basic human needs.
If you think back to Psychology 101 class in college, you probably remember studying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow shaped his hierarchy like a pyramid, with the most basic human needs—food, water, shelter, air—at the base and loftier, more emotional needs at the top. The theory is that all humans must first solve for the lower levels of the pyramid before moving to the upper levels. Just as Maslow’s hierarchy explains human motivation, the brand values pyramid illustrates the idea that, when a person makes a decision to purchase or use a brand, they are motivated to achieve certain needs. As customers move up the pyramid, brands must meet more of their customers’ emotional needs, and as those emotional needs are met by more and more companies, the best brands must support customers’ process of becoming self-actualized.
SMALLBIZLADY: HOW IS BRANDING LIKE SEX?
Deb Gabor: When clients struggle with understanding the story their brand tells about their customer, my favorite shortcut is to ask, “How does your product or service get your customer laid?” And it works. Strong brands help their customers solve problems, present a positive image to the world, feel empowered, feel accomplished, and feel like the hero in their own personal stories.
Think about what happens when you’re feeling like you’re on top of the world and that everything is working out the way you hoped it would. No matter how you describe that feeling, it puts you in the mood for having sex. When I say having sex, it may mean literally jumping into bed naked with your partner. But it may also have a more figurative meaning: experiencing the exhilaration of neighbors or other moms in the carpool complimenting, fawning over, and praising you, as well as having your ego stroked and being appreciated your husband and children. All of these things feel great, too. Branding is about making people feel so good that they want to take a roll in the hay. That’s it.
SmallBizLady: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT THE PROCESS OF CREATING A BRAND?
Deb Gabor: We all know that many companies have a hard time getting their branding right.
Many companies see branding as writing the perfect copy, choosing the perfect color scheme, and writing up a perfect brand message. These things might be the output of branding, but branding is one thing: understanding your customer.
From my experience helping companies understand their customers, there are three core questions that really get to the root of how the brand and customer interact. If you can answer these three questions, you’ll be in a much better place to start your branding process.
1) What does your brand say about your customers?
The first question for brands to answer is what it says about a person that he or she uses this brand. What does it communicate both to the outside world and to the customer him or herself? This is important because, at its core, this is what a brand is. It’s a statement about the customer, and it’s crucial that, as a business, you know what that statement is. Answering this question requires you to really get inside your customers’ heads and understand what they want to achieve in their lives, how they measure their success in achieving those goals, what they care most deeply about, and, ultimately, how the brand must deliver.
2) What is the singular thing your brand delivers that customers can’t get from anyone else?
The second question to understand is what the singular thing is that a person using this brand gets from it that they can’t get from any other brand. In other words, what makes your brand singular and indispensable?
What you’ll find, as you dig into this question, is that most of the answers aren’t tangible. It’s unlikely that your product has a feature that no competitors can provide. Instead, what commonly comes up are intangible benefits, like the ways the company makes them feel or the story it tells them about themselves.
3) How do you make your customer a hero in the story of his or her own life?
The third question requires an understanding of how your brand makes the customer a hero in his or her own life story. Everybody wants to be the hero in his or her own story. Everybody wants to be the protagonist. Some brands may achieve that in an obvious way (like a fashion brand making the customer stand out from the crowd), whereas others might be more subtle (like an IT brand making the purchasing manager look good in front of their colleagues). No matter what the case, if you can answer this question, you’ll have loyal customers for life.
SmallBizLady: I’M TRYING TO GROW MY COMPANY. HOW CAN A BRAND HELP ME GROW AND MAKE MORE MONEY?
Deb Gabor: Brands that have bonded emotionally with their customers are among the strongest. Their brands contribute significantly to the overall financial value of their companies. Those companies that have gone through the process of creating a powerful brand distinguish themselves in their customers’ minds, not just now, but into the future. They’ve effectively differentiated from the competition. They’ve created conditions of irrational loyalty. That makes them resilient during market fluctuations and able to weather marketplace storms. Additionally, the loyalty that those brands engender increase their customers’ lifetime value and their companies’ customer acquisition costs on the lower side, contributing to a healthy bottom line.
SmallBizLady: WHERE THE #### DO I START?
Deb Gabor: My book is a great resource for getting started on the path to creating your brand. I give away the entire methodology and explain step-by-step how to go through the process of creating a powerful brand that wins. Start first with the ideal customer archetype exercise; then do the brand values pyramid exercise; and then pursue the more creatively oriented exercises to create the strategic underpinnings of your brand. You’ll be happy you did!
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