5 email marketing mistakes that could send you to an early grave

5 Email Marketing Mistakes

Well, not really, but it could mean an early end to your email program. And we all know that email is key to your marketing success. Whether you're building relationships with your customers, showing vital information, or nurturing people in your pipeline, you don't want to mess up when you hit the send button. Here are 5 email marketing mistakes that give us the downright chills.

  1. Subject lines so boring you’ll die

    It all starts with the subject line, so make it count. The subject line of your email should be treated as one of the most important aspects of your email….if not the most important. An interesting subject line goes a long way into getting someone to open. No opens = no one reading your content.

    So, how do you grab someone’s attention? Stand out from inbox clutter with an engaging subject line. Get creative! Keep your subject lines conversational, compelling, personal and fun. It's always good to take a step back, channel your audience, and ask, "What would make them open this email?"

  2. Dreadful content

    Content is king, as they say. Now that you did all of this work to get your readers to open your email, it is time to entice them with your content. Make sure your content is short, no one wants to open an email and have an entire book to read. Your email should be easy to skim and filled with engaging content.

    A good rule of thumb—before writing your email ask yourself these two questions:

    • What is the purpose of this email?

    • How are we providing value to our readers?

    Keep this in mind throughout the entire time you’re crafting your email. It should be crystal clear why you’re sending this email. Do not send an email for the purpose of sending an email, have strategic content and provide value.

  3. Omitting your mobile users

    Mobile remains the most popular reading environment. Optimizing for mobile users is absolutely imperative in your email marketing efforts, but we still see less than desirable mobile experiences.

    Here are a few quick tips to optimize for mobile.

    • Use a responsive email template. Most email service providers provide responsive templates. These templates will automatically revise your email to fit the screen of mobile phones, tablets and PCs.

    • Single columns. Using one column will make your email compatible for all devices, no matter how small.

    • Use small images. If you have 5 large images in your email, this will take a long time to load on your phone. Use fewer images, and make sure they are small (600 pixel width should be as wide as you go).

    • Test. Always make sure to test your email on your mobile device before sending to your customer list to ensure there are no weird spacing issues or other odd renderings. Two great testing platforms are Litmus and Email on Acid.

  4. Disappearing CTA buttons

    One of the main purposes of email is to drive your readers to do something. Whether that’s to make a purchase, sign up for a webinar, or schedule a meeting… the list goes on. Email is a great tool to drive customer engagement. Therefore, you do not want to have CTA buttons that are hard to find, or worse… non-existent.

    Make your CTAs easy to find! Use bright, bold colors and lettering, make your CTA into a button—whatever you need to do to make the CTA stand out from the rest of the content, do it.

  5. Ghosting your analytics

    Analytics provide detailed information into the actions your audience takes. How many people opened an email? Is there one time/day that is better for your users than another? What percentage of your readers are clicking your CTA button? Are they unsubscribing?

    When you review your analytics after each campaign, you are able to discover patterns. Every email list is a group unique from the next. Maybe it makes sense for your business to send emails on Monday at 8pm, but for someone else it may make sense to send them on Thursday at 10am. You will not know this answer until you begin to dive into your analytics.


    Email marketing doesn't have to be spooky, but if you need a little help? Drop us a line.

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Irrational loyalty is the ultimate goal of branding

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By: 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.

The world’s top brands bond in highly emotional and compelling ways with the customers who are likely to spend the most money with them.

Do you ever wonder how top brands create this condition of irrational loyalty?

Let’s dive in.

The antithesis of the cable company is that any business that treats its customers so well that those customers develop irrational loyalty to that brand. My relationship with Zappos.com is an example of this in practice. Zappos’s entire brand is a customer experience. Zappos has successfully branded a particular type of customer service and customer love, and it shows in everything they do: from the free overnight shipping and free returns they offer to their exceptional, over-the-top telephone customer support when the unfortunate happens. As a result of my experiences with the Zappos brand, I am so irrationally loyal to them that if they sold chicken feed and I had chickens, I would have to buy it from them. This is the type of customer relationship that all brands should aspire to.

Let’s explore that notion of irrational loyalty a bit more.

When I consult with clients, they often ask me to illustrate the importance of branding. That’s when I like to talk about irrational loyalty—this notion of being loyal to something no matter what. The idea behind irrational loyalty is that you have so much positive juju built up in your emotional bank account for a brand that you would go back and buy from the company no matter what it did to you. If you’re irrationally loyal to a certain product or company it could disappoint you, and you would still remain a loyal customer.

A great example of a product that inspires irrational loyalty is the Apple iPhone. I’ve owned every model of an iPhone since the beginning of iPhones. I’ve had iPhones that heated up in my hand and burned the side of my head when I tried to talk on them. I have broken half a dozen iPhone screens, which I think are too delicate. And the iPhone costs about one thousand dollars! For a phone!

I believe there are more durable, technologically superior and better-functioning products out there. But I don’t care. I won’t switch to a different brand because I’m irrationally loyal to the iPhone. I once looked at a gorgeous Samsung phone with a big beautiful screen. I caressed it in my hands and lusted after it. But after about a minute of pure animalistic attraction to the sexy device, I ran out of the store because I felt like I was cheating on Apple. Sad, I know. But that is the definition of irrational loyalty.

The concept of irrational customer loyalty embodies some key lessons about the importance of branding. 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.”

The best-loved brands in the world are the ones that become part of the person who uses them.

What does it say about the person that he or she uses this brand and what does it say about you that you use this brand? The reason I don’t use a Samsung phone is because I don’t want anyone to see me using a Samsung phone. I like what it says about me that I’m an iPhone user. I don’t care if there are other products that cost less and function better. I like the iPhone. I am obsessed with Zappos, even though I have to wait for my shoes to arrive with the UPS carrier. I know there’s a perfectly good Nordstrom store with thousands of pairs of shoes just a few miles from my house. I can walk in there, buy a pair of shoes and wear them home today. It seems crazy that I’d trade instant gratification for a customer experience in which I feel loved and embraced, doesn’t it? But I still prefer to shop at Zappos because I like what it says to the rest of the world and to myself about who I am as a person.

Branding is so much more than a clever logo, pretty colors or a funny advertising campaign. Branding 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. Consider this: one of the most significant emotional connections humans experience is love. When people talk about the brands they’re loyal to and the brands they engage with, they often use the word “love.” I love Apple. I love Zappos. I love Audi. I used to drive a Volkswagen, but sorry Volkswagen, I never loved you.

What’s next?

Now that you understand what irrational loyalty means—I’m sure you’re wondering how to put this into action to create deeper connections with your customers.

Lucky for you, I dedicated an entire chapter from my best-selling branding book, Branding Is Sex, to the topic of "The Brand Values Pyramid". How do you get to the top of the pyramid so you can connect with your customers needs, wants, and desires?

To receive the free “Brand Values Pyramid” chapter from my bestselling branding book, Branding Is Sex, enter your information below.

P.S. You’ll have the option to read or listen to the chapter.

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Who is your "unicorn" customer?

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Let's start with the basics. Your brand is not about you, your brand is about your customer. This requires you to think very carefully about who your customer is. And not just any customer... your “unicorn” customer.

What's a "unicorn" customer?

Your "unicorn" customer is the customer who is most highly predictive of your brand's success. The person who will bring in the most amount of revenue over time. 

To identify your "unicorn" customer, ask yourself these questions:

  • Who will keep buying from us again and again?

  • Who will become our brand champion?

  • Who will express irrational brand loyalty?

  • Who will submit positive reviews?

Let’s look at an example:

One of our previous clients is one of the world's largest retailers of hookahs and hookah supplies. When we asked who their ideal customer was, they described an older Middle-Eastern man. 

After working through the ideal customer exercise, we discovered their actual ideal customer was a young guy between 18-28 years old who wants to bring people together around the hookah. He is curious and a discerning, fun-loving hookah enthusiast who knows that the most memorable and fun hookah experiences start with the right equipment, accessories and shisha tobacco. He wants to be the life of the hookah party. 

Why is he the "unicorn" customer? This young guy understands that in order to create the best hookah experience, you need to start with the right product and equipment. He wants to do what it takes to be the life of the party, and he is going to go the extra mile. He will keep buying from our clients over and over again, he will become irrationally loyal, turn into the brand champion and write positive reviews. He is invested. To him, hookah represents who he is as a person: a party planner, a host, someone that enjoys bringing people together and will go the extra mile to provide his guests an excellent experience. 

This is not your typical description when you think of your audience. This is not everyone; you can see how he is the "unicorn" customer.

How do you put this into action?

We have the first step ready for you (awesome, right?). Do our hands-on exercise that will walk you through the behavioral, attitudinal and psychographic questions you need to answer, so you can find exactly who your “unicorn” customer is.

When you’re finished, you’ll have a highly detailed, hypothetical profile of your absolute “unicorn” customer.

Ready to get started? Simply click below to get the exercise straight to your inbox!

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Sol's CEO Featured on Hit Radio Show "Doc Thompson" by The Blaze

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"Born to brand" is an understatement when it comes to Deb Gabor. Tune in for the story on the "Building America" segment of The Morning Blaze with Doc Thompson on how Sol's founder and CEO became an "accidental entrepreneur" with her unique branding philosophy. So, what IS Deb's approach to branding, you might ask? You absolutely, positively MUST understand your customers to establish your brand! And always remember -- Brand or be branded!

Branding: The Key to a Knockout Campaign

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It might be difficult for some people to see the overlap between political consulting and branding, but as we experienced in the last election cycle, branding is playing a larger role in campaigning than ever before. These emerging market trends line up perfectly with our brand philosophies at Sol Marketing. Here are some lessons we learned this past January: 1. Before anything else, make sure your political party is in alignment. This will allow you to communicate with your target audience in a deliberate and effective way.

2. It's not what you do, it's how you do it!

3. Don't try to be something you're not - authenticity is key.

4. With all types of distractions floating around these days, it can be hard to keep anyone's attention. Candidates have to be creative in how they stand out; the more eyeballs that are on you, the better.

Read on for a better understanding of political consulting trends and how they relate to branding: https://www.campaignsandelections.com/campaign-insider/10-trends-in-political-consulting-the-trendsetters-that-made-them-cool

 

Guest Post: The biggest brand that broke its promise this election cycle

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By Geoff Nelson Last week Deb wrote about how both political brands broke their promise to their respective audiences and it struck a chord with me. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to jump in with my two cents.

An even larger and more important brand broke its promise to its customers over the last 18 months; the media. Think about it. An entire industry broke its brand promise. Not since yellow journalism of the 1880s where exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering and sensationalism was used to sell more papers has the media gone to such lows. When Kyle Smith over at the New York Post (tabloid journalism at its finest) must call out the rest of the media for their shameful behavior, you know things have gotten bad. He wrote, “I didn’t vote for him either, but Trump won. Pull yourselves together and deal with it, if you ever want to be taken seriously again…. The media are supposed to tell us what happened, not speculate on the future. But its incessant scaremongering, the utter lack of proportionality and the shameless use of double standards are an embarrassment, one that is demeaning the value of the institution.”

The brand promise of the media is trust. The job is to find and report the facts. Let’s walk through the three most important questions a media brand must answer for its customers:

  1. What does it say about a person that they use/wear/drive/eat/drink/support this brand?

Whatever news outlet you follow says a lot about you. Conservatives follow Fox, liberals CNN and the rest of us try to read a little bit from everywhere to try and get a balance. The 2008 elections set off a brand war over media with the public. They defend their outlet and bash the other side. Now an entire industry is tarnished. Per Gallup, “Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.”

  1. What is the singular thing a person gets from this brand they can’t get anywhere else?

This is where it gets interesting dear readers. I can get my news from so many other places besides major media outlets. The mainstream media had a monopoly for almost three hundred years. The Boston News-Letter was the first continuously published newspaper in the United States in 1704. Super fast-forward and we come to the first blog news sites in 2002 and then twitter and facebook. What was a monopoly became citizen journalism. The mainstream media looked down their collective noses and scoffed. Then comes twitter and facebook. The outlets for finding and digesting news intensified. The media lost its hold on exclusiveness. You can get news now from hundreds of places. Not only can I get it anywhere else on demand, I can get if from more trusted sources.

  1. How does this brand make a person the hero in his/her own story?

Knowledge is power. Having the indisputable facts to base your argument and frame of reference upon enable you to persuade and educate others. That was the customer felt the hero in the past. I trusted the source and felt empowered to state my opinion based on facts. This is the biggest and most interesting point. The majority of the American public decided they could be the hero in their own story quite fine without the medias help. A Media Research Center/YouGov poll found that, “7 in 10 (69%) voters do not believe the news media are honest and truthful.” And, “97% of voters said they did not let the media’s bias influence their vote.” That is an incredibly high number of people who said they just tuned them out. And the election results prove the survey correct.

Brands exist to elevate their customers’ self-concepts. This wasn’t a misalignment as with the political parties. It was a total abandonment. These customers felt like the could accomplish anything, and reach self-actualization and achieve their full potential as humans quite fine without what has been one of the most trusted and powerful institutions on the planet.  I truly hope they can dust themselves off and get back to being the trusted brands they once were.

When Political Parties Fail at Brand Basics

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The brands of both major US political parties are broken. Both parties crafted brands that have revealed that they're out of alignment with their constituents.  The fact that so many pollsters and pundits were wrong reveals that voters hid their true intentions. Democrats made too many assumptions and suffered. Many Republicans disavowed a candidate whose brand eventually won anyhow. My personal observations while on my morning commute this election season reinforced significant branding problems for both parties. Gone were the bumper stickers and magnetic car signs common on my route back in 2008 and 2012. And where were all the yard signs advertising my neighbors’ support for their preferred candidates? I observed a totally different kind of water cooler conversation this time around too, in which my colleagues talked in generalities about campaign shenanigans and the media, but rarely stated strong opinions about any party’s candidate for fear others would judge them harshly. Myself, I was downright embarrassed to admit my political leanings to anyone. I still am.

Let’s dissect some specifics a bit further through the lens of branding. If you’ve been following along at home, you now know that a brand’s role is to answer these three important questions for its customers:

  1. What does it say about a person that they use/wear/drive/eat/drink/support this brand?

The number of Republicans who went on record saying they wouldn't support Trump was well over 100. It shook many Republican voters' confidence in their party's candidate. After all, the ultimate in brand embarrassment is when the "company" doesn't eat its own dog food.

  1. What is the singular thing a person gets from this brand they can’t get anywhere else?

Jayson Demers, CEO of AudienceBloom, wrote an article on the Entrepreneur website on this very topic.  Trump gave his audience a niche-focused message to white working class males. He was extreme and polarizing, which his audience valued. He was anti-establishment, which played into the general dissatisfaction Americans felt. Trump was also nostalgic. He consistently reminded his audience of a time when they believed America was better. Trump’s Facebook and Twitter numbers certainly proved that he had struck a nerve, doubling Hillary Clinton's followers in both channels.

  1. How does this brand make a person the hero in his/her own story?

Hillary made her brand about her. This hurt her with minorities. Many couldn’t see the Clinton brand making them the hero. The facts show that her campaign failed to activate the minority coalition that supported Obama in previous elections. According to Pew Research, “Hillary Clinton did not run as strongly among these core Democratic groups as Obama did in 2012. Clinton held an 80-point advantage among blacks (88% to 8%,) compared with Obama’s 87-point edge four years ago (93% to 6%). In 2008, Obama had a 91-point advantage among blacks.” Back in 2012, voters clearly saw how they could be a hero in the Obama narrative.

Bottom line: brands exist to elevate their customers’ self-concepts. Customers align themselves with brands because they like what those brands say about them. The brands they love make them feel proud, give them that feeling they have the world on a string, like they can accomplish anything, like they’ll reach self-actualization and achieve their full potential as humans.

Why is Branding like Sex

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Why is branding like sex? The answer is simple. The best brands in the world are the ones that get their customers laid, the brands that make their customers feel like they have life by the balls.
Your brand doesn't come exclusively from you. Your brand has to include the hearts and minds of your customers.
How does YOUR brand get your customers laid? Find out how in the latest episode of the @Rise Business Podcast, "Why Branding is like sex with Deb Gabor".
Sol Marketing founder and CEO, Deb Gabor gives her mini MBA in branding in this enlightening talk with host Antonio Da Mota. This is some free business advice you don't want to miss out on.

Erase Your Bad Social Media History

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Ever wish you could go back in time and tell yourself NOT to post that embarrassing or inappropriate photo? Today, employers are adding social media pages to the screening criteria for jobs. Does Get Suitable have the “secret sauce” to erase negative or inappropriate posts from your past and prevent those type of posts in the future?

Listen to "Erase Your Bad Social Media History" on Surviving the Startup podcast with host Marc Amazon and special guest Sol founder and CEO, Deb Gabor to find out if this startup is merely "selling a better mousetrap to people who don’t realize they have a mice problem."

Be sure to show some love by subscribing and giving a 5 star rating!

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/surviving-the-startup/id1123822513?mt=2

The Grueling Truth about Sports

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Figure out why you need to differentiate yourself in order for your startup to survive. What does your startup provide that customers can't get anywhere else? Listen to this week's episode of Surviving the Startup Podcast, "The Grueling Truth About Sports", with host Marc Amazon and special guest Sol CEO,Deb Gabor. Give this one a 5 star rating and subscribe here!

 

What is a Brand Personality?

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Branding is, in a lot of ways, the act of creating expectations for how you will interact with your customers. Like an individual’s personality can give you clues into what interacting with him or her will be like, a brand’s personality sets the expectation for what you’ll experience as a customer of a particular brand.

Whether that’s the expectation that you’ll be relieved when you call Zappos customer service, excited by the kindness of the team at Passion Planners, delighted by the fun emails from Kettle and Fire, or hysterically laughing at any interaction with Cards Against Humanity, brands have a personality, and it dictates what we expect from them.

The brand personality can help bring your brand into clearer focus. It provides you with clues to how you want customers to experience your brand—the feeling you want to give them when they interact with you through your marketing, customer service, and even your products.

What’s my brand’s personality?

To understand your brand’s personality, think of your brand as if it were a human being. Create a comprehensive list of personality traits by detailing as many characteristics of that person as you can.

If you’re having trouble getting started, begin by considering how old your brand is. Is it ten years old? Is it twenty years old? Is it forty years old? Is it sixty-five years old?

Is your brand a man or a woman? Is it friendly or slightly more aggressive? Is it a lone wolf? Is it funny? Is it maybe a little bit irreverent? Does it like to shock people?

One of my favorite travel brands is Virgin America. I will happily fly at odd times of the day or on different days of the week in order to take a Virgin flight instead of a flight on one of the usual suspects like United, American, or Delta, just because I love the Virgin brand.

Most of our domestic airlines have really dry, authoritarian personalities (with the exception of Southwest Airlines). Aside from going “off book” as an outlaw brand, the Virgin brand personality is distinctly different from other airlines. It’s upbeat. It’s funny. It’s uplifting. It’s irreverent. It doesn’t feel oppressive and rigid like the other airlines.

Most travel days, I show up at the airport thinking, “How am I going to get screwed today?” When I fly Virgin, I don’t have that feeling, and I actually look forward to flying. I feel the brand’s warmth. It’s welcoming. It’s modern. It’s hip. It’s lighthearted.

In contrast, I recently took a trip to New York on Delta, another brand that offers a product that is exactly the same as what Virgin America provides. Yet Delta’s personality feels completely different than Virgin’s. Everything on Delta was totally buttoned up, all the way down to the uniforms that the flight attendants wore—pressed blouses buttoned all the way up to the top, suit jackets and vests, and black stockings. To Delta’s credit, they had an entertaining in-flight safety video featuring a host of visual gags to keep passengers’ attention. But the whole experience of watching that video fell flat because it didn’t align with the rest of Delta’s more serious brand personality.

Brand personality is so important for defining the way people experience the brand. The brand personality informs everything from the way the brand looks, the way it sounds, the voice and music it uses in its commercials, the actual words it always says, and words it would never say.

Brand personality is another way to ensure your brand carries the right tone and character to deliver on your brand promise to your customer.

How Does Your Brand Get Your Customer Laid?

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When I consult with clients and they struggle with the story their brand tells about their customer, my favorite shortcut is to ask, “How does your product or service get your customer laid?” I literally ask my clients this very question. At first, they’re shocked. But 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, feeling heroic, and feeling that everything is working out the way you hoped it would.

No matter which cliché you use—the feeling of having wind in your sails, the world on a string, or holding life by the balls—that feeling puts you in the mood for 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.

The IT manager as hero

The most successful and profitable brands in the world are created around people. Sure, some brands are naturally sexier than others, but why should a purchasing manager have less of an emotional connection to their microprocessors than I do to my shoes?

Let me give you an example.

My company works extensively with Dell Corporation on the enterprise side of their business, the part of their company that sells systems and solutions to the IT managers of other businesses. Traditionally, Dell treated enterprise IT managers as if they were robots—completely devoid of feelings and abstract thoughts.

What we know here at Sol Marketing is that each of those IT managers has a story they are writing for their own lives. That story involves them, eventually, getting laid.

If your brand can help that happen, you’ll have a loyal customer.

When I am working with Dell or with any other company that sells technology products and services to IT purchase influencers, I want the company to step outside of itself as a brand and step into the hearts and minds of its IT manager customer. That IT manager is a human being who has wants and needs and desires.

Conjure up an image of that person in your mind. Ask yourself, “What does success look like for that person? What does getting laid look like for him or her?” Then ask yourself, “How does my product/brand/service do that for them?”

Dell sells a lot of servers. The servers Dell sells go into racks that live in computer rooms and data centers all over the world. Servers don’t feel cool when you hold them in your hand. To the unindoctrinated, run-of-the-mill human, a server probably looks like a mess of metal and plastic and wires.

On the surface, a server just isn’t that sexy, nor is the Dell brand. A server is not like a bottle of perfume, a designer leather jacket, or a Ferrari.

So let’s do an exercise for illustration’s sake. For purposes of this exercise, take a walk in an IT manager customer’s shoes. Let’s say this particular customer is a forty-seven-year-old man. He works at a nationwide furniture retailer with stores in twenty-two states.

He has a need to put together an IT program in which all of the remote stores can send their transaction and inventory data to a central location at night. That requires a lot of computing power, remote access capabilities, and powerful servers and software—none of which are very sexy. All of those things must work together flawlessly.

If you think about what is unsexy about this IT manager’s job, it is a phone call from a store manager in the middle of the night.  Also unsexy is when the chief information officer comes down on him hard and says, “We did not pull data last night, and we don’t have the store-by-store results. My boss is up my ass for sales results, and because of an IT infrastructure issue and a network failure, we cannot do that.”

These are terribly unsexy things that can happen to this guy, and they absolutely can prevent him from getting laid.

The essence of brand strategy is to take that unsexiness and turn it around. To do that, you should ask, “How do we actually get that guy laid?”

How we get our IT manager laid

Dell does that by offering reliable products that they stand behind and develop with IT purchase influencers’ needs in mind. Dell is trying to give that IT manager the world-on-a-string feeling we described earlier in this chapter by delivering on its promises to him.

Dell’s goal is to make that IT manager the hero in his own story. It’s right there in their current brand manifesto: “The Power to Do More.”

Dell gives an IT manager the power to do more, not only with IT but in his life. Dell gets him home for dinner on time and inspires him with the confidence that everything back at work is functioning flawlessly, even when he’s not there.

Dell’s industry-leading uptime and reliability get him laid by preventing phone calls in the middle of the night when stores cannot send their data to the home office.

Dell makes sure the boss is not standing in the IT manager’s office at 8:00 a.m. the next morning growling, “Where have you been? The network crashed.”

These are the things Dell does to help him become the hero in the story of his life. Sure, Dell products are reliable, scalable, flexible, durable, innovative, and a good value. But it’s the way they make, sell, deliver, and support those products that enable their customers to “do more.”

How can you get your customer laid?

Take a moment to answer this same question for your own brand.

What does your customer need? What gets them love, attention, and affection? What could go wrong with your brand that would ruin their chances at sex?

By understanding the story behind your customer’s purchase, you’ll be better suited to ensure you are getting your customer laid. That’s the whole game.

The Importance of Understanding Your Customers (and What To Do About It)

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As we discussed in Your Brand Comes From Your Customers, Not You, branding isn’t about your color scheme, or the clever tagline you come up with from the confines of your office. Branding is about how your customer actually perceives you.

If your customer perceives you as filling a need (tangible or psychological) they have, that’s the essence of good branding.

With this perspective in mind, it becomes clear that the first step to successful branding is understanding your customers and their needs.

We’ve talked about the three questions, the brand values pyramid, and the ideal customer profile—all great tools to dive into your customer's’ needs and psychology—but the next question most marketers ask is always...

How do I learn about my customers?

So how do you learn everything about your customers?

Three words: talk to them.

There are many different ways to talk to your customers. On the super-low-budget end of the spectrum, you can just hang around in a Starbucks and ask people to try your product or service and then ask them for their opinions.

Be sure to ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you like about this brand?” Or, “How do you see this fitting into your life?” Or, “What would you change about this?” Actually talking to customers face-to-face is one of the most valuable things you can do to understand your brand.

Another easy way for marketing managers and executives to interact with customers is by fielding customer service calls or inbound sales calls. Even at the CEO level, if you take customer service calls for a few hours every month, it might just be the most valuable time you ever spend. The callers won’t have any idea you’re the CEO, so they won’t sugarcoat how they feel about your brand. And you can ask them almost anything you want and they’ll answer honestly.

Another free method is hosting a pizza and beer party (or pizza and wine party, depending upon your target demographic). Invite friends and friends of friends to visit your office or your home and try your product. Tell them you’ll provide take-out food and beverages in exchange for their time. The key here is to make sure you’re getting honest feedback. Friends and family usually will try to tell you they love it, even if they don’t. So offer them the booze in exchange for brutal, unvarnished honesty.

Those three ways of talking to customers are free. Even if you’re an entrepreneur on a shoestring budget, you have no excuse not to do them. As we discussed in When You’re Ready, It’s Too Late, the sooner you can start doing exercises like this to understand your customer, the better.

On the opposite end of the cost spectrum is formal market research, such as in-depth interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, and surveys. Professional focus groups can yield a tremendous amount of data, but they’re costly. Many books discuss techniques in market research. If you’re on a budget, or you have no budget, you may want to check out the book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which suggests many methods for obtaining customer feedback throughout the development and growth process.

Don’t overcomplicate things. If you are having trouble answering the question, “What does it say about a person that they use your brand?”, just go out and ask them.

“What do you think it says about you that you use this brand?”

It’s as basic as that. Start there and then you can expand your customer research to learn other important things about your products, services, and brand.

The bullshit test

Understanding what your customers need and marketing to that isn’t enough. You need to walk the walk.

Once you understand your customers, ask yourself, “Do we have places where it’s an incomplete experience? Are our customer service representatives embodying what we say our brand stands for? Does our product or service really do what we say it does? Do customers experience the essence of our brand in a way that adds value to their lives?”

It’s important to know the answers to these questions so you can assess how well you and the rest of your organization are aligned on delivering a brand experience.

Zappos.com is known for its excellent customer service. That’s their brand promise. But what if a customer called and had a problem with a pair of shoes and wanted some resolution but the customer service rep was snotty to her on the phone?

Their marketing materials wouldn’t matter, because the customer’s experience wouldn’t be living up to the brand promise. They wouldn’t be fulfilling the need that the customer had, and therefore wouldn’t be living their brand.

When to hire outside help

One reason you may need professional help is that sometimes your boss or your team or your CEO is so in love with the brand that they can’t see its flaws. Sometimes you need an outsider’s perspective.

I look at my daughter and I am just in love with her. I think she is amazing, incredibly beautiful, smart, and talented, but I probably overlook a lot of flaws because she is mine. I made her. She came from my genes and my loins. A brand can be like that, too. It’s easy not to see the flaws, especially for founders and long-time team members.

Bringing in an outside brand consultant might make sense for you, but it’s getting ahead of ourselves.

  1. Speak to your customers. Try to really understand their wants, needs, and motivations.
  1. Read Branding is Sex. Use the tools discussed earlier in this post to gain clarity on who your customers are and how your brand needs to serve them.
  1. If you’re still struggling to get your branding right, or if it just isn’t clicking with your customers, think about hiring an outside brand strategist.

The Definitive List of Brand Archetypes

Brand Archetype

We all want a loyal following. We’re constantly looking for that magical marketing plan that will connect us to our audience and make our product an irreplaceable part of their life. What we don’t often realize is that connections are relationships. If we aren’t clear about who we are, no one is going to be interested in dating us.

In my book Branding Is Sex, I’ve devoted an entire chapter to understanding who your brand is, and how you should be starting a relationship with your customers.

The short version is this: There are 12 basic identities—or archetypes—a brand can assume. Below I’ve broken down all 12 in extreme detail to help you understand where you belong.

1. The magician makes dreams come true

The magician archetype is all about vision. Magician brands don’t build you a better toothbrush or help you keep your house clean, they bring your wildest dreams to life.

What they offer is a grand experience no one else could achieve. A magician is so in tune with the fundamentals of the universe that they can create the impossible.

Magician Archetype
Magician Archetype

Disney is the perfect magician. Disney is fundamentally a media company, but they are unlike any other.

Quick—think of the books and videos that have helped you in your career. You’re probably thinking of titles targeted to your industry, full of actionable advice and guidance.

Disney doesn’t do any of that. What they offer is a transformative experience.

They are in a category of their own because of the grandness of their vision. Imagine another brand that could build a “Magic Kingdom” or a “Disney World.”

2. The sage is always seeking the truth

To a sage, wisdom is the key to success. Everything else is secondary to the pursuit of knowledge.

A sage brand might not feel warm and cuddly. They don’t enrapture you in a fantastic world like Disney. Instead, a sage commands your respect by showing their brilliance.

Sage Archetype
Sage Archetype

Harvard University is one of the most revered universities in the world. Boasting an alumni list that includes eight US presidents, 21 Nobel laureates, and Mark Zuckerberg (sort of), Harvard’s brand is all about being the smartest.

Take this video for example. It’s not about success in life or fantasy, it’s about the power of knowledge. The video says the secrets of the universe hide in books, and that Harvard is where they are studied.

3. The innocent just wants to be happy

The innocent belongs in paradise. Everyone is free, virtuous, and happy in an innocent’s world.

An innocent brand will never guilt you with an ad or go over the top to convince you. Instead, an innocent brand will charm you with something much more powerful: Nostalgia.

Innocent Archetype
Innocent Archetype

Orville Redenbacher is the prototypical innocent archetype.

orville redenbaucher
orville redenbaucher

[source: Hammer and Rails]

What adult do you know who is that happy about their suspenders? What adult do you know that even owns suspenders?

But that’s Orville’s appeal. They sell you a childhood treat, popcorn, and their mascot is a grandpa who hasn’t stopped having fun since bowties were a thing unironically.

Nothing heavy-handed, just happiness.

4. The outlaw wants revolution

The outlaw isn’t afraid. Outlaw brands control their own life without regard for the status quo.

Where the innocent archetype touches the part of you that loved snack time in kindergarten, the outlaw archetype appeals to the part of you that cut classes in high school.

Outlaw Archetype
Outlaw Archetype

Building a cult following like Apple is the ultimate goal of an outlaw brand.

Remember those old iPod commercials where monochrome people had the best times of their lives dancing?

Apple Magician Archetype
Apple Magician Archetype

[source: Cult of Macs]

That ad doesn’t tell you to stand in a crowd or go to a concert. It tells you to be yourself, to dance whenever you like, and to do it with Apple.

If you think Apple doesn’t have a cult following, consider this. Did people wait in line for hours when the Galaxy S7 was released? No, is the answer.

5. The jester lives in the moment

The jester is all about having fun. Jester brands might not be curing illnesses, but they’re making your day better.

Humor, silliness, even nonsense are all in a jester’s toolkit. The goal of a jester brand is to make you smile with light-hearted fun.

Jester Archetype
Jester Archetype

The Old Spice Man is one of our all-time favorite ad campaigns, and the perfect example of a jester archetype.

Old Spice Man Jester Archetype
Old Spice Man Jester Archetype

[source: ePharmacy]

Some guys react well to hyper-masculine branding. Other guys don’t. By making a joke out of these super manly brands, Old Spice gets to appeal to both sides.

Guys who are into overly masculine brands get to be in on the joke. Guys who aren’t into macho brands get to laugh at them.

Everybody laughs, and everybody likes Old Spice as a result.

6. The lover wants to make you theirs

Passion, pleasure, and sensuality are the lover’s keywords. A lover brand wants you to associate them with intimate moments in your life.

What do you buy to celebrate? What do you buy your significant other for birthdays and anniversaries? Chances are, you’re buying from a lover brand.

Lover Archetype
Lover Archetype

Think of Godiva Chocolate ads. Do they ever make you think about your health, your finances, or your future?

No. Godiva seduces you. It shows off its richness and creaminess. It invites you to take part in life’s greatest indulgence: Chocolate.

7. The explorer wants to break free

Freedom is all an explorer cares about. Where other brands might try to help you build a home, explorer brands want to get you outside.

With this in mind, it makes sense that many outdoor brands are natural fits for the explorer archetype.

Explorer Archetype
Explorer Archetype

Subaru is the classic explorer brand. They don’t sell their cars based on luxury or comfort, they stress the freedom a Subaru provides.

Subaru Explorer Archetype
Subaru Explorer Archetype

[source: Tutsplus]

Blizzard? No problem. Subaru lets you decide where you’re going, no matter the circumstance. You’re free.

8. The ruler wants absolute power

Luxury and exclusivity are what the ruler is all about. A ruler brand is a gatekeeper. If a customer buys from them, they get to belong to the elite.

Being perceived as high-quality and expensive is critical for a ruler brand. Jewelry and high-end vehicles are natural fits for the ruler archetype.

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 12.03.40 PM
Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 12.03.40 PM

Do you buy a Mercedes Benz because of its crash test rating? What about its gas mileage? Its heated seats?

No. You buy a Mercedes Benz because you can afford to, and most other people can’t. Whenever you park your car, people will understand your status without you saying a word.

That quietly understood value is what a ruler brand sells.

9. The caregiver wants to nurture you

The caregiver is benevolent. They want to be there for you and the people you love.

Caregiver brands are all about warmth and trust. You can depend on them when it comes to your children. It’s rare to see a caregiver brand run an ad that takes a shot at their competition. They are the opposite of confrontational.

Caregiver Archetype
Caregiver Archetype

Johnson & Johnson’s tagline line is “Johnson & Johnson: A Family Company.” You can’t get more committed to families than that.

Johnson & Johnson Caregiver Archetype
Johnson & Johnson Caregiver Archetype

[source: Johnson & Johnson]

A Johnson & Johnson ad always focuses on how their products help you take care of your children. How their products build families. This is bread-and-butter for the caregiver archetype.

A caregiver is all about instilling trust between in the customer that for the rest of their life, the brand will be there for them.

10. The hero wants to prove himself

The hero makes the world better by being the best. A hero brand isn’t concerned with nurturing you, they’re interested in challenging you.

If you want to rise to the occasion, you’re going to need a hero’s help.

Hero Archetype
Hero Archetype

The U.S. Army is the ultimate example of a hero archetype.

Think of the recruitment commercials you’ve seen with troops jumping out of helicopters, running through training courses, and protecting the country. Any of that resemble your day-to-day?

Of course not. It’s not supposed to. It’s designed to compel you to “answer the call” and rise to the occasion by joining with a hero brand: The U.S. Army.

11. The regular guy/girl wants to belong

No glitz or glamour, just a reliable product that gets the job done. That’s what regular guy/girl brands are selling.

The archetype is focused on providing something so far removed from pretentiousness that it can appeal to everyone. It is the hardest archetype to pull off, because you have to have a product that actually appeals across demographics.

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 12.05.19 PM
Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 12.05.19 PM

Everyone drinks coffee. Not every individual person, but every major demographic with the possible exception of infants. That’s what makes Folgers a great every guy/girl brand.

Folgers doesn’t market to a hip crowd. They don’t brag about their high quality, all-organic coffee. They keep it simple: “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.”

Everyone wakes up. Everyone drinks Folgers.

12. The creator craves perfection

A creator isn’t worried about the cost of production or making things at scale. They care about one thing: building the perfect product.

While the magician also stresses vision and imagination, creators are different in that they don’t unlock the world’s magic and create the impossible. They create the perfect product.

Creator Archetype
Creator Archetype

Lego is a great example of a creator archetype. Take a look at this ad for Lego Vision:

Lego Creator Archetype
Lego Creator Archetype

[source: Ads of the World]

Lego recreated in stunning detail the most famous sights of the world. They didn’t build new sites, and they didn’t create some new technology that put the sites in your home.

Lego used the simplest technology possible: blocks. They took this simplicity and pushed it to its most perfectionist extreme. That’s what being a creator is all about.

What archetype is your brand?

This is one of the key questions we help clients answer at Sol Marketing. Almost every client comes to the table assuming they are the every guy/girl, but in 99% of cases, they aren’t.

Drilling down into what makes your brand special and how your customers best connect with your products isn’t easy, but it’s the most important thing you can do to understand what archetype you should be using.

The ideas in this post were inspired byCarol Pearson’s The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes.

When You're Ready, It's Too Late: Brand Strategy for Startups

Startups

Ah, startups. The land where branding is everything, yet most companies ignore it. For a branding geek like me, startups are incredibly fun and rewarding to work with. In addition to Sol Marketing, I also run another business called InvestorPitches.com, where we work with early stage companies to help them tell their stories effectively.

In my work with startups, the same theme comes up over and over again:

  • Is it too early to start branding?
  • Is branding a worthwhile investment at this phase?
  • Can’t we just focus on having a great product?

Of course, having a great product is important. But it’s not a trade-off where you can choose one or the other. For an early stage company nobody has heard of, branding is absolutely essential.

It’s Never Too Early

I always say, “Brand early, often, and always.”

Startups often fall into the trap of thinking they need to grow and be established players before branding matters. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The truth is, whether you work on it or not, you will have a brand. There will be a set of emotions, expectations, and feelings around your brand in the minds of customers. And if you don’t intentionally decide what that brand should be, your customers will decide it for you.

For an unfunded startup, it may be too early to invest significantly in ad spend and building a visual brand. But it’s never too early to understand your brand strategy from your customers’ point of view.

Minimum Viable Brand

Branding doesn’t need to be a big ordeal. New companies without much money to spend don’t need to hire expensive outside consultants, or run costly research studies, in order to understand their brand. But they do need to think about it.

At the very least, I encourage startups in their very early phase to understand the answers to the three fundamental questions of branding:

1) What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?

2) What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?

3) How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?

These questions are simple, but they aren’t always easy to answer. Don’t think of this as a one-time, thirty-minute exercise. Instead, think of the process of answering of these questions as an ongoing discussion that unfolds as you find product-market fit.

I spend three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, explaining how best to understand and answer these questions. If you implement this process early, your branding is well taken care of. Like I said, branding doesn’t need to cost you tens of thousands of dollars. The book only costs $8.99!

As a start-up, if you do nothing else, dedicate time each month to discussing these three questions. This process gives you your brand’s North Star, which gives you direction and points you toward where you’re going.

Benefits Beyond Branding

The best thing about branding at the early stage isn’t just that it will impact how customers see you. It’ll also impact how you see yourself.

By going through this exercise, you’ll identify not only what you’re going to do but also, and more importantly, what you’re not going to do. It’s really easy as a startup to be opportunistic and to try to be all things to all customers.

But we all know that doesn’t work long term.

When you start to understand your branding and know directionally where you’re going, you can make more strategic, thoughtful, and deliberate decisions about your business.

Before You Start Branding, Answer These Three Questions

Brand Questions

We all know that many companies have a hard time getting their branding right. They have rebrand after rebrand, but their message never seems to hit home with customers. It seems helpless. After working with hundreds of companies in this exact situation, I’m confident to say that it isn’t helpless. They’re just making one fatal mistake:

These companies are focusing on the output of branding before adequately understanding their customers.

Many companies see branding as writing the perfect copy, choosing the perfect color scheme, and writing up a perfect brand message. This isn’t the case. These things might be the output of branding, but branding is one thing: understanding your customer.

This is a challenge. There are thousands of ways you can understand your customers, and many companies are paralyzed with understanding where to start.

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.


At a very high level, everything we do in branding is about answering those three questions.

Before you do any copywriting, design, or other branding outputs, take some time to answer those three questions. If you have trouble getting to the bottom of them, don’t worry. Ask your customers for help, and keep digging until you really understand them.

With this newfound understanding of who your customers are and how they want to interact with your brand, you’ll be on the path to defining a powerful brand strategy.

Whose Job is Branding?

handshake-2056023_1920.jpg

Branding is a funny thing. It’s often a part of marketing, but requires different skillsets than the marketing team has. It comes from the customer experience, but customer service reps aren’t able to set the strategy. It requires design, but it starts long before design. So the question is: Who is responsible for branding?

This question is one of the main issues that stands between a company and a powerful brand.

So who should be responsible for the brand strategy at your company? 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, branding 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 the ones 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 branding to work, every single person must feel ownership and responsibility for the brand. And the leadership must drive that into every nook and cranny of the organization so that people are walking the brand talk.

How do you do that? It starts by answering the three most important brand questions for your business:

  1. What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?
  2. What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?
  3. How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?

These are big questions. Branding is Sex spends three full chapters diving into how to best answer each of them. But once these questions are answered, you have the foundation to allow your entire team to take responsibility for branding.

Your answers to these questions, as well as your understanding of what’s at the top of your Brand Values Pyramid, need to become gospel within your company. Every employee should know the answers and, more importantly, should embody them in their day to day actions.

It should be clear to everyone in your company that every single thing that any person in the company does must align with delivering on those promises.

When you have that, the question is no longer “Who is responsible for branding?” Instead, it becomes “Who isn’t responsible for branding?”

Branding on a shoestring - Deb Gabor at General Assembly ATX

Money
When starting your business, there's a lot to think about -- your product/service, your team, your employees. But there's also your brand. You want to make a big splash, but you don't have a big budget. So where to you start?Learn from Deb Gabor, founder of Sol Marketing, noted brand dominatrix and author of "Branding is Sex: Get Your Customer Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything." Register today for

Branding on a Shoestring General Assembly 600 Congress, 14th Floor Monday, August 8

Free social media is a good place to start, but there are strategic things you can do up front to dial in your strategy to ensure you maximize the use of your limited funds and unexpected low-cost opportunities to build your brand's visual and verbal assets. This class is highly interactive, so expect to roll up your sleeves and begin the process of defining your brand's core DNA and go-to-market strategy.
This session about branding for early stage companies will expose you to the following ideas:

  • Basics of branding -- what it is and what it isn't
  • Why and when to brand your early stage company
  • Using DIY techniques to define your brand's core DNA and story
  • Building a visual and verbal identity on the cheap
  • Growth hacking your go-to-market strategy
  • Getting in market without going out of business
  • Using your resources wisely

Your brand comes from your customers, not you

Customers

By Deb Gabor When people imagine our job as a branding agency, 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 an agency you hire. Branding comes from your customers.

Your brand lives in your customers’ needs and desires, as well as their perceptions of you and their connection to you. Branding is not an inside-out activity; it’s an outside-in activity.

In others 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?

This is where branding starts.

FreshDirect—Faster from the Farm to the Fork FreshDirect is an online grocery store on the East Coast. When you order from FreshDirect, you can place a grocery order online today and receive delivery at your home or office the next day.

Since FreshDirect began operations in 2002, the company has featured a large selection of popular national brands, as well as their own private-label products. The company has direct relationships with regional growers and producers to ensure that the food you get is the best-tasting, healthiest, and most nourishing product available.

But as you are no doubt aware, the world has undergone a seismic shift since 2002. The food procurement space is changing rapidly. This space is becoming increasingly crowded every year, if not every month. It seems like new start-up food delivery companies are popping up faster than you can say fifth-floor walk-up.

So how does an established player like FreshDirect compete with energetic, innovative, tech-savvy, and, often, extremely well-funded competitors?

The company started looking at opportunities to play a more meaningful role in its customers’ relationships with food. Management asked themselves one of those deep existential questions that defines a brand, “How do we extend our value beyond just the procurement of food?”

Instead of sitting around in a boardroom brainstorming, FreshDirect spent a lot of time and effort really learning every aspect of their customers’ relationships with food to assess opportunities to address more of customers’ food challenges.

These new insights have enabled FreshDirect to expand its view of who its customers are, what its customers are trying to achieve, and how it can succeed in conquering its customers’ food challenges. The company dove deeply into its customers’ food “life cycle” to understand their emotions, desires, and challenges in their interactions with food.

After talking to its customers and surveying the competitive landscape, FreshDirect was better positioned to understand what customers wanted.

They didn’t just want a supermarket that delivers. They wanted a partner that was a part of their entire food life cycle.

As a result, the company’s branding has evolved with consumer needs, expectations, and the changing types of relationships that consumers want to have with these kinds of providers.

Don’t Know What Your Customers Think? Ask Them! Most companies don’t have a six-figure budget for market research. So how do you learn about your customers?

Lo and behold, you learn who your customers are by actually finding and having a conversation with them. Those conversations can take place through informal market research, such as chatting with customers in Starbucks, or through formal research methods, which could include everything from focus groups, to quantitative studies, to depth interviews, to observing your customers “in the wild” through ethnography.

In the case of FreshDirect, we actually observed the entire food procurement life cycle. We followed people around while they shopped. We used video cameras and asked customers to show us what it looks like in their houses during the dinner hour. They showed us what it was like to shop in traditional grocery stores. They showed us what the insides of their refrigerators and pantries looked like. In some cases, they even showed us the family dog.

FreshDirect is a major company with a big budget, but even a company that has only four employees and makes $250,000 a year has enough customers to conduct meaningful research.

There are many different ways to talk to your customers. On the super-low-budget end of the spectrum, you can just hang around in a Starbucks and ask people to try your product or service and then ask them for their opinions. Be sure to ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you like about this brand?” Or, “How do you see this fitting into your life?” Or, “What would you change about this?” Actually talking to customers face-to-face is one of the most valuable things you can do to understand your brand.

Another easy way for marketing managers and executives to interact with customers is by fielding customer service calls or inbound sales calls. Even at the CEO level, if you take customer service calls for a few hours every month, it might just be the most valuable time you ever spend. The callers won’t have any idea you’re the CEO, so they won’t sugarcoat how they feel about your brand. And you can ask them almost anything you want and they’ll answer honestly.

Another inexpensive method is hosting a pizza and beer party (or pizza and wine party, depending upon your target demographic). Invite friends and friends of friends to visit your office or your home and try your product. Tell them you’ll provide take-out food and beverages in exchange for their time. The key here is to make sure you’re getting honest feedback. Friends and family usually will try to tell you they love it, even if they don’t. So offer them the booze in exchange for brutal, unvarnished honesty.

The above ideas are free, or extremely inexpensive. Entrepreneurs in early stage start-ups and companies without market research budgets should take full advantage of all of these and devise other methods that put them front and center with customers. On the opposite end of the cost spectrum is formal market research, such as depth interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, and surveys. Professional focus groups can yield a tremendous amount of data, but they’re costly.

Whether you’re doing it in a scrappy, inexpensive way, or an formal, expensive way, companies of all sizes should be asking their customers about their needs. Oh, and here’s a pro tip: smart companies don’t just ask this of their own customers; they ask their competitors’ customers too.

Customers must always be a central part of the equation when you’re doing brand strategy. Unfortunately, there are many agencies out there that believe they can do branding in a black box without talking to customers.

To do branding in a vacuum without putting the customers’ point of view front and center is a massive mistake. In building a strong brand that connects deeply with customers, you must conduct discovery so you can gain understanding of customers’ needs and the trends, forces, and brands that compete for their attention.

The goal is not only to safeguard against what other brands are doing but also to gain insight into your company’s unique role in the marketplace and your unique relevance to your ideal customers.

You can read more about how Sol Marketing approaches branding in my book "Branding is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything."