When should we brand? Early, often, and always


By Deb Gabor I hear one question from business owners all the time: “When should we brand?”

My answer is always the same: “Early, often, and always.”

Branding is not optional, and the risks of not taking it seriously are very real. Your customers might lose touch with your brand and leave you. A competitor with a strong commitment to branding might overtake you. Or, perhaps worst of all, the market might define your brand for you.

Brand yourself, or someone else will brand you. It’s very dangerous to let your customers, or the news media, or bloggers, or social media, or your competitors define your brand for you.

If you don’t intentionally control your brand yourself, it will take on a life of its own.

Brand or be branded For decades, cable television companies had no competition. They owned a local franchise, which allowed them to do business in a particular geographic area, and that was that. The regional cable companies had mini-monopolies because their customers had few options for home entertainment.

Hence, they often didn’t treat their customers well.

The cable companies knew their customers weren’t going to leave and, as a result, poor customer service became an ingrained way of doing business.

I don’t know if you’ve ever personally had the experience of being a customer of any of the big cable TV companies. If you have, then you’ve probably experienced the overwhelming sense of dread that comes whenever you have to call a cable company about anything. Dealing with cable companies is not a pleasant experience.

Invariably, you’ll start by waiting on hold for 30 minutes. When you do get a customer service rep on the line, you have to repeat all your account information that you’ve already entered. Then the rep will ask you a bunch of stupid questions you already answered for the person you spoke with previously. When you do schedule your appointment, customer service provides you a four-hour window of time when you need to be home. The technician shows up either early or late, or not at all. Finally, you get your cable bill, which is already too high to begin with, and discover that the company charged you way more than you expected for the service call.

When it comes to customer satisfaction—or the lack of it—it doesn’t get much worse than this.

With that atrocious level of customer service, pretty soon some of the big cable companies earned a dismal reputation among customers. You can go into a party and overhear people talking about how frustrated they are with their cable provider. “Oh gosh, I had to call the cable company the other day. What a nightmare. I’m still upset!” Everybody in the room utters a sigh of disgust because they’ve experienced the same thing.

Pretty soon, Consumer Reports or Temkin Group releases a survey and finds that the cable industry has the lowest customer satisfaction scores of any industry. Then the news media picks up the story. The bloggers start ranting. Twitter goes crazy.

Before you know it, the cable industry has been branded as an awful industry that abuses its customers. It can be very difficult to shed that reputation, and it can take years.

The cable industry lost control of its brand and let someone else—in this case, customers—own the brand. When you don’t take control of your brand’s image, and you don’t properly manage the relationship you have with your customers, the results can be devastating. And they show up on the bottom line.

What to do instead Branding doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t need to have a major branding agency on retainer or go on weeklong branding retreats.

By answering three major questions, you can take control of your brand and understand who you are and how you fit in the market.

These are deep questions, and three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, are dedicated to understanding them and how best to answer them.

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?

By understanding the answers to these three questions, companies can ensure that they are sending the right message, and that their customers’ experiences are aligning with their messaging.

Branding is not a step-by-step process I want to be clear: Companies cannot just answer those three questions once and then hang up their branding hat. Answering the above questions is an ongoing exercise that should happen throughout the life of the brand. Branding is not something that takes place at a single point in time.

The answers to these questions will always be evolving and, even more importantly, living your brand and ensuring that customers experience your values is a constantly ongoing process.

You are in a competitive environment with changing customer needs and market forces that are beyond your control. Your brand needs to be constantly evolving to meet these challenges. You have to be in constant touch with your customers and your customers’ needs or subject yourself to the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Soul searching from the youngest Sol team member

By Noah Krell

In mid-May I finished my four-year stint as a student at Washington University in St. Louis. Four years gone, four years full to the brim with wholesome learning, mild-to-intense debauchery, real friendships, shallow friendships, professors with stunning insights, bank accounts with stunning(ly low) balances, cliché #3, cliché #4, cliché #5. Everything "they" told me would happen in college, happened in college.

This realization prompted immediate feelings of guilt as I recalled each and every eye roll I gave in response to parental advice over the years. But, beginning a new chapter in my life affords me the opportunity to start fresh, and in that spirit, I decided to poll the office on what pieces of advice they would give to their younger selves. Here’s an aggregated, semi-NSFW list, with my personal interpretation of each point.

1) Don’t give a s*** what other people think, do what you love Okay I’ve heard this one before, and the conclusion I used to always come back to was: easier said than done. It’s way simpler, and way easier to avoid conflict by being conventional, right? But what I’ve grown to learn is when you weigh that sense of ease and simplicity up against the benefits (happiness) you gain from actually doing things youenjoy doing, you might find the scale tips more easily than you’d expect. If you’re able to swing it financially, you should embrace this concept in your professional life. If not, do what you need to do to pay the bills, but outside of work embrace your guilty pleasures, and don’t be ashamed to share. My name is Noah and The O.C. has been my favorite TV show since I was 12.

2) Pick something and run with it I think the concern here might have something to do with switching majors a few too many times in college, and racking up more education bills than you (or your parents) know what to do with. As someone who didn’t go through that process, this meant something different to me; It meant something along the lines of: every now and then, allow yourself the opportunity to develop a passion for something, rather than wasting time trying to find the absolute perfect fit. That is to say, sometimes we don’t know what a perfect fit feels like until we fully devote ourselves to exploring it. Break-in a pair of shoes before immediately writing it off as a bad fit – after a few weeks (months, years) of walking in it you’ll probably change your mind, and you won’t have wasted effort trying on a new pair every week.

3) Don’t apply for credit cards I literally started shopping around for credit cards the night before I posed this question to the office (read: I started shopping around for cars and realized it might be smart to build credit first), so you can imagine this advice was a little bit jarring. Different people operate in different ways, but I think the main point here is that, in certain cases, it is best to plan ahead and to make current decisions accordingly. Don’t do anything that will benefit you now but screw you later, because chances are the regret will outweigh the initial satisfaction. Make decisions that are right for you, and be honest with yourself. Be smart, be frugal, and do your research before jumping into anything too risky.

4) Get your nude photos taken now Crass, maybe, but editing/censoring honest advice defeats the purpose of asking for it. The subtext for this one is “…because you’ll never look better than you do right now.”  Well, we all like to think we can maintain our health and our looks even as 40, 50, 60, 70-year-olds, but the honest truth is that it gets harder every year (or so I’ve heard). So, with that in mind, I have a couple of takeaways here. First, takeadvantage of your youth, looks and energy while you have them, and second, invest in your own physical and mental well-being now, so that you can reap the benefits (or rather, not have to pay the price) later on in life.

5) Don’t be afraid Also easier said than done. I know I’ve still got plenty to learn and experience, but I’ve been confronted with plenty of situations throughout my life that have evoked some element of fear – fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of physical harm, etc., etc.  Granted, I’m not going to condone confronting physical harm without worry. However, when it comes to fear of failure, consider everything as an opportunity. Be optimistic. Don’t be afraid to jump outside of your comfort zone, because in the end, there is absolutelyzero downside. Worst case scenario you fail miserably and embarrass yourself along the way. The optimist in this situation takes it as a learning experience, and an opportunity for personal growth. So what if you fall on your face? Suck it up (we’ve all been there) and remember to tie your shoes next time.

6) Be less judgmental This is the flip-side of point #1, and the perfect opportunity to put my psychology minor to good use (…bear with me). Ironically enough, one of the easiest things to forget as an intelligent being with your own brain, is that everyone else has a brain too. You might not be a selfish person, but because you operate within your own personal psyche, and your environment only exists through the lens of your personal psyche, it’s almost impossible not to lace that environment with your own judgments. This is a natural, healthy process, until you let negative judgments cloud your lens and dictate the way you interact with others. Be yourself, but let other people be themselves, too.  Let me watch The O.C., drink cheap beer or read my Dan Brown novel, and I’ll let you rock out to heavy metal, wear skinny jeans or root for Oklahoma football. I promise we both bring plenty to the table, I promise we can coexist, and I promise we can maybe even be friends.