Thursday, July 24, 2008

Brand 101: Clearing Up the Misconceptions

There has been a growing interest in branding and differentiation among A/E firms in recent years. Yet brand remains an elusive concept, misunderstood by most in our industry, even among marketing professionals. Branding is predominantly thought of as a marketing activity, something that is assigned to the marketing department to do but is largely ignored by the rest of the company. But, in fact, the marketing department has limited control over your brand!

What is brand? There are various definitions in the literature, one of the reasons for the confusion. But considering the composite of all I've read on the subject, the best definition in my opinion is:
Brand is the collection of perceptions in the mind of the customer that differentiates (or doesn't) a firm, product, or service.

People often think of names, logos, and other graphic representations of your firm as constituting the core of your brand. But these symbols only evoke responses to your brand; they don't define it. So what does define your brand?

Your brand is defined by the direct and indirect experiences that customers have with your firm, products, or services.

So how you serve your clients is far more critical to your brand than anything the marketing department can concoct. That's not to diminish marketing's role. They create important customer experiences too, but they are more like the cake decorator than the baker. The cake's appearance might sell it, but it is the taste and texture of the cake itself that will ultimately secure positive customer impressions (hence, brand).

I know of a large engineering firm that is undergoing significant reorganization and has brought in a branding consultant to package the new image. Hopefully this consultant is working closely with those determining how to organize and deliver the company's assets to clients. That's where branding really starts. But I doubt the two parties are working together. That's why most branding efforts sell only the sizzle without the steak.

If your firm is interested in reshaping your brand, let me encourage you to start by surveying client impressions of your firm. Working from this insight, your initial efforts will undoubtedly focus on improving your service delivery. Consider every encounter with the client--from how you answer the phone to how you conduct client meetings to the quality of your deliverables--and ask, "How can we do this better?" Better still, ask your clients the same question. Enhancing these experiences is the essence of strengthening your brand.

Then work with marketing to determine how to best convey the message to existing and prospective clients. As I described in the previous post "Marketing for Leads," the best way to describe the service difference you offer is to demonstrate it. Make serving clients the centerpiece of your marketing and sales efforts. This builds your brand better than any marketing copy or graphic design.

Again, I don't want to dismiss the value of strong names, logos, and symbols, or any facet of marketing the brand. But I hope I've challenged you to rethink the notion that branding is primarily a marketing function. Your brand is not what the client sees or reads; it's what he or she feels. So what kind of feelings and perceptions does your firm generate among those clients you touch?

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