Thursday, June 03, 2010


Branding Basics for Small Business: Q&A with author Maria Ross

I've read a lot of material over the years focused on teaching brand strategy. Unfortunately, too much of it is dense, theoretical, and not easily applicable by the typical business owner (or marketing manager for that matter).

Maria Ross has changed that with her new book Branding Basics for Small Business. It's an exceptional read, taking core brand strategy concepts and translating them into practical, actionable tools & recommendations that apply to businesses big and small.

Here's a bit more about the book, and brand strategy in general, from my conversation with Maria.

Q: There are so many books and resources about brand, how is this book different? What was the message and takeaway you wanted to create here?

A: There are indeed many books out there about brand. My question is then why are so many businesses still not getting it?! Seriously, though, I wanted to take brand from being an esoteric concept to a practical, strategic weapon that not only impacts your bottom line but makes business and marketing decisions much, much easier. People don’t realize that their brand strategy is a guide that will save them money, focus them on the right investments and partnerships, and enable them to speak more clearly to customers in a way they want to hear.

I also wanted to show small businesses that “good branding” is not just the domain of big companies with huge budgets. Brand is really a strategy and anyone, big or small, can employ that strategy. At its simplest level, the process in the book is merely ten steps: that should be doable enough for anyone regardless of budget or size.

Q: How has the idea, strategy and priority of brand changed (if it has) as the influence of Web, mobile and social marketing increases?

A: I think that’s the foundation of my book, that brand has not changed, the fundamentals are still there. We just have more ways of expressing that brand in today’s world; ways that are much more interactive and immediate, but those new technologies are merely vehicles used to express the brand and better connect with customers. That has never changed. Back in the Mad Men days, we only had print ad, radio ads or brochures to convey our brand. Social media and new technologies have merely broadened our options for brand communication. But you still have to have something clear, consistent and compelling to communicate. That will never change.

Q: How does effective brand strategy & management improve a company's ability to attract prospects and close business?

A: The better your know who you are and what you stand for, the more clearly and consistently you can convey that message to the market and attract the right people. If you take a scattershot approach, not grounded in any “truths,” then your messaging is all over the board. And that just means your customers are confused. It also means every time they interact with your brand, they are seeing a new message: that doesn’t help with following the old marketing axiom of delivering a consistent message to someone 5-7 times before it sticks. If that brand promise is different - if the message is different -each and every time, you’re always starting from Square One.

There is no way you can generate awareness and retention that then moves a prospect down the sales process to close if you’re always starting over with them. Similarly, if your brand promise in advertising is, say, great customer service, but the company as a whole does not live, eat and breathe that brand promise, what do you think the prospect’s experience is going to be like when dealing with sales or calling customer service? Brand aligns the entire business around one clear mission in order to make sales and garner customer loyalty. Period.

Q: Many early-stage and small businesses have to figure out how to balance brand with sales and demand-driven marketing. How do companies (especially smaller & younger ones) get that balance right?

A: Brand is not mutually exclusive of sales or demand-driven marketing. Brand is your company’s reputation and the perception customers have of you, so that means brand informs your sales and lead generation efforts. Those efforts need to be grounded in a strong brand foundation if you want them to work. So in my mind there is no “balance” per se; there is only necessity. You have to attract a prospect before you can close them, right? You wouldn’t propose on the first date, yet small companies (B2B especially) think they can just run a single lead gen direct marketing campaign with no other brand messaging out there and – POOF – sales will fall out the other side. Doesn’t work that way.

Effective branding gives you the “air cover” you need to ensure your direct marketing efforts work more effectively with a better ROI. You have to earn the right to invade a prospect’s email inbox or make a cold call. A brand promise and familiarity opens that door. It starts the sales process in the Awareness phase and carries though the entire sales cycle. Brand strategy is about intentionally thinking through and clarifying your customer promise, your target audience, your benefits, and what you want to represent to the world. That is how you hook a prospect’s interest. And then ensuring that brand experience is consistent at every step of the sale cycle moves them further along to purchase.

If you put this thinking in up front, then when you do spend money on sales and lead generation, it will work more effectively and you’ll get better ROI then if you just show up and expect a sale. You have to earn that trust, and brand helps you do that. Once the strategy is in place, then you can consider how much budget you want to spend on executing that message and on what tactics. But at least this way, any execution you can afford to do is targeted, focused and consistent. And that saves money in the long run, not to mention gets you a better ROI on your lead gen efforts.

Q: What are the 2-3 things every business should take away (from the book and this interview) as a brand-related action item they can work on immediately for their business?

A: I would say the two biggest points are really defining your target customer segments in as much detail as possible and carefully putting together a messaging matrix focused on benefits, not just features. To the first point, many small businesses go too broad in trying to appeal to a large segment, mostly because they are afraid to leave money on the table. But a target segment of “women between the ages of 25 and 50” really doesn’t help you focus your investments or create compelling messaging. A 26-year old single graphic designer in L.A. may have very different needs than a 48-year old housewife with four kids in Iowa City.

So you really need to flesh out your customer in as much detail as possible so you have something real to shoot for: who are they, where do they live, what do they like to do, where do they work, what magazines do they read, where do they get their information, etc.? Doesn’t mean you won’t sell to someone outside of that “ideal” range if they come calling. It just means you will focus your efforts, dollars and core messages to someone “real” and therefore stand a better chance of connecting in a more relevant way.

To the second point, too many businesses think they are touting benefits when they are really just touting features. To that, a customer may say, “So what? Why should I care that you won all those awards or provide all of those services? What is the benefit to me?” Customers are selfish and we need to talk about what is in it for them. Don’t brag about how big you are; talk to your customer about how your size and reach enables them to get the best cost for the product, thus saving them money.

Audit your brand messaging across all your channels: If your benefit statements all start with “We provide…” or “We offer…” those are just features or capabilities. They are about how you sell. But customers want to hear about what they get. True benefits are written from the customer point of view: “As a customer, I save money….I increase profits..” or whatever the case may be.


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