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The Business of Branding It may seem like a lot of intangible feel-good nonsense, but your brand represents people’s perception of everything about your company.

by Cherie Hebert

Despite the many options available, nearly half of the smartphones sold in the U.S. each year are Apple iPhones. Millions of Americans are choosing the more expensive of two essentially equivalent products because, well, it’s Apple.

Likewise, Google usage dominates Bing in internet searches, even though they produce similar results. What drives us to pay more for a bottle of Advil instead of choosing the cheaper generic ibuprofen? The answer is branding.

Branding is the process of building a collection of perceptions in your customers’ minds. Apple sells computers and phones, but “Apple” conjures far more in the minds of consumers: innovation, simplicity, quality, thinking differently. These perceptions — factual or emotional — are your brand, and they make people more likely to buy your product or service, even at greater cost. This is because brands are ultimately a promise that your company makes about who you are and the benefits you deliver. Anytime a consumer encounters any facet of your business, your brand promise is either confirmed or undermined. So an essential component of a strong brand is consistency and trust.

Think about your favorite restaurant. In addition to the food, you probably count on great service and atmosphere to match. The whole experience is why you prefer it, not just its overflowing menu. Consumers are drawn to brands that align with their own values and standards. Southwest Airlines has built a loyal following and successful business not just because of its low-priced fares. The Southwest brand is also associated with top-notch customer service, happy employees and a great internal culture. The best marketing campaign in the world could not produce that effect if it weren’t authentic and consistently demonstrated.

Their success comes not from being the best airline, but rather from being the most friendly, affordable and customer-focused.

Finding your niche, or brand position, is important for building equity in your brand. Though it may seem like a lot of intangible feel-good nonsense, your brand is a substantial asset that can increase or decrease — and inevitably secure — future earnings. Take Margaritaville: Inspired by Jimmy Buffett and his unique personal brand, Margaritaville is more than a restaurant or retail store. It’s a lifestyle, a fan club, a way of being in the world based on relaxation, good music and flip flops. Or consider Starbucks, which revolutionized the consumer coffee business not by innovating around coffee, but by focusing on the customer experience. Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks, famously said, “We are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee.” This focus on people extends to Starbucks employees, who enjoy some of the best benefits — including help with tuition.

When your brand is authentically appealing your product or service sells itself. You can spend less on marketing and sales when your customers feel connected to your brand and what it stands for. The rise of social media has made word-of-mouth more valuable than ever, and as people are bombarded with advertising from every direction, they turn to trusted friends and family when making purchasing decisions. Vocal, passionate customers who love your brand will drive others to your website or storefront. If the experience is a good one, they will come back again and again and evangelize to their own friends.

Before you invest in your next advertising campaign or new marketing materials, start by reviewing your branding. A business with a strong brand can withstand market downturns, competitors and misfortune better than one without. So take the time to make sure your brand is one that’s built to last.

Cherie Hebert is a founding partner and CEO of BBR Creative with more than 20 years of experience in advertising and marketing.