To Brand Or Not To Brand? That is the question.
The brands are coming! Their arrival has been evident in our supermarkets and on the main streets of our towns and cities for some time now. It started as a trickle, led by the makers and retailers of consumer goods, but it has more recently become a fast moving torrent that races headlong through almost every business and walk of life.
Make for the high ground! Some local businesses watch uneasily as it threatens to burst its banks and overwhelm everything that stands in its way. For others, branding offers something new and exciting; a fresh flow of ideas that will bring renewed direction and vigour to their business.
So, to brand or not to brand? This is one of the key questions facing Irish business owners in 2005 as we survey the landscape and consider our choices.
Any unease that we may feel in the matter is understandable. The B-word has been bandied about a great deal recently and has been blamed for some of the worst excesses of globalisation. It is presented as invasive, almost colonial, in its intent, something that we are particularly sensitive to on this island. (Ironically, three of the more prolific brands sweeping Britain and beyond – Ryanair, Jury’s Inns and O’Brien’s Sandwich Bars – are Irish).
Branding is often associated with a cookie cutter approach to business and thanks to the global burger chains can seem to offer only faceless uniformity and hopeless mechanical repetition (albeit whilst helping to deliver huge profits).
Finally, our unease probably owes a great deal to our native resistance to the worst excesses of marketing-speak, particularly that which has its origins on Madison Avenue. For some of us, the recent fuss about brand culture seems to provide yet more evidence of US-style marketing gone mad.
Brand As Opportunity
But branding is too valuable a tool to be dismissed out of hand. It is vital to the good management of reputation and relationships. Consider any of the great businesses – including the local, the independents and the family-owned – and you will see a great brand at work. The great business leaders use it intuitively and unselfconsciously.
It is a tool that can be used to great effect in those areas where it is difficult to offer something truly distinctive and influence choice. Like all tools, it can be pressed into service in a variety of ways. Used properly, branding offers a business the opportunity to marshal its resources, play to its strengths and gain significant competitive advantage.
Brand Influencing Choice
Thanks to the phenomenal growth in markets over the past ten years, we can truly say that in many areas the customer is spoiled for choice. In a market where there are few functional differences between products or services, the customer choice is driven largely by emotional factors. What increasingly influences buyers is the values that drive your business, in other words, who you are, what you stand for and how you deliver.
And yet, for many businesses, product features and functional benefits continue to provide the basis for all marketing and communications. Think of the rash of advertisements and directories where businesses slavishly list details, such as location, product range and service, that fail to distinguish one offer from the next.
Clearly, something extra is required in order to gain competitive advantage. A distinct and well-defined identity gives a business something significant to say to the market whilst providing a clear blueprint for the development of all communications.
Brand Driving Strategy
Branding as an activity is seen principally in marketing and communications but its effect is soon felt throughout the business. In addition to giving a business something to say about itself, the identity of a business provides it with both purpose and direction.
In order to successfully make any business stronger than the sum of its parts, it is vital that the organisation support and direct its business strategy through the development of a strong brand that enables it to establish a clear, compelling and competitive presence in the marketplace.
Active management of the brand enables the business to make a clear statement of intent and focuses all effort on the achievement of business goals in a consistent and credible way. It also delivers economies of money, time and effort as it streamlines decision-making throughout the business.
Brand Delivering Benefits
What then does branding offer to the small, local or independent business?
It enables the business to build its reputation, manage its relationships (especially with customers) and play to its strengths.
It levels the playing field. One of the beauties of brand development is that the small business is at least as well equipped as the national or global chain to build and maintain reputation and relationships (albeit at a more modest level).
It provides an organising framework for the business and takes the guesswork out of marketing and communications.
It offers a common language for the business team so that they can readily describe what they do and what makes them different.
It makes for fresh and compelling communications that engage the customer and provide a basis for long-term relationships.
It enables a business to lead through its values and enables owners to trust to the intuitive leadership that distinguishes many of the great businesses.
Finally, and most importantly, it helps a business to identify its market, carve out a territory for itself that it can own and defend, and enables it to establish genuine and sustainable competitive advantage.