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Your Brand is Only as Good as the User Experience: Published by BizMonthly

What else can be said about a brand? Countless pages have been written on the subject so that every executive knows that it represents the values of the company, and that it must be displayed with a certain consistency across all marketing materials.

Here's why that's only half the story: The brand is not the sole responsibility of the marketing department.

Instead, it involves every department of a company or organization and is the result of interaction with salespeople, customer service reps, senior executives presenting at conferences, and the administrative staff when interacting with their peers. And, ultimately, the brand conveys value when satisfied customers willingly engage in word-of-mouth marketing. Their unsolicited efforts on a company's behalf build positive perceptions and help to maintain the brand's standards.

It is an important distinction to make between a one-dimensional marketing department effort at brand creation and implementation and a company-wide effort. Marketing has a major role in brand building, but it's more than "giving the logo a facelift" or "tweaking the messaging a bit." Other departments have to be involved because all impressions in the marketplace have to always add up to the same positive and consistent conclusion.

When there is a disconnect, there is hesitancy on the part of buyers and influencers whose collective impressions have as much impact on a brand's success as the company does.

More Than a Logo

Branding is a strategic exercise that should involve internal surveys of staff and external analysis of customers and prospects. Informal conversations with audiences can also be beneficial. Information regarding the company's strengths, weaknesses, and the needs of the marketplace should all be collected.

All of this input provides answers to who the company is, why it's different, how it is perceived and what type of entity it can become in a particular niche. Fully informed, the company can then craft its positioning and seize opportunities at market differentiation and competitive advantage. That is the essence of brand development.

For a product company like Wal-Mart, its brand is based on positioning as the low-cost provider, and it invests heavily to promote this in advertising to consumers, and by squeezing suppliers for more volume and lower profit margins. For services companies like Charles Schwab, it has invested heavily in its reputation for providing superior investment advice to help individual investors control their own financial future.

By contrast, other companies weaken their brand by copying over-used taglines such as "building success one customer at a time" because there is no differentiation among users unless you already know them.

Brand is no less important for emerging companies and nonprofit organizations than it is for the Goliaths. For many, the relevant positioning may be that they are innovative, the most reliable, the leading firm in a certain area or even the most amusing. Brand communicates the benefits of purchasing regardless of a company's size or industry.

A common pitfall, even with the guidance of researched and agreed-upon positioning, is that companies are too tactical with brand promotion.

For example, it's not enough to tell a designer that you need a logo showing how innovative you are, or a brochure with certain colors and graphics. Nor should there be an effort to create a brand around a CEO's favorite color, even if it was used successfully somewhere else. Marketing tools help shape the impression in the marketplace, but they cannot create the characteristics of a company. Again, that's the job of everyone in the business.

Emotional Connection

Whether we admit it or not, all of us consumers make many purchasing decisions based on brand preference. That's because at some point a brand's claim made a connection with our needs, desires, circumstances or other element so that we felt smart, safe, healthy or that we were able to save money, be more efficient or avoid the consequences of not buying the brand.

Establishing these emotional connections with first-time buyers means these brands have done their job. If the claims were fulfilled through our experience, then we continue to choose the brand based on another emotion: trust.

Regardless of what a company sells, connecting with customers on a human level and then providing the expected experience is what makes a brand.

As the saying goes, "No one was ever fired for hiring IBM," because it is a strong services brand that is known and trusted. Tools that help create that awareness of the brand's claim include advertising in its various forms, while fulfilling the claim involves an appropriate telephone greeting, delivering high quality services, meeting deadlines and other customer service criteria.

To have only claims without high-quality fulfillment is a fragmented brand. If a product or service doesn't evoke an emotion with its claims and convey value through the customer experience, get a good look at it now because it won't be around long.

Brand Investment

Giving the brand the attention it deserves doesn't necessarily mean placing high cost Super Bowl ads. However, branding is something that needs to be budgeted for, even for emerging companies, and many spend roughly 20% of their operating budget on the marketing of it alone.

Depending on where the company is in its lifecycle, the budget may get allocated for the initial positioning effort, or it may be funneled toward longer-term nurturing activities. Brochures, logos, web sites and other tools are included, but they can only reflect the ongoing strategic approach to the market.

Strong brands always have, and always will, distinguish a company from its competition, generate customer loyalty, create market leaders and provide a measure of pride among staff in a forward-moving organization. And they always have, and always will, be built on consistent messaging and activities in all departments, as well as the marketplace's experience with it.

Dina Wasmer is president of Incite Creative, a provider of strategic marketing and communications design services. She can be contacted at dina@incitecreativeinc.com.

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