If I had a dollar for every prospective employee who said he loves what he’s seen and heard at our company but his father/spouse/friends feel more comfortable if he joins ‘Giant Co Ltd’ next door, I’d be a rich man. And every one of those prospects was honest enough to admit that their father/spouse/friends felt far more comfortable with the safety, reputation and BRAND of ‘Giant Co Ltd’.
Brand, the very word seems to connote a variety of images. Advertisements, billboards and neon signs, models and Bollywood stars are what many people associate with the word. If you probe further, you may hear AirTel, Britannia, Disney, Coca-Cola and Pepsi or Sony and Samsung as companies that people think of as brands.
People in the trade, be it marketers or financiers, talk of brand equity, brand loyalty, and brand names. When you talk to entrepreneurs about brands and what it means to them, they, particularly those in the early stages of their business, admit that brand is important and something that they aspire to build one of these days. However, right now they have to run and take care of this cash flow matter or woo that key hire, so they will get back to it when they have more time and when it’s more appropriate!
So what is a brand and how much should entrepreneurs care about it? And when should they care about it? Doesn’t it cost a lot of money to build a brand? Is it a luxury for a struggling start-up? These are a few questions worth considering and answering even as you embark on your business.
Brands, simply put, are what people think they are. In other words, when people associate Amul with butter, Kissan with jam, Disney with TV (if you are an Indian child) or with Mickey (if you are a 40-year-old American) that is what those brands are. Beyond word association, they often denote something specific — what marketers such as Al Ries, co-author of Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind call the brand promise. For instance, among cars BMW promises performance, Mercedes luxury, Toyota reliability, and Volvo safety.
The key point that Al Ries has been making for the better part of three decades is that a brand’s positioning or promise is determined by how it is perceived by the consumer and not what you as the product or service’s maker believe or state it to be. In the simplest sense, as a start-up or an entrepreneur, if you comprehend and internalise this, you are already on the road to building a differentiated brand.
You have already persuaded some friends and a few former colleagues to join your start-up and are now trying to hire a few more key people. “I am quite happy where I am right now. I am not really looking for a change,” is what you’d usually hear from really good people, the kind you’d want to hire for your start-up. One of the key factors in their decision-making will be your brand and what it’s perceived as. At this stage, when you have just started or have not even become operational, it may seem counter-intuitive to talk about your ‘brand’ — don’t be fooled, the day you began dealing with people other than the founders, you began building your brand.
The reality is that your candidate is thinking about the pros and cons of staying at his present job and the alternative opportunities he may have elsewhere . In other words, he is positioning this opportunity against others and the moment he does that, he is associating a brand such as ‘risky’ or ‘unique opportunity’ or ‘great technology’ with your company. If you want to participate in this mental conversation and persuade him to indeed make the leap to your organisation, having clarity about your brand and what it connotes is critical.
The best way to build your brand is to have clarity — namely knowing yourself — as in what does your business stand for, what do you promise your employees, your customers, and other stakeholders. Once you have the clarity, state it and act on it each day. The day you open shop, your brand matters, and if you don’t state it and shape it yourself, the other guys will be they competitors or prospective employees and, most importantly, the spouses of your current employees.
As Anthony J. D’Angelo, creator of The Inspiration Book Series put it: “If you talk the talk, you damn well better walk the walk.” If you thought knowing yourself and stating it succinctly for others was hard, being yourself consistently is harder still. At this point, particularly in the context of start-ups and entrepreneurs, it’s worth pointing out that ‘brand’ is not something people associate with your product alone, but with your company and many times with your employees and you.
Southwest Airlines is one of the best examples of such brand value and perception permeating not merely the flights and on-board service, but also the founder and first CEO Herb Kelleher and all employees of Southwest from gate agents to in-flight staff be they pilots or cabin crew. So if your image is one of love and fun (as it is with Southwest), you had better exhibit it every day and everywhere.
Nearer home, the Tata brand as personified most recently in the Nano announcement or how Ratan Tata himself is perceived or how an entire earlier generation views the Tata Administrative Service, speaks of knowing and being oneself.
Just as it is a good idea to get a friend signed up when you embark on any new and often difficult activity (running three miles a day or yoga), walking your talk as an entrepreneur is easier if you get your team signed up. They are with you every day and will be (much like your spouse) the first to point out when you stray from the path of walking your talk. So if you make that guy who has come to interview with you wait interminably while you finish something, you are not walking your talk of “individuals matter” (if that is your position). Similarly, if you say “Ship it so that we can make the billing and we can fix it afterwards,” you are not walking the talk of “quality at affordable prices”. As any married person will vouch, telling the truth is always the less expensive option (regardless of near-term consequences). Similarly, being true to who you say you are as a business is the best way to building a brand. Who said it would be easy?
Jack Stack, founder and CEO of Springfield ReManufacturing Corp (SRC) in his book A Stake in the Outcome states: “The company is the product.” For an entrepreneur and a start-up, there is no truer statement of their raison d’etre. It is easy to ascribe a brand or positioning to your products or services, but much harder to both conceive of and work on your company itself as the product. Great entrepreneurs, be it Dhirubhai Ambani or Richard Branson, have known this intuitively and Reliance and Virgin are a direct result of this ‘company is the product’ philosophy.
From day one, it is this vision of what your company is (or will be) that you need to sell, starting with your team all the way to your customers and their customers (the reason Intel advertises its products to consumers, who are its customers’ customers). Some of you may feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘selling’, be it your products, your company or yourself. The lesson you need to draw from good sales people is that selling is less about talking and all about listening!
So listen to what the world is telling you and be consistent and true to yourself, and the brand will take care of itself.
This article was first published in the Business Line print edition dated September 8, 2008