Brand(ing), Brand Identity, and Brand Strategy

As someone that encounters a number of independent inventors or enterprising entrepreneurs, generally launching businesses based on an innovation or technological improvement sufficiently distinguishable to secure U.S patent protection, one of the major difficulties in going from concept-to-shelf is formulating a brand strategy that properly focuses on brand and brand identity development. There are many useful resources available, including a fabulous book by the faculty from the Kellogg School of Management, and a number of on-line sources, that can assist start-up business owners with such a strategy. I have attempted to synthesize this information into a more easily digestible format, although the source-material is rewarding and enriching with the information, anaylsis, and tips provided.

Deceptive in its two-syllable construction, branding is neither easy nor simple in concept or execution. Once one gets her/his head wrapped around the distinction between the slightly-more focused concept of a trademark and the slightly-more broad concept of a brand, the steps for creating, building, developing, and maintaining each are related and even overlapping at times, but involve many considerations beyond what one or two individuals in an organization find appealing.

Rather, and in sharp contrast, the more advisable approach is removing the business-owner hat and putting on the consumer hat – understanding what and how you respond to certain messages and visual cues. By putting oneself into the position of a consumer (since everyone is a consumer of something), the difficult but highly-rewarding task of creating a brand, brand identity, and brand strategy become more manageable than the standard approach of finding the easiest descriptive term or terms to print and package with a good or service. Developing a brand strategy from the outset will minimize costs and efforts in the long-term and prevent sometimes irreversible reputational damage to the organization.

Because a brand is as much a representation of who a business is as much as what the business offers to consumers, an organization's brand identity becomes the representation of a company’s reputation through communication of the attributes, values, purpose, strengths, and passions the company possesses. A company’s communication of its purpose and values evokes an expectation from consumers. Stated differently, brand identity creates a place for a product to exist, generates consumer emotion, and sets the groundwork for a market to be drawn to a product.

But how does a business owner get from here (concept) to there (brand identity)? Through a brand(ing) strategy. As one can imagine, branding strategies vary from source-to-source and expert-to-expert, but a common core of information surfaces that provides a sequence for branding success. The common strategy elements include:

  1. Having and articulating a purpose.
  2. Being memorable - both in brand name, but in message and reputation.
  3. Having competitive awareness, conducting a proper TOWS (threats, opportunities, weaknesses, and strengths) analysis, and understanding how to differientiate oneself from the competition.
  4. Commit to using compelling story-telling techniques and utilizing emotional triggers to connect the branding messages to consumers.
  5. Engendering or fostering loyalty from consumers and rewarding that loyalty.
  6. Developing consistency in brand and message, including the development and adherence to a style guide.
  7. Having flexibility to adapt to changes in the market, allowing creativity to alter the message that is consistent with the style guide.
  8. Get comfortable with and use data analytics. Find the handful of metrics that mean something to your organization, mine the data, and analyze the information to adapt and exploit the appropriate opportunities.

Press Relations Program for Small Businesses

Press relations are activities used to establish and promote a favorable opinion by and through the media. In learning and understanding how to build an effective press relations element of your business, it is necessary to discern between what is and is not newsworthy. In essence, a newsworthy event should garner public recognition, importance, and interest at the level you wish to target. And understand all sources are a bundle of tools to complete a job and no one tool covers every aspect you hope to cover.

Because of the visual aspect of our society, managing to get the attention of a local television news outlet is an effective way of skipping steps in generating public recognition. By using the news outlet's interest as a proxy for the public's interest, this is a highly efficient means of getting an event into the public's attention.

Whether something ranks as "important" and "interesting" is sometimes dependent upon messaging and frequency of messaging. On the spectrum of importance, entertainment does not generally rank high, at least if one asks normal folk to give a rank of such things. However, consider the amount of money that US consumers spend on entertainment each week: (i) live-gate sporting events; (ii) live-gate concerts; (iii) movies; (iv) art performances; (v) purchasing digital or tangible copies of movies, television shows, and/or music. The list may be endless. But more importantly, it quantifies the "importance" of entertainment in our culture.

Consider the following video from Huntington's WSAZ NewsChannel 3:

There are some good things here and some missed opportunities as well. Some of the missed opportunities stem from the experience of all involved. For example, the name of the organization that the dancers belong is not mentioned. This is important for two reasons at least: first, the studio missed a golden marketing opportunity for at least a few reasons: first, the studio missed an opportunity to reach children that may want to take up dance and have yet to ask a parent; second, the studio that spearheaded the effort to bring the global touring company to Huntington missed out on demonstrating its commitment to the arts in the Tri-State; and three, important aspects of the studio owner's background and efforts were missed.

Are there others? Feel free to list a few.

With that said, as noted above, no single element of the media tool box makes or breaks marketing efforts. In fact, there were several promotional photos and stills captured during the WSAZ visit that have been circulating across social media, as well as a radio spot on the leading talk-radio show in the Huntington market, so the video acts as an extension of the social media buzz.

Overall this is a good example of seeking and gaining access to the local media to promote business and to promote entertainment brought in by the business.

Retail Layout, Decor, & Trade Dress

Whether owning or leasing a retail space, one important decision for the business owner will concern the design layout and decor of the space. Traffic flow, presentation, and overall visual impression are important characteristics to any successful store space. Depending upon the uniqueness of the layout and/or decor, one oft-forgotten form of intellectual property is the concept of trade dress - a species of trademark law.

Trade dress refers to the image and overall appearance of a product (such as a retail store). The distinctive decor, layout, menu, and style of service for a restaurant is protectible by trade dress. Practically every franchise-model restaurant has some element of trade dress as part of its intellectual property bundle that it licenses to franchisees. Golf courses are another example of usable and enforceable trade dress, such as the "Island Green" at The Player's Course (TPC) in Jacksonville, FL (a green that is completely encompassed by water, save for a three foot wide walk-way onto the green).

Much like its trademark-uncle, trade dress prevents others from using the decor, layout, or style of a business in a deceptive way that would cause consumers to confuse one store and location with another store and location.

For business owners, the opportunity to develop and then exclude others from mimicking the same layout, color scheme, and atmosphere may provide the most significant competitive advantage s/he can find in a competitive market. Being aware of and then utilizing this form of intellectual property is building a foundation for a system and model that may be translatable to other locations and be the seed of a franchise-model business.

Promotional Campaigns & Intellectual Property

Promotional campaigns are an invaluable source of marketing. Crafting the proper value proposition is a make-or-break task that can yield immediate returns or leave the business owner spinning his/her wheels in frustration.

An over-looked aspect of crafting the value proposition is digging deep into the product or service and into the mind of the target consumer. Many inventors or innovators are so married to the "idea" that s/he has concocted that the real value is not properly vetted or discovered. While the inventor/innovator may have solved a problem, the bigger question is whether s/he solved the right problem for the right number of people. And a major step in understanding the real problem and the real market for any product or service demands that the inventor/innovator get inside of the invention and see it as a consumer would see it and use it.

Understanding the need(s) and the key benefit(s)/advantage(s) provided by the product allows the business owner to properly evaluate the feasibility of the business as conceived, and allow for adjustments as demanded by the feasibility and/or market analysis. Developing levels of differentiation not only expands the potential markets available, but provides the focus necessary to craft the value proposition(s) needed to hit the segmented sub-markets and develop a sustainable business.

Consider Facebook. Most "users" of Facebook are individuals and businesses maintaining free profiles that are interconnected and integrated with family, friends, and professional or business colleagues. Many might consider Facebook's "product" as a social media platform so individuals and/or businesses can interact. But tha is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

In fact, if one drills down and gets at the "core benefit" of the total product Facebook offers, the real "core benefit" that Facebook provides is the data collection, information, and analytics that individuals or businesses are interested for their own marketing purposes. While Facebook users (generally) are purchasing no product (or service), the information that is provided has allowed Facebook to construct a profitable business based on algorithms that map the profiles of each individual user that may then be sold, interpreted, and used by other businesses for marketing purposes.

This is a good lesson in understanding or appreciating that a product is more than the commodity being consumed by the masses. The profitable product being commodified by Facebook is the collective information from the profiles of hundreds of millions of non-paying users. Much of this commodification protected through proprietary techniques in data gathering and sorting, possibly some patenting, and with a large emphasis on branding and trademark usage.

In understanding the depths of the core product, a business can properly flesh out its profitable markets, and then craft the value proposition(s) and marketing campaigns to capitalize on these segments.

Product Pricing Strategies & Intellectual Property

For any business, a new product or new product enhancement is an opportunity to seek higher profit margins than previously realized. If the new product (or enhancement) is the subject of some form of intellectual property, then the pricing model significantly changes for several reasons.

First, if the new product has been captured by a pending patent application, then the product's advertising and/or promotional material(s) will carry the omninous notice: patent pending. While few consumers have a true understanding of what "patent pending" represents, the consumer generally believes that the new product is legally protected against other competition, and the perceived value of the product rises based on this internal reference price. If the advertising or promotion incorporates reference to "patent pending" or even "new and improved" along with quality comparisons to related products, these touchstones can drive-up the external reference price. In combination, these two reference price items can lead to significant price increases based solely on internal and external forces.

The logic (if not flawed) is rooted in the perception that a company would not have invested the research funds necessary to get to a patent-filing stage unless there was merit in the novelty of the invention and a high prospect of patent issuance in the foreseeable future. Not to mention the perception of a sizeable number of people that "patent pending" actually confers the legal right to enjoin another from making, using, or selling something similar. Of course, companies fund badly conceived or poorly thought-out designs more than some may care to admit, regardless of how the patent application is resolved.

Related is the ability to raise prices to suggest or indicate that the product is of a higher quality or part of a cultural movement regarding status. Based on the perceived exclusivity of the patent-filing, premium pricing models certainly come into frame and increase the price-point above previous thresholds.

Intellectual property also aids in captive pricing techniques, especially if the expendable(s) or peripheral(s) sold separately from the base are the subject of the intellectual property. One particularly effective means of moving product and capturing a healthy profit is the use of captive pricing to lower the sale point of the base (slightly) and then mark-up the peripheral(s) to not only exceed the "loss" on the base's reduced price-point but to confer an above-the-competition price-point.

So, intellectual property (esp. patents and/or trade secrets) is an important component in determining the consumer's anticipated response to the marketing that reflects an "exclusivity" in the offering of the item. However, caution and care must be taken not to get carried away and over-price the item well-beyond the means to move the product at such prices.

Businesses - Branding and Trademarks

There are at least a couple of different schools of thought regarding branding, much of it divorced from the question of trademark protection.

For example, there are several sources that advise business owners to consider naming or labeling a product with a descriptive title (e.g., "Discount Furniture"), but this ignores the trouble lurking for the business down-the-road.

In the hierarchy of trademark protection, fanciful (coined/invented) marks enjoy the greatest strength and protection against conflicting use(s) and/or attack, followed by arbitrary (no connection between term and product) marks, and suggestive (suggestive of a characteristic without overtly describing the product) marks. Any term/phrase falling within these three categories are considered strong marks.

On the opposite end of the hierarchy are generic terms - words/phrases that represent the good (or service), such as escalator or elevator.

And then there is the category of descriptive marks. Not quite generic and not quite suggestive. Descriptive marks are not inherently distinctive and require extensive use for some period of time before acquired distinctiveness (secondary meaning) is obtained that provides eligibility for federal registration.

While the temptation is strong to label a product or service in a descriptive way, since most consumers would most easily understand the use of the term with the product in this way, this approach is wrong-headed and a bit reckless for any business. Failing to devise a word/term/phrase that is at least suggestive runs the risk of being denied federally registeration, causing legal enforcement of such a mark to be problematic, along with not realizing the full-breadth of protections and advantages that registration allows under federal law.

Alternatively, with sufficient time, thought, and consideration, a mark that is at least suggestive will open up all the doors to the entrepreneur: utilizing an identifiable and memorable brand; using a mark that is capable of federal registration; and possessing a mark that is poised to grow and obtain increasing goodwill from consumers that adds value to the business in the form of a valuable asset.