Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Brand Community

When some businesses talk about branding, they want some type of facade to cover their business that will "say" something about their brand that will increase sales. This is unfortunate because these businesses have gotten the idea that branding is a game, or even worse, a charade -- something that does not actually have to be true, but can be whatever they want it to be, as long as they pay their ad agency.

The businesses that acted on this premise are in a lot of trouble right now. The recession is eating these guys for lunch. Actually, the recession and the Internet are doing them in together. The recession because these days consumers and businesses are being much more cautious about who they spend their money with. The Internet because 1) the word can get out much more easily than it ever did before about poor customer satisfaction, and 2) there are many more options that can replace the poor performer than ever before.

In the 19th century, it was a frequent joke that "God may have made men, but Colonel Colt made them equal." The truth in this was that Colt's handguns being available to almost anyone made self-defense not just something that a large man could be assured of. These days, it is the Internet that is the Great Equalizer of business. A small company that does business right can eat the proverbial lunch of a large company that does not listen to its customers. And that is how it should be.

What all businesses need is a way to do this. How can they best listen to their customers? Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba offer a technique in their book Creating Customer Evangelists called Customer Plus-Delta. It is a simple technique in which businesses find out what they are doing well (the Plus) and what they need to work on (the Delta). And businesses need to hear the Delta just as much as they do the Plus. Then, they need to act on that feedback. If it is true, fix it. If it is not, explain the misunderstanding.

Instead, many organizations increasingly use technology to act as a barrier to their customers. They don't seem to want to be in contact with their customers. What kind of businesses are these? Take the automated phone system of most larger businesses: you can answer quite a few prompts before you get a real person on the line. This happened to me with Sears last weekend. Then, I got disconnected twice before I ever got connected to the right person. Did they make me feel important to them?

Some businesses have gotten the idea that branding is a charade -- something that does not actually have to be true, but can be whatever they want it to be.

Or have a look at most Internet websites. It is not easy to contact many organizations about a problem you are having. One could get the impression that they really don't want to hear from their customers, that they just want their money. Say it ain't so, Joe!

But the facades are there for many organizations. They want to act one way and have you perceive it another. That is not authentic marketing.

But there is a light. And, many time it is with the entrepreneur. The small-business person who actually wants her business to be a reflection of her values. And wants her customers to surround her organization with ideas for product or service improvement, new ways to use her product, new customers that she can do business with. She has the wisdom to speak with every customer, particularly the ones who may not be happy with her business for any number of reasons. As she listens, every customer she listens to becomes more loyal and begins to connect on new levels with her brand.

In so doing, a brand community is formed. This brand community protects sales during a recession and contributes to increased growth when money becomes more available. No facade here, but live human beings who identify on both a logical and emotional level with what she sells.

The good news is that no one can buy a brand community. They have to earn it. Authentically.

Thanks for reading. More to come!

[Photo used under the Creative Commons License courtesy of Flickr.]

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