Friday, November 13, 2009

SWOTting the Brand (Chapter 2/4)

If you really want to know what your employees think, it would be best to hire an outside researcher to probe for strengths and weaknesses in your brand. However, it can be done by the owner if s/he has the openness to hear things that may not be flattering. What I am recommending is qualitative research that will not only yield opinions but can also serve as a brainstorming session for new ideas. Regardless if you do the research or hire an outside moderator, you must make it very clear that candor will lead the day and that you will welcome, perhaps even reward, negative comments that are truthful. What I will discuss here is a very abbreviated version of what should happen but you will get the idea of what type of discussions need to take place.

Your first dialog is with your top tier management. Let's say of your 25 employees, you have five direct reports who each have four or five people reporting to them. Get your management in a room with blank sheets of paper on the table or poster board on the wall. The goal is to generate a brand SWOT analysis. I am sure you know the SWOT format: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and weaknesses are internal. Opportunities and threats are external. So, what are the strengths of your brand reputation? What are its weaknesses? It is critical that the data generated focus on brand image and perceptions about your brand. This is not a strategic assessment of everything about your company. It is about your brand reputation only. Optimally, you will generate no more than four or five strengths and fewer weaknesses, but candor is critical so list all you generate. Set those aside for now.

Next, tackle opportunities. What are the opportunities for your brand reputation? What can it be that it is not now? What preferred associations and perceptions are there available to you? What weaknesses are there for your brand? Weaknesses might be other brands that are close in positioning/strategy to your brand. If the claim you generate is already being used by a competitor and they have been banging that way for five years, that is a weakness that you cannot work around. That will not be your positioning. It would be good if you end with about four or five brand image opportunities/weaknesses total. If you generate more than that, prioritize the opportunities and threats.

What should be developing through this discussion and debate is a short list of brand strengths and perhaps some opportunities for the brand in terms of extending perceptions about the brand. The threats/weaknesses are important as "reality checks" as you build a brand strategy with the strengths and opportunities. Will the strengths and opportunities stand up to your weaknesses and threats? They better or you need another strategy.

Your emerging brand strategy should be two or three strengths with an opportunity thrown in. The strengths may be category entrance requirements (the price of entry in terms of features/benefits) and the opportunity may be a claim/promise that you can make with a small or significant change in the way you do business. The less you have as strengths, the more work you have to do in implementing your opportunities. Strengths are what you have already in your brand reputation. Opportunities are strengths you can have in the future with some amount of work beforehand. Mathematically, it may look like this:

Strength + Strength + Opportunity = Brand Strategy

What this process allows is both brainstorming and evaluation. You need both if are to achieve the result of clarification of the brand's true attributes. This will help with how you position the brand later.

But you are far from done. After this session has generated ideas about the brand from your managers, the process needs to be repeated with the teams that report to each manager, having each one follow this process. Let them work through the SWOT analysis on their own, ending with their own brand strategy.

Where did they end up? Probably not exactly where the management team did and that is fine. The people in the trenches probably see things differently than owners and managers. That is to be expected. But you must resolve as much of this as possible.
The threats/weaknesses are important as "reality checks" as you build a brand strategy.
Once each team has made their suggestions regarding strategy, the management team needs to meet again to refine what each manager's team developed. Unless a company has a serious disconnect with its employees, there will be more similarities than dissimilarities. The management team will then come to some decision about what the brand strategy needs to be. Once that is resolved, they must meet with employees as a whole and inform them of where they ended up. They may not end exactly where everyone wanted, but everyone will know they had input into the brand strategy and this will be important in building consensus for future implementation of that brand strategy.

A critical part of this process is to also keep track of named weaknesses and threats as these serve to tell management what to worry about. There is always something to worry about. And what may need fixing. It is a natural phenomenon of business that believes in continuous improvement.

I encourage small business owners to try this process so that everyone who is representing the brand at your company (your brand reps) has input into what the brand is that they represent. As I mentioned above, the real process is more complicated that described above but if the small business owner is committed to building a strong brand, following this process to the extent possible, will yield some progress in meeting that important objective.

Thanks for reading. More to come.