Unleash Greatness

Brand Foundation: Where Most Manufacturers Miss the Mark

By Rob Hawse

You’ve built a great product, so why not a great brand?

When it comes to branding, why do so many manufacturers miss the mark? Why is it they simply don’t look the part? With rich histories, well-differentiated products and a tenured staff full of experts, why is no one leveraging this to build a solid “brand foundation” and thus an “authentic brand experience”? Why do we spend all our time, energy, and money building great products but neglect to build the brand and the brand experience?

I want to shed some light on this problem along with the impact it is having on your business, and how you can fix it.

For starters, what’s a “brand foundation” and an “authentic brand experience”?

A brand foundation is made up of a brand strategy and a brand identity (more on this later). An “authentic brand experience” is what prospects and customers experience when interacting with a brand that’s “lived by” all of its employees. The goal is to align these two items and limit the gap between what you are promising and what they actually get.

The most common reason’s manufacturers don’t deliver an authentic brand experience is the proverbial “you don’t know what you don’t know,” or they have an “it’s good enough” mentality. Regardless of the reason, you simply have not invested in building a strong brand foundation. And that’s a problem.

It’s never too late to take a renewed look at your brand foundation.

The good news is, whether you are a young, 5-year-old company or a generationally owned, 105-year-old company, it is never too late to do this work. The work is important, it’s hard but, it’s transformative. So, ask yourself, “are you providing customers with an authentic brand experience?”

If not or you have no plans to, my fear is that you are not aware of the problem that is mounting. We want to help manufacturers overcome this. We want to convince you to shore up your brand foundation. And inspire your employees to live the uniqueness of your brand so your prospects and customers can enjoy the authentic brand experience that you are so capable of providing. You have to remember that you sell much more than your product and its functionality. You’re selling an image, a promise, an experience – today and in the future.

The implications of your brand foundation on your overall brand

For starters, your brand is not your logo.

So, what is it? Well, your brand is the sum of all the interactions your customers have with you. All the messages, trade show experiences, sales calls, customers service experiences, product demonstrations, distributor interactions, visits to your facility, what you say and do on a tour, how you deal with adversity, all impact your customers’ perception of you. Your brand is your customers’ “gut feeling” about you. It becomes their opinion of your ability to live up to their expectations.

And though this is something they are forming on their own, you most certainly can influence their opinion along the way.

Your guide to influencing a customer’s opinion begins with a strong brand foundation and then it comes to life when the company looks, sounds and acts the part…Your part, not your competitors. This becomes your brand’s personality, and it’s absolutely what drives their opinion of you. And much like human relationships, personalities are not only attractive, they’re infectious. Your brand’s relationship with the customer is no different and becomes a measure of how authentic the brand experience can become. And it all starts with a brand foundation. So, we must make it as strong as possible.

What makes up a strong brand foundation:

As I mentioned, a strong brand foundation is made up of a Brand Strategy and a Brand Identity. Brand strategy is more focused on the inner soul of the company where Brand Identity is its outward appearance and voice. To keep things simple, I’ve outlined the two categories below with a very brief explanation of each.

#1 Brand Strategy

Think of it as your brand’s DNA. It is a formal plan to create an image in the minds of your employees, prospects, and customers. It’s essentially the who, what, how, and why of your company and includes the following.

  • Mission: what your company does to support the vision. It’s why you exist and what your purpose is. Keep it short and memorable so all employees can remember it. It will help shape your culture.
  • Vision: What your company aspires to be. Where are you going and what you will look like in 10 years.
  • Core Values: What you hold dear and what makes you unique. They also describe the culture you desire to have.
  • Behaviors: How your brand behaves or acts out its core values
  • Positioning: What differentiates you from your competitors. It’s why people choose your brand over your competitor’s.
  • Brand Promise: An expression of the impact your organization has on its customers. This is what you are committing to do for them.

#2 Brand Identity

Your brand identity is how the company presents the way it looks and the way it sounds to the world. It’s essentially the face and voice of your brand. Strong visual and verbal aspects ensure a common launch point for all the marketing initiatives that follow.

  • Visual Identity – a guide designed to represent what the brand looks like. Basically, “What’s your style?” It includes:
    • Logo – a symbol and/or letters created as a simple visual representation of the company.
    • Fonts – the family of typefaces used to represent your brand.
    • Colors – a great way to breathe life and emotion into your brand. Though not a requirement, some brands have a primary set of colors (the ones used the most often and most associated with your brand), and then a secondary palate used to accent.
    • Graphic Elements – a library of brand textures, icons, lines, and shapes to further communicate the brand.
  • Verbal Identity – a guide designed to represent what the brand sounds like in both the written and spoken word. Basically, “How do you talk to people?” It includes:
    • Naming – which is a set of rules and parameters around naming conventions for the company, its product or services.
    • Tone of Voice – this establishes the overall attitude of your communication. “It’s not what you say but how you say it.”
    • Tagline – a single word or group of words (short sentence) assembled to reinforce the audience’s memory of a brand.
    • Messaging – strategically organized words and phrases help reinforce the brand and guide all future messaging.

Taking the time to get these foundational elements right will ensure clarity around the soul of your brand both visually and verbally. It is the most critical step in unlocking your company’s marketing potential. Having a strong brand foundation that flows through the veins of your employees, will properly position your company to provide the necessary experiences required to stand out and engage today’s buyers. And it is this experience that they desire – even over your product.

Signs of a weak or fractured brand foundation:

The problem with identifying a weak or fractured brand foundation is that you haven’t really been looking for it – or most likely don’t know how. Here are the primary signs, that if not addressed, could cause serious issues down the road.

#1 Misplaced Core Values

Has the company misplaced their core values? Does this sound familiar? – “Oh, we have core values, we just can’t remember where we put them.” And even if you could, does everyone in the company know these core values? Can anyone on your leadership team give you examples of employees acting out these core values?

#2 Not Looking or Sounding the Part

Does your company not look or sound the part? You manufacture an amazing product and have a knowledgeable staff full of tenured experts, and yet your logo looks tired and dated, there is little consistency in your collateral, your sales team goes about selling the company in their own way, your facility doesn’t make a good first impression, and no one on your staff gives the company tour the same way.

If you didn’t do the foundational work, what informed the creation of the logo you are using today? What guides the company’s behavior? If you can replace your company’s name with your competitors in any of your brand elements (vision, mission, values), or brand personality (how your look, how you sound or how you act) you don’t have a strong brand.

#3 No Alignment

Is leadership aligned? When asked to write down what your company does in one simple sentence, everyone on your leadership team gives you different answers. If the foundational work is not clear and concise, how will your leadership team ever inspire the organization to live the brand?

#4 Wasted Differentiation

Are you wasting your differentiation? You’ve gone to great lengths creating a product or process that is so unique in the industry that you keep it a secret. There is so much fear around protecting what you have created that no one knows about it or what makes it so special in the first place. If your brand is not leveraging this differentiation, you’re missing an opportunity to distance yourself from your competitors and attract great fit leads.

#5 Different Perception

Is the customer’s perception of you different than your own? During sales meetings your sales team shares stories from prospects and customers that don’t match what you are thinking (we are all about service). “What do you mean they say our service is horrible?” The growing gap between how you see yourself versus how your prospects and customers see you is a serious one as it directly impacts the buying decision.

#6 Reactionary Marketing

Does every marketing project feel reactionary? Every marketing initiative begins with a reaction to the market (a customer, competitor or business challenge) rather than the structure of a plan. With no guidance from the brand, marketing teams are forced to reinvent the brand each time. There are no rules that everyone has to follow. As a result, the squeakiest wheel gets the grease. And what’s worse is each department is reinventing the brand in different ways.

#7 Solely Product Focused

Are you solely focused on product? This is very common in manufacturing as the tendency to focus on the product comes naturally. And, after all, it’s what generations before you have done. Doing this leaves little room to reflect on the soul of the brand. This results in a one-dimensional personality or a one-track mind. This is bad because limiting yourself to your product only leave little room for your brand to be aspirational. And, in a market where products are similar between competitors, what is really making you different? What are your customers going to latch on to? What reason are you giving them to choose you over your competitor?

If you see one or more of these signs in your organization, it is a clear indicator that you need to act – and soon. Brand has increasingly become a differentiator in the buyer’s journey, and this will only continue to grow. Failure to act will be costly.

The high stakes of a fractured brand foundation:

Now, for the scary part. What’s at stake? What’s likely to happen (if it hasn’t already started), if I do nothing? I mean, “everything is going so well right now….right?” Let’s not kid ourselves – most manufacturers are tripping over the market share they have today. What I mean is that often times their market share is not earned through blood sweat and tears but simply by the fact that they are making a product. This is not a sustainable strategy but let’s just say you continue to kick the can. What’s the worst that could happen?

#1 Loss of Market Share

Do I have your attention now? Stick with me. Companies in the past could live a lot longer on their original reputation but today buyers have more information at their fingertips. And this is where strong and consistent brands are winning. Strong brands are built on a strong foundation. Leaders are building off their brand foundation by inspiring the organization to live the brand. And if you are living the brand, customers will feel that and flock to you, or conversely, your competition.

#2 Unaligned Sales and Marketing

Never giving your sales and marketing teams a chance to truly align is robbing your brand of its ability to truly reach its marketing potential. The sales and marketing divisions of healthy brands operate as one and more like a team each doing their part in advancing the customer through the buying process. One team focused on generating revenue.

#3 Aging Workforce

“Hey, where did all the young people go?” Until you start thinking about your employees as customers, you are going to keep missing the boat. Much like customers, employees need to be attracted to your brand as well. In fact, want to know a good indicator of your overall brand’s health? Take a look at these two things: 1) average employee age, and; 2) turnover ratio. The answer may surprise you.

#4 No Brand Equity, No Dividends

Companies that invest in building a strong brand build brand equity year over year. And the better the brand is lived within the walls of the organization, the better the brand experience and thus, brand equity. If done consistently, over time, your brand will start spinning out dividends in the form of loyal customers, referrals, and evangelists. Remember, brand is the reason your customers choose you over a competitor. And if you ever decide to sell, your brand equity will play a major role in the valuation of your business.

It goes without saying, there is much at stake should you avoid or prolong fixing a fractured brand. Take a few minutes and consider the 4 categories above and how they might impact your business specifically. Then, it’s time to act.

Fixing a weak brand foundation

Fixing a weak brand foundation is not for the faint of heart. Though it takes hard work and commitment from leadership, it is never too late to start and with so much to gain, why not get the ball rolling right now. Here are the steps to help get your hands around the work that lies ahead.

#1 Identify the Problem

Before you fix a problem, you have to be able to identify that there is a problem in the first place. Spend some time with your team presenting the signs of your weak brand foundation and then share what’s at stake.

#2 Get Leadership’s Buy-In

To strengthen your argument, ask leadership to participate in a simple 15-minute exercise. Ask for a one-sentence response to the following questions. What do we do? How do we do it? Who do we do it for? And most importantly, why do we do it? I can assure you that the answers will be different and will move leadership to act – and you’ll need that before you can do anything else. If you are still stuck at this point, check out my whitepaper on convincing leaders to change.

You can access it here.

#3 Building Your Foundation

Though best facilitated by a professional, it is possible to do this work yourself. Don’t go at it alone, though. Engage your leadership team in a group setting and work through the items from the Brand Strategy section. Keep in mind the work is challenging and creates many opportunities for debate. We encourage the debates, as the better answers to these exercises lies somewhere between everyone in agreement and debate. This is where professional facilitation allows you and your team to remain focused and dig deeper while staying on track.

Once the brand strategy (the soul of your brand) work is complete you’ll have the inspiration, clues, and direction needed to inform the Brand Identity (the outward appearance of your brand). Here the visual and verbal identities will come to life and help guide the marketing initiatives that will follow. The consistency of your brand will be guided and informed by these identities. Once again, in my opinion, this is best handled by a professional.

#4 Live the Brand

Keep in mind, having a well-documented brand foundation is one thing, bringing it to life is another. Leaders of strong brands inspire their employees to live the brand and often lead by example. There are many ways to inspire your company to live the brand. A good one to start with is simple and operates at the core of your brand. Here’s what you do. Start each meeting by giving an employee the opportunity to kick off the meeting with an example of another employee acting out one of your core values. In no time, the entire company not only knows them by heart but acting them out becomes contagious. And when it becomes contagious internally, your customers will feel it resulting in a brand experience that’s authentic.

Out of the gate, you’ll need to focus on building your case and convincing your leaders that this is a problem and that it could be a costly one if they don’t act. Take the time to pull together examples of how weak your brand is. It can also be effective to pull together examples of how strong your competitors are (or are getting). Nothing moves an organization to act like a competitor taking market share.

After leadership has bought in, build your brand foundation and then live your brand. Easy right?

The time to act is now.

Make no mistake, the way people buy today has changed. Rather than focus solely on the product, there is a growing interest in who you are and what you stand for. They are looking for ways to learn more about you along with ways to connect far before they are ready to buy. The interest is so high that 60-70% of the buying process happens online and without a salesperson.

The importance of leveraging what makes you different has never been more important. Doing so will give employees something to believe while giving customers the brand experiences they demand to stay engaged.

You’ve done such a great job making your product, it’s time to show them what you’re made of.

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