Last month, I attended NAHB’s midyear meeting in Miami and had the pleasure of sitting in on a presentation by Daniel Swift, president and CEO of Des Moines-based architecture group BSB Design.
If you’ve ever tuned to The History Channel, MTV, Fox News or just about any other cable channel, you’ve seen the work of Robin Fisher Roffer, brand strategist.
If you’ve ever tuned to The History Channel, MTV, Fox News or just about any other cable channel, you’ve seen the work of Robin Fisher Roffer, brand strategist. She tells a story about a cocktail party where everybody in her field was there trying to impress everyone else.
Midway through the evening, a television bigwig suddenly appeared at her elbow with an important client in tow. “Robin,” he said enthusiastically, “I want you to meet George.” He turned to George, a huge smile on his face, and said, “George, this is Robin Fisher, the sweepstakes queen of cable television.”
Roffer nearly dropped her drink. She’d never thought of herself as a sweepstakes queen. “Wasn’t I a whole lot more than that? Was sweepstakes queen how everybody thought of me?” she wondered.
Without knowing what had happened, Roffer realized she had been branded, and as someone she did not want to be. After she got over the initial shock, she realized she had been taught an important lesson and the first rule of branding:
If you don’t brand your company, someone else will.
What do people say when your company is mentioned? Do they say what you want them to say or something quite unexpected? Do you have a brand, or have you become something you don’t want to be?
What Is Branding?
Al Ries, author of The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, says branding in the marketplace is similar to branding on a ranch. A branding program must differentiate your cow from all the other cattle on the range, even if all the cattle look pretty much the same. Add customer focus to his answer, and it pretty much says it all.
Your brand is whatever your customers think of when they hear your company’s name. It’s everything you want to communicate and all the stuff you communicate despite yourself.
Dave Miles of Miles Real Estate Brand Development in Denver says, “Branding is a collection of impressions that result from a piece of information gathered here and piece of information gathered there. At some point all of these impressions come together to signal the customer who the builder is and what they stand for.”
This means you have a brand whether you like it or not. And your brand must make customers think no other product is quite like yours. You need to teach them what you want them to think. This leads us to the second law of branding:
Branding is about owning a word or a phrase in your customer’s mind, a word or phrase nobody else owns.
Harry Beckwith, author of The Invisible Touch, adds a twist to this rule. He says you must pound the name of your company and the word or phrase associated with it into your customer’s brain so often that the brain surrenders. Customers respond to this because of what Beckwith calls the “familiarity effect”: People feel comfortable choosing what is most familiar to them.
If you successfully develop a strong word or phrase, it will become the quick and easy shorthand your customer uses to interpret, differentiate and separate you from your competitors. For example, new home shoppers in Indianapolis need only to hear the name C.P. Morgan, and they all know it means one thing: “More Square Feet. Less Money.”
Don’t forget: A house is what you build; your brand is what your customer buys. Make your word or phrase the most familiar word or phrase in your market.
How Customers Shop
Customers are creatures of habit. They shop, learn, get confused and go home to sort everything out. Shopping is tough work. It’s downright confusing fighting through all the presentations, demonstrations and advertising claims. It causes decisions to be delayed or even put off completely.
A strong brand helps customers cut through the clutter and gives them a comfortable starting point in the shopping process. This relates back to the familiarity effect. For customers to feel familiar with your company, you must have a consistent message. This leads us to our next rule for branding:
Consistency is the key to branding. It’s also the key to a place in your customer’s mind.
If I asked you to pick a consistent home builder, which would you name? My nominee: Del Webb. Other than trying to extend its brand with Anthem, it has been the most consistent over the years. Who do you think about when buyers mention shopping for a new home for their retirement years? What builder automatically goes on a buyer’s shopping list? Del Webb gets an opportunity just because of its brand, its consistency. Consistency makes customers feel comfortable and confident.
David D’Alessandro, CEO of John Hancock and author of Brand Warfare, says a good message is like a bucking bronco — once you’re on, don’t let go. Hang on and ride that message as long and as stylishly as you can.
How Customers Decide
To influence your customers’ behavior, you must understand how customers make decisions. Shopping to learn is the process they use to steer themselves toward good decisions. This still leaves an unanswered question: How does the learning process break down, and what does it do for a customer?
Comparing is the tool buyers use to learn. It’s what they have to do to make sense of things. By comparing, they can understand the differences between their shopping alternatives. The more differences they uncover, the more everything makes sense, making it easier for them to make a decision.
On the other hand, when something isn’t clear to customers, it makes them uncomfortable. The more uncomfortable they are, the more they shy away from a purchase decision. They think it’s too risky to move forward. When they feel this way, brand matters.
A strong brand goes a long way in reducing your customers’ perception of risk. It builds faith and helps justify a decision. This means your message must show how you’re different, yet be clear and to the point. It must help your customers cut through the clutter and see things clearly. This brings us to our next rule:
Branding is about communicating with your customer. Be different.
Miles adds to this rule: “For a brand to be successful, it first must have some kind of distinction. This is important because when a distinction sets a brand apart, it allows people to associate with its unique identity. It will also allow them to translate your brand into a meaning that has value to them.”
All of this means that if you want to help your customer shop and make decisions, you must have a clear, concise message that shows how your company differs from your competitors. Be different. You’ll be glad you are.
We know that a strong brand helps your customers organize their experience and decide what they want to pursue or reject, but what will it do for you? Building a strong brand gives you an undeniable advantage over your competition. Good brands attract people, influence people and cause people to show bias. A strong branding program also extends far beyond your customers. Brand influences employees, lenders, investors, developers and potential hires.
How to Start the Branding Process
Branding is tricky. You need a firm grasp of the basics: your company, your customer and your competition. Without understanding all there is to know in these areas, you’ll never develop a strong brand.
Beckwith says 24 out of 25 corporations don’t have a brand or a branding program. If his research is correct, I’d have to say that 24 out of 25 builders don’t understand themselves, their customers or their competition. Read the Sunday paper, and you’ll see what I mean. Half the builders are giving something away, and the other half are trying to “push” something their customers’ way.
To build a strong brand, you need to ask yourself basic questions:
It’s not enough to know yourself; you also need to understand your customer. Do you know what your customer thinks when your company is mentioned? If you don’t, it will be impossible to figure out where you need to go or develop a plan to get there.
Spend time trying to understand what your customers think and feel about your company. Find out from them:
Too many builders focus on either their customers or their competition. Too few focus on both. The final piece to the brand puzzle is your competition. Add this piece to the mix, and you will have everything you need to begin the branding process. To understand your competition, you’ll need to know:
Once you’ve gathered this information, the next step is to develop your brand strategy. Not only does this mean you need to use each piece to the branding puzzle, but you also need to add power and focus to this information. The key, whether your company is big or small, lies in our last rule for branding:
Leadership is the best way to establish a brand.
Among home builders, leadership takes many forms. For you it might mean filling a market niche your competitors have left vacant. This can be accomplished through design innovation, alternative construction methods, a different sales process, more options, no options, longer warranties, etc. The list will be different for every company in every market. Look hard at your trading area and exploit your opportunity to lead.
At this point there’s only one question left for you to answer. Are you going to stand out in your marketplace or just be the local sweepstakes queen?