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How Do You Build a Brand (Not Just a Business)?

February 24, 2021


How Do You Build a Brand (Not Just a Business)?

There is no denying our organizations are under incredible pressure right now. We might be dealing with lockdowns, closures, and restrictions. We could be scrambling to get our businesses online, to offer curbside pickup or takeout. We’re supporting employees with flexible schedules, remote work, or more sick days.

All that, amid rising costs and less operating margin—have you seen how expensive it is to get things shipped, even mailed these days? Demand is high, new restrictions and stricter cleaning laws have costs climbing. And there’s production delays, which lead to issues getting products into customers’ hands. Then we have increasing wages in the US and Canada.

The long and short: our costs are going up to run our businesses and sales may be harder to secure. How do you manage in that situation? What do you do?

Some of us are likely hitting the “panic button” and shifting our focus or pivoting (that overused word). We’re going to see a lot of people beating the drum about sales figures—and how we can stabilize them and grow them.

Many decisions are being made to hit monthly and quarterly sales targets. But sales numbers alone don’t grow our brands.

What Sets “Brand” Apart from “Business”

It’s easy to confuse a growing business with a growing brand. After all, higher sales numbers mean more people know about your product or service, and they’re buying it. That means they know about your brand and they like it.

Yes … and no. It can sometimes be tough to separate “business” from “brand.” After all, business and brand usually go hand-in-hand.

But brand is not business and business isn’t brand. The “business” exists under the umbrella of the larger brand. You can think of it this way:

·      Brand is the broad focus. It is everything you do, from your social media accounts to the products you sell to how employees interact with customers. It is rooted in emotion. It is your relationship with your customer.

·      Business is the narrower focus, the nitty-gritty of what you do. It’s the nuts-and-bolts: delivering the product or service.

Having a strong business contributes to your brand. A strong brand is usually connected with a healthy business. But it’s quite possible to have a growing business without a brand. And it’s possible to have a strong brand without a growing business.

Another way of looking at it is that the business is focused on sales. A brand goes further. It encompasses sales, but it’s focused on building relationships with your customers and creating a community.

The Dangers of Focusing on Sales Alone

Knowing business is sales-focused and brand is customer-focused, it’s easier to see the difference.

And we can see why our shift to a sales focus in this environment is a threat to growing our brands. As we focus on driving sales, we run the risk of abandoning our brands.

The most obvious examples are when brands abandon their values to chase a new client or contract. Look at Vancouver-based Hootsuite. In fall 2020, an employee blew the whistle on them for a contract with the US-government administration ICE. ICE has a terrible reputation for human rights abuses. A social media furor ensued after the employee spoke out. That got Hootsuite to abandon the contract. Yet they still fired the employee who called them out.

Here, we see a company that abandoned its brand—what it stands for, what it believes—in pursuit of “one more deal.”

The fallout isn’t over for Hootsuite. Their firing of the whistle-blowing employee didn’t get as much attention. But it does suggest they don’t want to be held accountable in the future. They’re going to punish people for trying to hold them to their stated values.

The fact it took public outcry and a social media storm to get them to abandon the contract is another hint. They’ve either lost their way or they never stood for anything but profit anyway. And that’s likely going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of a lot of customers. Many people perhaps share those same Hootsuite values and they continued to form partnerships or they needed to use them to achieve their own sales targets despite what Hootsuite seemed to stand for.

When Hootsuite started focusing on sales figures alone, it harmed its brand. By ignoring employees and later firing the person who made them accountable, they signalled they’re interested in “business,” not brand or people or culture.

Does Business Necessarily Follow Brand?

Now, some people will say we can’t rely on brand. We can grow a community and we can build our brands, but will sales follow?

Not always, so you can’t ignore the business side of things, for sure. Look at Twitter. Twitter has, in a sense, a good brand. It’s recognizable. It has millions of users, people who get on the site every day and interact with each other. Many have their own little communities, which are inside the larger “Twitter community.”

But Twitter has had trouble making money. In fact, they recently suggested they might start charging subscriptions to stabilize revenue. To date, they’ve relied mostly on ads for income, but they’re not as successful as Facebook or Instagram in this arena.

So, we can say Twitter has a good brand, in a sense, but they have not yet figured out a sustainable revenue model. That’s as much a problem as Hootsuite’s focus on their business over their brand. If Twitter can’t get their business in order, then it might not matter how strong their brand is.

On the flipside, take a look at Apple. In the 1970s and 1980s, Apple was at the forefront of the home computer revolution. The company’s brand rested on innovation, which they stumbled alot during the 1990s and into the early 2000s when they lost share to Microsoft.

Yet, at the same time, Apple still had a good brand. It had loyal customers who believed in its products. Early adopters of PCs were often Mac users. And they continued to use Macs—which were lightyears ahead of PCs at the time.

Apple’s sales rebounded with the focus back on innovation—the core of the brand. The loyal brand enthusiasts were proven right with the introduction of the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad. Apple’s innovation seems to be slowing but that could just mean they are working toward something big that will shape a generation the way the iPod did.

So, no, business doesn’t necessarily follow brand—as Twitter proves. But Apple’s case shows us that brand can help us survive a dip in the business. Apple’s brand is rooted in innovation and innovative thinking. Their brand advocates or enthusiasts from many of the i-sectors - who do indeed allow brand to drive business.

How Can You Build a Brand?

The question we have here is now, how do you build a brand—not just the business? More than that, though, how do you build a brand that also drives the business?

Some people want to take a “build it and they will come” attitude. If you build a great brand, a community, then sales will follow. As we saw in Twitter’s example, that’s not always true.

It can be true, though, and focusing on community can help us weather bad times as well as good times. We see that in Apple’s example. Vancouver-based retailer Lululemon is another great example. By building a brand focused on their customer and brand community, they were able to weather the pandemic a lot better than other retailers. Lululemon isn’t just a store or a retailer; it’s a community, an experience—a brand.

And, in general, we’ve been moving towards this realization for the last 20 years or so. You don’t just want sales, you don’t just want a business. You want a brand—and to get that, you need to be customer centric and build a community. You need loyal and vested customers who have deep relationships with you. You are more than just the product, more than just the service—and more than just the sale. They are vested to help you get it right.

The pandemic is definitely threatening that progress. As we see our bottom lines getting squeezed, so much, we’re looking at that panic button. Crisis thinking tells us to focus on driving sales. But at what risk? Do we become the next Hootsuite, selling out our values to chase down a lucrative contract?

It’s going to be very tough—and definitely tough to convince skeptical stakeholders. But we need to stick to our guns here and continue to focus on building brands. A focus on sales often backfires. In the pandemic environment, that’s going to hurt more. Our customers are going to feel betrayed and hurt, and they are going to remember that. They will stop doing business with us if they think we’re “selling out” or trying to take advantage of the situation in some way. They turned to our brands for a reason beyond “cool product." Now, if they see us giving up on those values in the middle of the crisis, it’s going to sting more than usual.

Plus, as we can see in Apple’s example—building our brand by being customer-centric can help us weather a downturn. Apple stuck to its core brand identity, rewarding its enthusiasts and showing the world that its “true believers” had been right to bet on them all along. In turn, Apple was able to convert many more people to come join an enthusiastic and vibrant community.

We shouldn’t assume the sales will naturally follow. We still need to do the hard work to grow those numbers. But when we focus on our brand and growing our communities, we have a much better chance.

So, tap into your brand-building, focus on your communities, and, like always—start with the why!


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I am a business person who has excelled in driving a competitive edge through marketing, strategy, innovation, building irresistible brands and unlocking the genius that exists. I am writing to inspire or create new consideration. If you have ideas or questions that you would like me to put a pen too, I would be delighted.

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