How to establish and sustain a great brand

Paul RiecksBy Paul A. Riecks

QUESTION: We have the brand that we want for our IT managed services business. It took a while to get it thought through and documented, but I think all of us have embraced it. After all the time and money we spent getting to this point, I worry about keeping it going as we grow. What do other CEOs do to keep their company’s brand healthy?

RESPONSE: For first-time readers, you can find the prior column on this topic at http://bit.ly/1OzYbE6. Here are some additional pointers:

Branding is an ongoing process and not an event. The large amount of effort you put into designing the brand and rolling it out is only the first step. And design doesn’t just mean great-looking graphics and a logo. It means all the things that have to be done to create the processes and employee behaviors that reinforce who you are as an organization. You probably had an event to roll out the brand with a meeting, press releases, a new logo and maybe even a new location. But that was just the beginning. After the event is when true leadership begins to underwrite the long-term success of the brand and the company.

Help employees and customers understand what the brand is and what it means to them. Different people process ideas at different speeds. When you start hearing the “language” of your brand coming back to you, that is a sign that people are getting it.

Use the language, maintain graphic standards, communicate and meet customer expectations, and establish and track the internal service objectives that deliver what customers expect. Of course no organization is perfect. So when expectations are not met, be better than anyone else at dealing with those instances and improving processes so that the shortfalls are not repeated.

Pay constant attention to actions and behaviors that are consistent with the brand and ones that are not. The ones that are consistent are opportunities for reinforcement. The ones that are not are occasions for learning experiences about how the inconsistencies can damage the brand, and also provide opportunities for improvement. Of course, the CEO cannot be everywhere and see everything, so part of the brand is creating a culture of vigilance at every level.

Telling stories is a powerful way of reinforcing the brand. We are wired to learn from stories. Collect stories, put them in the company Wiki and tell them at company meetings and events. Never miss a chance to show how a positive or negative customer experience contributed to the growth of the brand and how things get done and improved.

Ask employees how they are doing and what they would suggest that would make the company better at delivering its brand promise to customers. A basic premise of quality management is asking the people who do the work how to improve it.

Ask your customers how your people and company are performing under your brand. One of the most difficult things to do as a leader is to seek and embrace criticism. Not every complaint is reasonable, but sincerely asking customers how you are doing, embracing the answers and doing something about what they say can turn a critic into a fan. In fact, from a marketing standpoint, dealing with a mistake and correcting it to the customer’s satisfaction is the second-best position to be in. The best position, of course, is that your customers are devoted to your products and services as fans. The worst position is to be disliked and do nothing about it. The most dangerous position is when customers are neutral or you are out of their minds. These last two positions create vulnerability to competition. Losing customers in either of these last two positions and not knowing why is a double loss.

Monitor social media on a regular basis and deal with negative posts, especially ones that are untrue or way out of scale. Social media can be a valuable part of marketing in general and brand reinforcement in particular. But social media requires the vigilance mentioned above. In fact, there are growing instances when the monitoring and management of a company’s online reputation should be in the hands of a full-time person. And that person not only needs to know how social media works, they also have to know your business and how social media fits in with your brand and the company’s ongoing marketing strategies.

Much like creating and articulating the company vision, actively managing your company brand is a critical duty of leadership.

Paul A. Riecks is principal of Insight, which forms and facilitates peer groups of business owners and CEOs.

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