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You can tell when a company has had an “oh-we-think-we-get-it” epiphany about how to create a strong brand image in consumers' minds.

A few years back, Sears launched a television campaign with the “softer side of Sears” as its tag line. The intended message was that the retailer was no longer simply a big-box store housing lawnmowers and tires, but a fine venue for kickin' clothes as well. The only problem: the company never did roll out more than pleather and polyester fashions, and it hadn't really mastered the “harder part of Sears.”

Sears failed to reinvent its brand because it made adjustments only to its advertising—no organic changes that actually mattered to consumers took root.

For positive branding to occur, a company must consider every way it touches prospective and current customers—including advertising, public relations, and customer service. All elements of a company's marketing must mesh seamlessly for a new or reinvigorated brand to break through the clutter.

For an expert take on branding, I talked with Mary Brown, president and creative director of Brown Design & Co., a Portland, Maine-based creative design company. Founded in 1995, Brown's company backs up its design services with strategic marketing, research and brand development.

McCall: The word “branding” ate the ad industry. How do you define branding?

Mary Brown: Originally, “brand” was defined as a mark burned on the skin with a hot iron. In the marketing industry, the term has evolved to mean the enduring emotional association one has with a particular company or product...its lasting impression.

With the glut of products and services out there, many of which have no discernable differences, sometimes the only way a company or product can stand out is by creating a unique emotional connection with the consumer.

For example, when you wander into your local café or sandwich shop with a hankering for some bottled iced tea, you're confronted with a selection of SoBe (hip, lizard cult), Tazo (Zen and the art of tea), or Snapple (down-home, New Jersey attitude). They're all selling the same thing: sweetened flavored tea, but it's their hope to win you over with a particular emotional culture—aka, brand.

What branding is not: It isn't an ad, logo, corporate identity, Web site, or brochure. These vehicles deliver your brand message, but they aren't the actual brand. We believe the essence of branding is leaving the desired emotional imprint in the heart and mind of the consumer.

McCall: What are the top considerations when a small business wants to work with a design firm to create a brand identity? What can a marketer do to become better educated about the process?

Brown: Creating a brand identity doesn't happen by chance. It requires a process, or “road map.” We've developed a proprietary process built on best practices and years of experience. Our four-stage process of “absorption, analysis, action, and alliance” provides the structure to actualize and maintain effective brand programs.

Ask potential marketing partners if they have a clear plan to lead you through the branding process, with built-in checkpoints and success metrics to keep everyone focused and informed as the brand evolves. Without a plan, you run the risk of straying, which often translates into a compromised, unfocused brand identity.

McCall: What's an example of a recent project that was a success for both you and your client? What made the project a success?

Brown: We just launched a Web-based “image repository” for Glamorise, Inc., a manufacturer of full-figure bras and shapewear. The product is sold exclusively through retail catalog and e-catalog companies (such as JC Penney).

Over the past five years, Brown Design has helped transform the Glamorise brand to reflect its core message: unsurpassed fit and comfort embodied in fashion-savvy styling for the full-figured woman. We generate a large volume of Glamorise photography and multilingual marketing collateral that needs to be disseminated to buyers and catalog art departments around the world. To best accomplish this distribution, we created a Web-based image repository where high-resolution images, logos and sales presentations can be viewed and downloaded quickly and easily.

This sophisticated management tool not only puts Glamorise's marketing materials in the hands of salespeople, buyers and vendors much faster but also enables a stronger brand image by controlling the quality and consistency of product presentation to the consumer.

McCall: I talk to a lot of small business folks who are stumped by the question, “What's your budget?” Why is it crucial for clients to have a budget number in mind?

Brown: A business with a marketing plan and budget has done its homework regarding positioning, knowledge of the competition and expectations for success. A budget allows project parameters to be established from the very beginning.

For example, a DVD movie distributor wanted a complete Web site redesign and the ability to sell its products online, yet the budget would cover only a third of the costs of such a project.

Knowing what the business could afford allowed us to offer workable options. We ended up integrating shopping cart software into the existing site, along with fun streaming videos of movie previews, resulting in an engaging e-commerce site that works within our client's budget.

McCall: Say I want to have a logo, business cards and stationery designed. What's a realistic budget for this project?

Brown: It all depends. Is your company's brand best served by a simple typographic logo and a one-color treatment? Or does your brand require an icon combined with a type treatment and tag line? Are additional sub-logos for products or divisions necessary?

A company needs to give equal weight to what best serves its brand image and what's budgeted. A simple treatment (not including production and printing) can run from $1500 to $3000; a more complex logo identity can run from $5000 to $10,000.

Your brand identity is as important as the product or service that you sell. Investing in maintaining that identity and increasing awareness of your brand is invaluable.

Our advice is to review and update your marketing plan and budget every year. Marketing and branding are continuous and evolving and should never really be checked off your to-do list.

Continue reading "Branding: The Concept That Ate the Ad Industry" ... Read the full article

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image of Kimberly McCall

Kimberly McCall is director of marketing at Avance Care, a primary care provider offering convenient, cost-effective healthcare services. She is responsible for all marketing strategies to build, preserve, and enhance the Avance brand.

LinkedIn: Kimberly McCall