Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a dynamic, high-profile panel presentation on the critical role of branding in business success. The event provided a treasure trove of insight and experience from some of the top strategic branding experts in the region. It was an educational and at times even inspirational evening.

Yet, as a marketing professional, I came away with the distinct feeling that the event had perhaps come up short in terms of providing the practical guidance that many members of the audience had come looking for.

Fact is, the companies most cited by the panel as stellar branding examples—Nike, Coca—Cola, McDonald's, Intel, etc.—are masters of what I consider “deep pockets branding.” They have, to a large extent, bought their way into American's hearts and minds thanks to multimillion-dollar marketing, advertising and promotional campaigns executed, in some cases, over decades.

Behind these dollars, of course, are quality people, products, services and reputations that successfully fulfill each brand's promise to its customers, over and over again, year after year. Blessedly, money alone is not sufficient to create a world-class brand. Just ask or any of the dozens of dot-com flameouts that squandered their fortunes on big-buzz, style-over-substance branding campaigns.

Branding for the Rest of Us

So, does that mean branding is strictly a high rollers' game? Is $150K, as one panelist cited half-jokingly, the minimum price tag for discovering and conveying the soul of a company? Must organizations simply “go without” if they can't prudently make that kind of investment at this stage of their growth?

My answer is a resounding NO! I believe that there are many layers of value, both tangible and intangible, to the process of self-discovery that gives birth to memorable, lasting brands.

Even if the new logo and tag line never make it to four-color print and network television, the process that generated them helps to instill a deeply ingrained and thoughtfully aligned sense of purpose to the members of the organization. It can and will make a difference that customers, partners and eventually the accountants, too, will begin to notice.

So if you, your company or your clients have experienced branding sticker shock, here are three “sweat equity” steps that you can take to begin your own bootstrap branding journey:

     1. Brand Discovery: Who are we and what do we stand for?

Why did we start this business in the first place? What is it that our customers get from us that they can't get from anyone else? What are some of the things they enjoy about doing business with us? Where do our passion and professionalism converge?

Typical deliverables: a “brand essence” document to formally capture such elements as target markets and respective value propositions; an official company description; any phrases that convey your brand promise in a few memorable words; also, visual “raw material” (napkin sketches and whiteboard brainstorms) as a starting point for development of graphic elements of the brand identity.

Reality check: Are we just blowing smoke here or does the brand vision we've come up with also hold meaning for line employees, customers, prospects, partners and competitors? In particular, do customers agree with our assessment of the unique value we provide to them? Are we stepping on any other brand toes? Do we have a truly distinctive and memorable brand concept here? Run the brand essence past a few insightful members of your “kitchen cabinet” to help ensure quality.

     2. Brand Expression: What's the look and feel we want
          to convey?

To distill the “look” of your brand (its visual identity) you probably have to open up the checkbook and work with qualified creative professionals in corporate image/graphic design. To save time and money, pull together visual samples from competitors and any other companies whose branding you like or admire. Having some parameters in mind is preferable to starting with a blank piece of paper—and much more cost-effective.

Typical deliverables: trademark search/filing (if needed); a company logo, official tag line and business identity system; a firm sense of company reputation; any indicated revisions for strengthening the brand concept.

Reality check: Do we have a truly distinctive and memorable brand concept here? Does it convey our company's personality? Are we stepping on any other brand toes? Again, feedback from few insightful members of your “kitchen cabinet” or an informal focus group can help. Use caution, however, in managing the size of the approval loop.

     3. Brand Execution: How do we get our brand image off the
          drawing board?

You've got the look, but the “feel” is something you and your organization must create on your own. It's the total experience of your company: the way the phone is answered, how products or services are delivered, your quality/service philosophies, your approach to the sales process, the style of communication, the value placed on people. All these “expressions of your brand” are extension of the work you do in steps 1 and 2, and they are just as vital, if not more so, than your brand's graphic packaging. Also important is ensuring “brand discipline” for advertising, marketing, Web site and other media/channels.

Output from this step: brand elements extended consistently to signage, Web site, print collateral, trade show display, product packaging, etc.; detailed plans for communicating the brand to employees, customers and other stakeholders.

Brand Forward

If you and your team devote quality time and rigorous attention to solidifying this “framework,” you will have bootstrapped your brand to a level that some firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to reach. And you can employ a scalable, just-in-time approach to developing the communications and collateral materials that will carry your brand proudly into the marketplace.

The caveats here are clarity, conviction and compelling execution. Also, try to avoid “branding-by-committee,” which may be potentially more problematic than no branding at all.

Major Brand Investment

Are there times when you should spend big bucks on branding? Absolutely—particularly when there is a strategic case to be made for capturing dominant market share or dramatically increasing market capitalization.

Yet, branding at any price is not a silver bullet for overcoming market challenges and achieving success. It's got to be built on technologies, products and services that provide outstanding value to customers over the long haul.

As much as anything, branding is a discipline applied to every aspect of your business. Here's where I tell clients it starts: to change the way people think about your company, first change the way your company thinks about itself.

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Richard Layton is principal/creative director of Transform Communications, a consulting practice. For more information, visit or email