In six years of writing about marketing, I've seen many trends burn brightly only to flame out. I've been kissed by the Internet boom's apex, and weathered the nadir of marketing spending these past two years. One way I've managed to keep my business healthy is by employing branding tactics.

Branding is a beautiful thing—any business, regardless of size, can connect with consumers in an emotional manner to cement a relationship.

In his book, Brand Aid: An Easy Reference Guide To Solving Your Toughest Branding Problems and Strengthening Your Market Position (AMACOM, 2003), Brad VanAuken delves into the many ways small businesses can use branding to decrease price sensitivity and increase market share and customer loyalty.

I asked VanAuken to share his top nontraditional marketing approaches and to explain an often-overlooked aspect of branding—the use of color.

McCall: Many of us throw branding, marketing and advertising into the same bucket. Can you help us sort out the differences?

VanAuken: Marketing is a discipline ultimately designed to generate and increase revenues. It includes a wide variety of sub-disciplines, strategies and tactics. The following can be components of a marketing program:

  • Marketing research
  • Product
  • Packaging
  • Pricing
  • Branding
  • Marketing communication (including advertising)
  • Distribution
  • Promotion
  • Publicity
  • Media relations
  • Industry analyst relations
  • Signage
  • Merchandising
  • Cause-related marketing
  • Event marketing
  • Trade shows
  • Sales support
  • Web sites
  • Customer relationship marketing, including database marketing and direct marketing
  • Viral marketing
  • Guerilla marketing

Advertising is paid marketing communication, and its major benefit is to increase awareness. It also communicates the brand's relevant points of difference. For many consumer product categories, it can actually elicit a sale. For most business-to-business categories, it can only increase awareness and put the brand in the consideration set.

A brand is the personification of an organization or its products and services. Brands are designed to build relationships and emotional connections with customers. Brands are also the source of promises to customers. They should promise relevant differentiated benefits. Branding is the process of creating an identity for an organization or its products and services for the purpose of creating relationships with customers and making promises to customers.

Branding is a sub-discipline of marketing, but given its increasing role at an organizational level (organizational branding versus product-specific branding) and the resulting need to manifest the brand promise at each point of customer contact, branding should influence virtually every activity in the organization. Branding is the source of (1) customer goodwill, and (2) a significant portion of the financial value of a company.

There is increasing evidence and consensus that strong brands deliver the following business benefits:

  • Decreased price sensitivity
  • Increased consumer loyalty
  • Increased bargaining power with retailers (for manufacturers)
  • Independence from a particular product category
  • Increased flexibility for future growth (through extension)
  • Increased ability to hire and retain talented employees
  • Increased ability to focus the organization's activities and resources
  • Increased market share
  • Increased stock price
  • Increased shareholder value

McCall: Small businesses don't have P&G money to invest in their brands. How can the little guy apply branding concepts to his business?

VanAuken: The two most important branding concepts that a small business must focus on are awareness and relevant differentiation. You can offer the best products in the world with the best service at the best overall value, but if no one is aware of you, you will go out of business. Awareness is the cornerstone of strong brands.

People choose brands that are different in relevant and compelling ways. Relevant differentiation today is a leading-edge indicator of market share and profitability tomorrow. What can your brand do better than any other brand in its category? Better yet, what can it deliver that no other brand in its category can?

Arriving at the most compelling relevant points of difference is a strategic exercise informed by an intimate knowledge of your customers, their needs, their wants, their anxieties, their hopes and their fears.

You can build awareness in a variety of ways: advertising, publicity, insignia merchandise (polo shirts, ball caps, jackets, etc.), workshops, presentations, articles, newsletters, signing, sponsorships, legendary service that creates buzz, customer referral programs, product sampling, branding your vehicles, network marketing, co-marketing with complimentary products, being a guest on local radio and television shows, getting involved in civic organizations, joining and networking in professional associations, writing a column for a local paper, writing a book, etc.

Another important consideration is to consistently display your brand's logo, tag line and Web site address at all brand-related customer touch points, from letterhead, business cards and email messages to company vehicles, building signage and employee uniforms. The following factors effect brand identity recognition and recall:

  • Frequency of use
  • Consistency of use
  • Distinctive symbols, shapes and colors
  • Use of mnemonic devices (memory encoders)
  • Size
  • Background clutter

Most organizations don't have to spend a fortune, nor do they need to place ads in large national magazines or on TV to reach their target audiences. It is imperative to know who the primary decision maker is, what motivates him or her, where he or she goes to get information on your product category and the messages to which he or she is most likely to respond. Then get those messages to him or her as efficiently as possible through the sources on which he or she relies for information.

McCall: Your book describes color theory. Can you explain a little about how color is used for effective branding?

VanAuken: Color is one of the most important components in creating brand identity. The purpose of a brand identity system is to encode a brand in people's memory and retrieve it from their memory. In a visual system, the two most powerful components are the consistent recognizable shapes and colors. (Scents and sounds are more powerful than visuals—as is well understood by Cinnabon and Harley-Davidson.) It is best if these shapes and colors are distinctive (at least within the product category).

Color can have a significant effect on people's perception of a product or brand. For instance, burgundy and forest green are perceived to be upscale, while an orange label or package indicates an inexpensive item. Third, colors can actually have an effect on a person's state of mind and cognitive ability as demonstrated by numerous research studies.

For instance, pink has been shown to increase a person's appetite and calm prison inmates. Finally, if your brand is sold outside of North America, be aware that colors can have different symbolic meanings (not all positive) in different countries and cultures.

McCall: One of your chapters is titled “Nontraditional Marketing Approaches That Work.” Can you share the top three approaches?

VanAuken: Public relations is one of the most powerful brand building techniques. News coverage, articles and reviews are more believable than advertising and much less expensive. PR frequently results in more brand-promoting copy than an ad, and articles are much more likely to be read than ads.

The following brands built their businesses with little or no advertising: Body Shop, Compaq, Gateway, Haagen-Dazs, Harley-Davidson, Hotmail, ICQ, Starbucks, Trivial Pursuit and Wal-Mart. Many of these brands were built with PR—the most powerful marketing tool for smaller and newer businesses.

Free online newsletters are a highly effective form of marketing. They keep your brand fresh in your current (and potential) customers' minds, establish your brand's expertise and credibility, reinforce your brand's identity and promise and help to build emotional connection and loyalty with your customers and potential customers.

Newsletters are inexpensive to create and cost virtually nothing to publish. Because of the low cost, you can afford to send them to nonrespondents indefinitely. Be sure to provide fresh, useful content in each issue. You can use the newsletter to lead people to your Web site or specific offers based on their interest in a topic or product (through hypertext links).

Membership organizations can create customer loyalty and increased sales. Examples include Harley-Davidson's Harley Owner's Group (HOG), Hallmark Keepsake Ornament Collectors Club and Pond's Institute. This can also take the form of customer advisory boards, expert councils, product launch parties, customer seminars and other forums. Even frequency programs can begin to feel like membership programs to customers if they contain relationship-building elements.

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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