Strengthen + Sharpen Your Brand!

by Jim Stein


Twenty five years ago, I sat across from branding expert David Canaan after everyone had filed out of a meeting in his agency’s conference room. I asked an extra question. David answered. I asked more and he obliged. I remember that at one point, he said, “Your brand is a vessel that fills with meaning and lives in your customers’ minds.” I wrote it down. 

Since that time I’ve returned to his insight and thought about its implications for local companies. How can you take practical steps to strengthen and sharpen your brand? That is the topic of this letter.  

What does your brand mean? Your brand vessel is first created in the mind of your prospect when she becomes aware of your company. Then, all interactions she has with your team or with communications tied to your company’s name create impressions which she converts to meaning and stores in your brand vessel. She can’t remember the details of these interactions unless they were unusual (brand sharpness); instead, she creates a shorthand way of thinking about your company. It’s your Brand Meaning. “They’re great quality. They’re Diamond Certified. John is an expert and really helpful.” Or, “That’s the cheap company. They take a long time. They’re rude.”  

Brand Strength
For better or worse, your brand’s meaning will become congruent with the totality of communication signals emanating from your company. Think of “signals” in a broad sense since they include all team interactions, signage, vehicles, marketing messages, and even your company’s policies and workflows.

Owners often make the mistake of being oblivious to the mixed signals that their companies are sending which are causing fluctuations in their brand meaning and dullness in their brand sharpness. You may want your brand to mean X, but if your team is sending Y signals, your brand will mean Y. Any mixed messages between your team and your advertising will dilute your brand meaning and sharpness.

Your brand can’t be all things to all people. Customers have honed their buying skills for years and sniff out fake brand meaning. Your goal is to create a strong, meaningful brand. To do this, your brand meaning must be Real, Obvious and Aligned. Let’s define these terms.  

– What your company does for its customers every day matches its explicit and implicit communication signals coming from marketing messages and team interactions.  

 – Your company’s key brand meaning is sharply portrayed through policy, team interactions and marketing messages. A customer should experience your brand and “know what you’re going for.”  

 – Each customer’s perception of her experience Before, During, and After the sale and service match up in her mind to your sharply defined Brand Meaning. This includes how your brand meaning is expressed in each channel that she comes into contact with.  

An example of your Real, Obvious and Aligned Brand Meaning. Suppose you want your brand meaning to feature “clean and organized.” You would probably dress your team in clean uniforms to make it Real and Obvious. “Dress Clean / Act Organized” makes your brand meaning strong, while “Dress Clean / Act Messy” creates an unreal and unaligned impression. If a neatly uniformed team member appears disorganized and sloppy in a customer’s home, your brand meaning will veer from Real to inauthentic.

To be truly Aligned, you must send the same brand signals in each channel. So, to expand this example, what does it mean to be “Clean and Organized” in an email, on your website, in a follow-up letter or in your bidding process? You create a powerful brand meaning when you’re consistent with your brand signals across all channels of communication and through multiple data points and topics within interactions.  

How to create a unique brand meaning.
A lot of local brands in the same industry feel undifferentiated. They all seem to yell, “best price, best service, best this, best that.” You need to avoid being like everyone else. If your marketing messages and customer interactions are undifferentiated from competitors, your brand meaning will be genericized and weak.  

So, how can yours be unique? The good news is that even though this feels like a big problem, it’s not. Few company owners know and implement the Real, Obvious and Aligned prescription for creating brand meaning, so they fail to create a strong, meaningful brand. This means they don’t have any obvious uniqueness. You won’t let that happen. If you qualify for Diamond Certified, you’ll stand out for Highest in Quality and Helpful Expertise next to the unreal, unobvious, and unaligned brands of your competitors.  

Use your Hot Center to improve and optimize your Brand Meaning.
You are your company’s spiritual and intellectual Hot Center. The boss. Clarity of your company’s brand meaning starts with you. What would you like your brand to mean to your staff and your best customers? What should customers and staff see, hear, touch, smell, and feel as each step of your company’s service promise is being delivered?  

Create a simple Brand Meaning Worksheet by taking a sheet of paper and dividing it into three sections. Write "Before the Sale” at the top of the page, “During Our Service” a third of the way down and “After Our Service is Delivered” two-thirds down. 

Fill out your Brand Meaning Worksheet. Under each section, answer these questions.  

1. What should our brand mean to our staff and best customers in this stage of their brand interaction?

2. What should customers and staff see, hear, touch, smell, and feel during this stage to make our brand Real, Obvious, and Aligned? 

3. What are our explicit and implicit service promises?  

To be clear, you’re answering these same three questions for Before, During and After, so you’ll have nine answers in total.  

Bring your team into your Brand Meaning creation process.
Share the key parts of your Brand Meaning Worksheet with your team. Introduce the brand meaning mantra of “Real, Obvious and Aligned.” Ask how each team member’s attitude affects customers’ perceptions of your brand meaning. Together, consider how your team’s expertise, processes, rules and work environment affect your brand’s meaning. Discuss how each team member’s everyday actions enhance or derogate your brand’s meaning. Get feedback and gain agreement on precise wording. Coming into this exercise, your brand had meaning. During this process you’ll likely come up with changes to strengthen and sharpen your brand’s meaning. Be sure to illuminate what won’t change about your company and what will. Don’t worry about the form of the document—create it like you want. The key is what you come up with. As you’re deep in the discussion with your team, ask, “How will we make our brand meaning really strong? What are one or two things we should do that are unique and much appreciated Before, During, and After our service delivery?”  

Strengthen and sharpen your brand.
What’s the difference between strengthening or sharpening your brand? Strengthening occurs as you add real brand signals that are aligned with each other, whereas sharpening occurs by adding an extreme signal. For example, if part of a company’s brand meaning is “speed,” each additional brand signal around “speed” will strengthen its brand meaning. So, adding a formal speed promise builds brand meaning strength, and more strength is added if true arrival times are cut by 10 minutes, emails are responded to within one hour and team members are seen walking briskly. Each of these signals is aligned around “speed” and each adds greater brand strength. To sharpen their brand for speed, they need an unusual or extreme signal, like if they wore race car-style uniforms and had racing stripes on their vans. Another way to sharpen your brand is to add planned surprises (the good kind!), where the surprise of the signal adds to its unusual-in-the-moment effect.

We Help You Upgrade Your Diamond Advantages
If you qualify for Diamond Certified, Quality Customers will go to your Diamond Certified Company Report on our website to research you as they’re making their decision. Your Report beats all competitors for meaningful Deep Info: Photos, Videos, Essential Articles, FAQs, a Capabilities Table, Ratings and Verbatim Survey Responses. Knowing we back our report on your company with our Diamond Certified Performance Guarantee strengthens the influence of your report. Now let’s make it even more powerful by adding more job and people photos with captions, another Stories video, more Expert Tips, and descriptions of Additional Services that you provide. 

Deploy Your Diamond Certified to Supercharge Your Brand!
It’s not just you and your team that are sending brand signals to strengthen and sharpen your brand. Diamond Certified is your superpower (if you qualify)—your proof that your company’s brand meaning is Real and backed by third-party research. If you qualify, use Diamond Certified in all your channels to make your messages believed, felt and acted upon. Link to your Diamond Certified Company Report in your email ID stack, post excerpts of your verbatim survey responses in social media, and hand out your Diamond Certified Brochures when meeting with potential clients and give them to past clients to pass along to their friends and coworkers.