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Can You Build a Branding Empire Without Advertising?
By: Andrew Davis
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To the average Joe, advertising is synonymous with building a strong brand. If you don’t advertise, then obviously you can’t build your business because nobody will know who you are, or what you do. Therefore, the thinking goes, that the more you advertise, the better your brand.
Many small businesses fall into this trap. If sales are dropping, they throw more money into advertising in hopes that it will turn things around. It’s partially what fuels the buzz around Groupon and other discounted deals sites. Need exposure? Boom, run a deal on Groupon, and you’ll have a flood of new customers (at least in the short-term).
Yes, advertising is important; however, it isn’t necessary. Google, Amazon.com, Starbucks, Facebook; they are some of the world’s most powerful brands. They also happen to advertise only rarely. It’s not that these brands know something that others don’t. No, the “secret” to their success is strong branding; branding that doesn’t need advertising. By following the basic steps to establishing a lasting brand, they have created empires without advertising.
“While ad agencies and media companies tend to focus on producing spots for short-lived campaigns, great brands are more enduring because the compelling story they represent has to transcend any and all platforms or potential campaigns,” writes Gair Maxwell at The Seamless Brand. Maxwell says that if these types brands advertise, it’s usually late in the process, and only if it’s needed.
So, how does a small business go about building a brand like Google, or Starbucks?
1. Differentiate
The product or service that is offered is the foundation of any brand. Without a product that consumers want, no amount of effort you put into building a brand will save it from failure. And, in order for consumers to want your product, it must be different from competitors in a way that they find valuable. You can’t break into a market with another product or service that’s not differentiated from the competition. Likewise, even established products need to stay updated to keep up with the competition. Create a product/service that consumers can’t live without. Do this, and your brand’s foundation will be rock-solid.
2. Position
The art of positioning is about owning a category, or idea, in the mind of the consumer. It’s staking a claim in the marketplace; a claim that nobody else can hold except your brand. Google owns “search.” Starbucks owns “coffee.” Facebook owns “social networking.” Sure, there were search engines before Google, just as there was coffee before Starbucks, and social networks before Facebook. However, each of these brands had a differentiated product that consumers wanted, so they knocked off the competition and were able to position their brands at the top of the category. Google and Facebook have done this so well that their names have become widely accepted verbs in our language. ‘Why don’t you just Google that?’ ‘Facebook me.’
3. Align
Once you have your product and an idea for your brand, you must ensure that your company is completely focused on this central idea. Your entire company must be aligned with the brand. From the manufacturing process to customer support, every facet of the company should not only understand the brand and what sets it apart from the rest, but they should also consider themselves a vital part reinforcing that idea. Google is Google because everything about the company is aligned behind the idea of technological innovation. Even the office structure is set up for maximum creativity and thinking. “At lunchtime, almost everyone eats in the office café, sitting at whatever table has an opening and enjoying conversations with Googlers from different teams,” says Google’s company culture webpage. “Our commitment to innovation depends on everyone being comfortable sharing ideas and opinions.”
4. Deliver
Delivery of the value proposition inherent in your differentiated product is what ties everything together. And, before you launch a product, you should know that you can deliver on what you promise. It’s why you align your company around that central brand idea. Zappos.com became the top shoe seller on the Internet because it delivered on its promise of exceptional customer service. If Zappos tried to differentiate itself by promising customer service beyond that of its competitors, but failed to deliver, you would have never heard of them. Likewise, Facebook delivered on being a better social network than MySpace, and Google delivered on being a more innovative search engine than Yahoo. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver, and if you can’t deliver anything new, then don’t bring your product or service to the market.
The local Mom & Pop store around the corner will most likely never find itself on BrandZ’s Top 100 global brands list. Then again, Apple was started in a garage (and, here are 10 Fortune 500 companies with humble beginnings). However, by following some basic steps to building a lasting brand, that Mom & Pop store can dominate the local market without ever needing to spend a penny on advertising.


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About the Author
Andrew Davis is a Charleston, SC-based creative services consultant to small businesses and non-profits. Follow him on Twitter here.
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