By Andrew Lester, Managing Partner of Carr-Michael Consulting

There is a lot of rubbish talked about Branding. It starts with the often misconceived belief that the brand is owned by the company. Whilst this is technically true, brands are in reality owned by the customers and the value of the brand is defined by how well the company holds onto its existing customers and adds new ones. In the digital age this is even more the case than ever before. It is now very easy for customers to comment openly on a brand. Whether the brand is a product or a service, the explosion in the use of social media sites, blogs, Twitter etc allow customers an increasingly powerful opportunity to support or devalue a brand very effectively and very quickly.

So what should we do about it? The first thing every business must recognise is that building a brand has to take into account all the ways in which customers interact with it. So it is no longer good enough to think that branding is a one way street: the company telling the customer what the brand stands for. In the new digital age it is about working with customers throughout their purchase and use of the brand, to respond rapidly to issues and new opportunities as they arise. Customers have always valued brands as a way of speeding up their buying process: “I trust Nike, so I’ll buy their shoes”, “I trust the BBC so I’ll listen to their news”, “I trust Camelot engineering, so I’ll buy their components”. These “trust” comments reflect not only how the brand was originally promoted and sold, they reflect even more powerfully the ongoing experience the customers have had with the brands. But for 2011 digital media increases the need for ultra fast response by all companies to their customers’ comments on issues and further business opportunities. Just as we can’t wait for slow web pages to load and switch to other sites, customers will increasingly not wait for slow responses to their comments and suggestions: they will simple shift brands.

The second key point for Branding in 2011 is to shift focus from thinking of Branding as an upfront activity focused on names, logos, packaging and advertising, to an all embracing activity that manages both the total buying experience and the customer experience in using the brand. This is not be new in concept, but it is very new in practical application. If you don’t get it yet, just think of the recent press coverage of the impact on the Bed & Breakfast / hotel sector. Websites provide direct customer comments on specific hotels and B&Bs. These direct unadulterated comments can make or break businesses very quickly. Positive comments are remembered far less often than negative ones. So whatever your business, 2011 will see a major shift for all companies in ensuring that the complete customer buying and ownership experience is managed tightly and in line with the brand’s promise.

The third key point to remember for Branding in 2011 is that customers considering a brand evaluate everything associated with it. So they evaluate the support they’ll get if things go wrong, they evaluate how your company works in the local community, how your employees speak and represent the company (in and out of work), and in how other customers experience and talk about the brand. The digital age makes this even easier to do. And what’s more just as people tend to believe what they read in the press, customers also place a disproportionate trust in what they read on blogs or websites. So all business owners and directors need to know exactly what is being said about “their” brands and company by their customers every day. And this is not just a need for big business. As the B&B example shows, SMEs have to work with and manage effectively all the feedback from customers — especially when it is negative, unfounded and written with ulterior motives.

Please feel free to comment by contacting me: andrewlester@carr-michael.com. Andrew Lester is Managing Partner of Carr-Michael Consulting, specialists in growth management and business performance improvement.

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