Advertising vs Branding

As the cliche goes, “we are creatures of habit.” We pretty much stick to the products and services we know, and it takes a lot to make us change. There’s a direct correlation to business success and name recognition. This is frustrating for new businesses who are confident their offerings are equal or superior to well-known competitors, yet few buyers know them well enough to make a purchase.

That’s why the authentic taco stand across the street from Taco Bell gets 1/30th of the customers. Unfortunately for most start-up businesses, the lack of sales due to weak name recognition usually leads to the pitfalls of lowering prices, cutting corners, or overdelivering. It all starts with the most common marketing mistake: advertising instead of branding.

Advertising can have many meanings. In this case I’m referring to ads that are meant to sell your products or services directly. Buy Now! On Sale! 40% OFF! The famous “call to action” advertising. The bolder the offer, the better because 95% of ads are ignored and 74% of consumers don’t believe them anyway (2008 study).

Branding is creating a unique and lasting impression about your offerings. It’s not easy or cheap, but there are ways to build your name without breaking the bank. I won’t mislead you to the dream many new business owners have: “If you build it, they will come.”

The journey to name recognition can be long and costly, but if you survive you’ve officially made it to the big leagues. However if you don’t have a plan to build your brand, plan to lower your prices and work twice as hard as your well-known competitors. It’s the reality of breaking into the world of our free market. When you’ve made it, you’ll be glad its not too easy for the new guy.

Many of the recommendations I’m about to share are primarily for companies offering higher-end products or services. If you are the taco stand, a great big sign that reads, “Authentic Mexican Food (we use real meat)” can go a long way in distinguishing your offering over that place across the street. This is branding.

For the rest of you, here’s the problem with traditional advertising. Today’s customers don’t want to hear from your marketing department or your sales team. They want to hear from industry experts, your product or service experts, and your customers. They also don’t want to hear any of those “call-to-action” statements. Today’s consumers are information seekers using the information highway. If you are not out there offering real information, they don’t know you.

Recommendation 1:

Start a blog site that speaks to your primary target audience. This is not your corporate site and it’s not about selling your products or services. It’s a voice for the experts in your field to speak to your target audience about the things they want to hear; not your sales pitch or product promotions.

As an example, I’m the Chief Marketing Officer of an accounting software company, yet I’m not here to sell you our software. This information about marketing is important to me, and hopefully of value to you. Sharing and not selling builds relationships with the people you are trying to serve. It’s not a manipulation.

If you really care about meeting the needs of your audience with your products, you need to establish a space that’s not just about selling your products and moving on to the next buyer. If done right, it helps you to really get to know your audience, as they come to know you beyond the sale of your products and services. It’s just the opposite of manipulation. It’s genuine.

The authors of your blog should be your product and service experts and other professionals in your company. They should write about what they know and how it relates to others looking for this knowledge.

You will find that your company and offerings have a lot to do with this knowledge, although in this blog forum you want to avoid directly marketing your product. The author profile will show where the author works and what they do. This gives your company credit for hiring smart and capable people who are willing to share valuable information.

Next, invite industry experts to contribute as authors. You can also interview these experts, particularly those who have recently published. You will be suprised how eager even a well-known author is to be interviewed about their new book, or an industry expert to share their great ideas. You will build relationships and allies every step of the way from people in your industry who are well respected. In turn, you will begin earning that respect from them and your audience.

You can also find other blog or news sites that speak to your audience and apply as a guest contributer. See where this is going? Imagine writing a good article and posting it on your blog site and several other respected sites that are popular with your target audience. In time, your company experts will be known as industry experts. Now that’s good branding.

Recommendation 2:

Provide a way for customers to share their experience with your company, products and services. This can be done with online ratings, testimonials, and comment forms on your company website. In order to be effective, it has to be real. It’s alright if you don’t get “5 stars” every time. The information will help you find ways to improve your offerings, and will help your customers know what to expect since the feedback is coming from other customers like them.

Not only is this powerful marketing, many of today’s customers will not buy from someone if they can’t find feedback from other buyers. Don’t filter this information too much. Keep out the spammers, but leave the legitimate criticisms and concerns. If it’s not real, they’ll smell the con and you will lose their trust.

Recommendation 3:

Find the people and groups who review similar products and services. Give them everything they need to get to know your offerings. You will not be able to persuade them to review your company or products, and you cannot influence their review, but you can help them get to know you. Your customers are seeking out these reviews before they go to your website or believe your marketing messages.

If you want to spend money convincing someone you have a good product or service, convince those that are reviewing these products. One good review from a respectable source can open the flood gates of eager new customers. On the other hand, a bad review can do a lot of damage, so make sure your offerings are what you believe them to be.

There’s a lot more to this story. Please provide comments, ideas and experience about your branding efforts. Your feedback is what makes blogging such a powerful and valuable medium.

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