Creating and Maintaining Your Brand

Think of a brand name, and what comes to mind?

Probably well-established names like Apple (AAPL) or Mercedes-Benz. Now add another name to your list – the name of your own company. That’s because you don’t have to own a big business to own a brand. In fact, small businesses, by their very nature of being small and close to their customers, have a huge advantage over big companies in owning and cultivating their brands.

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That’s the unstated lesson in a new book by William J. McEwen called, "Married to the Brand, Why Consumers Bond with Some Brands for Life." The author works for Gallup Poll, and the book presents what he calls “lessons from 60 years of research into the psychology of consumer relationships.” Yes, the book ever so subtly sells Gallup’s consumer research as a service (and I can guess that only big businesses can afford it), but along the way it also makes sense about what creates a brand.

Overall, McEwen says, the best way for a company to make money is not just to have a “first date” with customers but to create a relationship so that customers want to get engaged to the company’s product or service and eventually married to the brand because they are so happy with their experiences. It seems obvious to me that building this kind of relationship is easier for a small business owner who knows all his or her customers than it is for a big company that has thousands of employees.

Gallup’s research says that the best brands have passionate customers, and these passionate customers spend more money with the companies that own these brands. Who creates passionate customers? The people who sell your product or service – that means you and all those employees you have hired who work directly with your customers. That’s where the relationship to your company takes off, says McEwen: “Emotions aren’t merely warm and fuzzy concepts suitable mainly for greeting-card poetry and Hollywood scripts. Emotions are both powerful and profitable. Whether a company is marketing hamburgers or microprocessors, there’s a demonstrable financial return that results from emotionally engaging customers – and there’s a substantial cost that results from disengaging them.” So, yes, it takes time to create a passionate and long-lasting relationship, but it’s worth it financially.

As an example, the book points out how many customers have become devoted to Starbucks (SBUX) coffee. But not necessarily because its coffee is better than anyone else’s or because it has a hip atmosphere with wi-fi included. More often, it’s because the baristas remember your name and the kind of coffee you like. They establish a relationship with you. It’s all reminiscent of the old T.V. sitcom, “Cheers” – that bar in Boston “where everyone knows your name.”

When I think of a big-company brand that I’m passionate about, it’s outdoor clothing company REI. Like Starbucks, it, too, started out as a small company in the Pacific Northwest. (Come to think of it, so did Nordstrom’s. Is there something in the water up there?) It used to be known as Recreational Equipment Inc. I love the place because they hire people who have actually camped and hiked and kayaked and used REI’s products so that they can really tell you what works best and how to use it. This is not a small thing when you are investing a goodly sum of money in a backpack or a trail bike or a down sleeping bag. Friendly, knowledgeable sales people make all the difference to me. I’ll never forget the 6’5” tall salesperson (happened to be a woman) who walked us through putting our tent together and who recommended it because it was long enough for tall people – like my husband.

And that’s exactly what Married to the Brand says: “We’ve found that customer-facing employees are critical to a healthy marriage whenever employees interact directly with customers.”

But when it comes to feeling passionate about brands and businesses, I more often think of two small businesses where I spend some of my hard-earned money, because I have a relationship with the people who own the small business or who work for it. One is a CD store near Atlanta called Decatur CDs. The owner, who has been in both the music and retail record business, knows more about music groups — past and present — than anybody I’ve ever met. Warren connects with everyone who walks into his store, and many of them drive a long distance to do business with him, rather than ordering online or buying at a big-box store.

My other favorite small business is a lunch place called Two Dog Café. They make their special side dishes and sandwiches from farmer’s market ingredients and crusty, homemade bread. Their prices are two to three dollars more than the typical lunch at other eateries around our town square, but it’s the wait staff that works its magic from the moment I give my order to the friendly gal who always remembers me. It’s a simple formula that works time and again.

Small business owners “get” this kind of thing intuitively. It seems to me that one of the reasons people go into business for themselves is because they are interested in helping others with a product or service they sell. And it’s this connection with customers that is the basis for all successful businesses. Not all small business owners are “people persons,” though. It’s okay to be more into the numbers or development end of your business so long as you figure out how to hire those outgoing types as your front-office people and sales staff.

Big businesses can lose their way as they hire so many people that they can’t teach them what it takes to connect. In the meantime, small businesses keep plugging away at what they do best: talking to their customers and pleasing them with excellent service. That’s called creating passion for your brand. This kind of passion will be particularly important when the U.S. economy crashes as a few economic analysts I respect say it will. Consumers may have less money to spend, but they will continue to spend it with companies they trust.

“Consumers are eager to tell you about the state of your brand marriages, and they’re waiting to help you make those relationships better and stronger. It’s vital to hear what they have to say – especially if you ask the right questions and are fully prepared to act on what you hear,” writes McEwen in the last sentence of his book.

I contend that you don’t have to hire Gallup Poll to ask your customers the right questions. You can do it yourself – even if you ask the “wrong” questions, you’re still doing the right thing. You’re talking with your customers to create a stronger bond and, with luck, you are using their suggestions to make your products and services better.

Susan C. Walker writes a personal finance and economics column for as well as this small business column. She works for Elliott Wave International, a market forecasting and technical analysis company, and has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper business editor, an investor relations executive for a real estate investment trust and a speechwriter for the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She graduated from Stanford University.

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