Do you know what your brand stands for? You can bet your clients do. The great misconception about branding is that brands are made from the inside out. But brands aren’t created in the executive suite or the marketing department or by the ad agency. They’re created through customer experience.

Technology

companies with strong brands understand this relationship and they work hard to manage that magic space between their internal brand definition and the customer’s perception. When those two things align, you have the makings of a strong, sustainable brand. A brand that delivers what it promises and helps customers make decisions will create, with luck and a lot of work, the kind of loyalty that inspires customers to drive a little further and pay a little more.

Creating a great brand that can accomplish this is hard enough. But managing that brand over time is where the hard work really begins. In the technology industry, with the relentless decline of product life cycles, building sustainable brands is a true challenge. Faced with constant product changes and enhancements strong brands are often the only thing that represents stability to both companies and consumers.

Technology companies need to build sustainable brands — brands that are built to last, brands with staying power, adaptability and agility. Brands that can transcend product innovation and obsolescence and intense competitive pressure. Here are five key elements of a sustainable brand:

Know what you stand for

Sustainable brands are built on a rock-solid foundation. These brands know exactly what they stand for. Think of some of the world’s great, enduring brands: IBM, Volvo, Disney, IKEA. Each of them is defined by a singular idea — it becomes the very DNA of the organization. It drives the way they think about product development, about marketing, about new business ventures and corporate culture. Most companies complicate this — they develop a laundry list of undifferentiated ideas that don’t add up to a brand promise. They craft long paragraphs filled with words like “innovative” or “service oriented” — all the typical table stakes kinds of issues that can never differentiate a company, excite an internal team or compel a customer. Volvo stands for safety. Year after year.

Align the company behind the brand promise

You can’t build a strong brand unless you align the company to deliver against the brand promise. If you try to build a brand around customer service, then your approach to recruiting, hiring, training, rewards and recognition all have to support that brand promise. If you’re creating a brand focused on the lowest price, it will drive your decisions on location, inventory management systems and everything you do. Companies have to be hard-wired to the brand positioning and customer promise. The tendency to over-promise and under-deliver is what kills most brand ideas.

Build consistency

Always remember that your brand lives in every experience a customer has with you. The statement in the mail. The recordings at the call centre. The packaging on the box. The signs on your store. The experience on your Web site. Do they all work together to present a common brand voice? Does your brand have a common approach to imagery and the written language? Do the people who write copy for the Web site know the brand as well as the people writing your ads? Does your sales team deliver the same messages to clients that your CEO delivers to investors and analysts? And don’t forget your employee communications. They should all feel like they’re coming from the same company.

Give people tools

Make it so easy for people to do the right thing that they won’t bother to do it wrong. Does your sales team have the right presentation materials? Are they on brand when they’re out pitching your products and services or are they importing low-resolution images, tacky clip art and writing their own descriptions of your product benefits? If you’re managing a brand across different geographies, you need to have online brand management tools to ensure everyone has constant access to logos, templates, key messages, current product and pricing information and other core brand materials. Create once, adapt and use often.

Know what to change and what to leave alone

This is the hardest part. All brands change and grow over time. New lines of business are added. Old products disappear. Customer needs change and trends evolve. Think back to Volvo. The core proposition is the same — a brand based on safety. They keep refining their designs, evolving their advertising and marketing materials, and adding new vehicle types. But the brand essence is rock solid and it has earned them the kind of customer loyalty that only comes with sustainable brands.

Lynne Kilpatrick is president of Spencer Francey Peters (SFP), one of Canada’s leading independent corporate branding and design agencies. Lynne has more than 15 years experience in marketing, communications, brand management, Web site development, online marketing, market research and media relations. Lynne may be contacted by e-mail at lkilpatrick@sfpinc.co

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