Too many companies, especially small-to-medium size companies that are not as familiar with the world of advertising, are being sold on “branding advertising” as the answer to all their marketing challenges.

Advertising is an important part of building a brand, but it’s not the only part. It’s worth re-visiting the difference between branding and advertising – is your company truly building a brand, or just buying ads?

Let’s start at the beginning: what is a brand?

  • Compelling identity, promising value: A brand is a compelling identity that creates an enduring emotional connection with your customers. A brand is a promise of value that delivers a certain distinctive customer experience. A brand is not owned by the company, it’s owned by the customers: if your customers don’t believe in the story of your brand, your brand doesn’t really exist.
  • Advertising is not a brand: Advertising is one means of communicating the story of a brand, but advertising in itself cannot create, maintain or build a brand. Branding doesn’t just “happen.” A powerful brand doesn’t develop overnight, and it doesn’t happen by magic.
  • A brand is not a logo: Although a logo is the most recognized and succinct expression of your brand identity, the full picture of your brand is more extensive than a single graphic.
  • Your brand is part of everything you do: Building a brand requires you to develop a holistic awareness of your company’s operations, strategy and communications. Everything that your company does – customer service, stationery, website design, the way you answer the phone, the way you handle customer complaints – is part of establishing your brand.

The truth is that if you want to build a strong brand for your company, you need to develop a comprehensive sales and marketing strategy that is grounded in your unique competitive advantage. Companies that try to “build a brand” first, without having these other elements in order, are putting the cart before the horse.

You can’t create a brand and then hope that the rest of the company will follow; the brand emerges from the whole picture of what your company does and what your company is about. While you can make strategic decisions about what you want your brand to be, and you can make ongoing adjustments to the way you communicate your brand values, ultimately the brand is not a separate thing from the rest of your company.

Branding is an ongoing process. It takes time, effort and commitment – it’s not something that can just be conjured up with some flashy ads. Your brand is not just for an external audience, it’s almost as important to communicate and reinforce and “evangelize” for your brand with your own employees as well.

A brand is something that everyone at the company has to “live” every day – and it’s not just about slogans and pep talks and making people feel good about their company; it’s about making sure that your employees at all levels feel connected to the larger mission and goals of the organization.

The most successful companies have strong brands that are clear, authentic, easily communicated, and tied to that company’s strongest competitive advantage – these are brands that people believe in.

Do you understand and believe in your brand? Do your employees? Do your customers?

Unless you can answer “yes” to all three of those questions, advertising isn’t going to make much of a difference. First, figure out what your company stands for and what you do better than anyone else. Then you can worry about buying ads.

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