When your brand gets too personal

Originally published in Austin Business District Magazine in Nov./Dec. 2005

Dear Brand Guru, I just read the book “Ten Radical Brands that Will Blow Your Mind While Lowering Your Cholesterol,” and I’m a bit confused.

Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve been practicing my “concerned and caring” expression. Are you asking me a question?

All these high-flying brand stories. They seem too big and complex to have application in my business.

Let me guess. Harley-Davidson, Dell, Coke, Google, Starbucks, tell me when to stop.

That’s the list. The anecdotes are very inspiring, but I own a small professional firm with ten employees.

I get the picture. You haven’t asked me a question yet, so I’ll start. In ten years, who will be running your firm?

Hmm. Actually, I would like to retire by then. It would be great to be able to sell my company, perhaps to a couple of my top employees.

Okay, and what will they be purchasing from you besides a few well-worn client relationships and some used furniture?

Well, we’ve got a great reputation. Everyone knows the name of my company, Lester Schnupper & Associates.

Let me guess, you’re Lester. And I’ll bet you’re a recognized expert in your field.

Over the last 30 years I’ve proven a 99% success rate with my clients. What I do is an art, really.

And when clients really want the mojo, they ask for you.

I’m in high demand. Every situation is different, but I’m like a jazz musician. I can improvise a customized solution to just about anything.

Your employees complain that clients are always trying to go over their head to get to you. In fact, you have a hard time keeping professionals on your staff. They tend to leave and become your competitors.

Are you a mind reader, too?

Please open your wallet as I’m shifting into consultant mode. Lester, YOU are the brand, not your company. That may be gratifying to your ego, but it will be fatal to your dreams of selling your business unless we take steps now.

Yipes! What can I do?

As a professional entrepreneur who has built a practice around your own personal expertise, you must begin to transfer that brand trust to the rest of your organization. It won’t be easy, and will NOT happen quickly. The first step is to create replicable process around that “jazz musician” work style. Brand strength is built on a foundation of consistency. Your staff is made up of highly skilled concert pianists; they want a score to follow.

I’m not great at process. Where do I begin?

A few years back I got one of my clients to write a book, for the very same reason. It got his work philosophy out on paper, and actually turned into a functional business-building tool. But the most important outcome was the effect on his staff, as they began to operate within a disciplined, step-by-step work environment. We also took steps to reinforce the company name as a corporate brand, not a personal name.

Did it work?

Clients are noticing. I’m conducting customer feedback surveys for them right now. In four years the firm has dramatically improved post-project satisfaction, and reduced dependency on the owner for day-to-day client service. For the first time, the owner feels like he is building a company brand, not just a personal reputation.

Gee, I somehow feel diminished.

Hey c’mon, chin up. Your reputation and personal charisma can still be a vital part of the company brand. Richard Branson has built the Virgin corporate empire around his own lifestyle and image. But I don’t expect him to check my bags at the airline counter.

We began with a brand discussion, but this goes to the core of how I run my business.

Yes, building a brand is just smart business wrapped in a catchy phrase. But that will be our little secret.

Reading brand-building stories can be great fun, but the real work begins when you take a common-sense look at your own desires, the perceptions of your customers, and where you want to take your business in the years ahead.

Go forth and brand thee.


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