Be Authentic, or Be Forgotten

By Ismail Abdur-Rahman, CEO iVIBES

To all you sucker MCs perpetrating a fraud
Your rhymes are cold wack and keep the crowd cold lost

- Run D.M.C.

Excuse the throwback reference, but it actually does speak to my point: your actions and values must be in alignment, or you are going to create a brand image that is confusing and fake. And let's face it, none of us wants to perceived as a fraud. The thing that people seem to forget all the time is that every contact your business has with a customer or potential customer is either helping build a brand or ruin it.

When I was in high school, I started working in the hardware and paint department at Sears because I wanted (read: needed) money in my pocket, and there really weren't too many legal options for accomplishing this goal. Most of my friends from my neighborhood thought I was a sucker for getting a real job when there were other ways of making money that guys who come from where I come from typically pursue, but I was undaunted. My high school football career was going well, and there was buzz that I could earn a scholarship to play ball in college and get far away from the 'hood that I'd called home. Understandably, I wasn't willing to screw up the opportunity.

I had a few friends from high school who'd also applied for jobs at Sears or elsewhere in the same mall, but none of them lasted as long as I did. In fact, I worked there from right after football season ended in my junior year until the week before I went away to college. It wasn't so much that I was a 'Sears guy'. However, it was a means to an end that I took seriously, especially given that my other options at the time - a range of criminal behavior ranging from petty theft to high-stakes organized crime - didn't seem too attractive. I'll never forget what they told me during orientation on the first day at Sears: "You have to represent our brand well every time you're in this building. You are Sears every time you interact with a customer, and nobody cares if you're having a bad day."

Sometimes clients come to me for coaching and they complain about not being able to reach the next level in their career progression; sometimes these are small business owners or new entrepreneurs who just can't seem to gain traction, but the root cause is often the same: bad branding.

At the root, there is often little discernible difference between competing products operating in the same space. When customers are not extremely price-sensitive, branding makes the difference. For example, I'm sure you've heard of the headphones Beats, right?

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Well, Dr. Dre did a great job of branding his product line as premium offerings (thanks to celebrity and athlete product placement opportunities), but the reality is that for the cost of Beats, most audiophiles would buy cheaper, better functioning devices. Nevertheless, the job Dr. Dre did branding Beats netted him an epic heist when Apple bought the company. In effect, he boosted an average product with a phenomenal marketing campaign and got a return on his investment that even surprised him.

Unfortunately, many of us don't pay attention to the way we brand our corporate careers or our small businesses. I mean, you might be trying to craft a brand image, but if the brand image you're crafting doesn't align with your values, you are inevitably going to do things that undermine the image you're trying to create.

For example, let's say you're trying to brand yourself as a finance expert, but authenticity isn't one of your core values. When you have to purchase financial model templates for your clients because you stink at creating valuation models and you find yourself unable to cover the source company's watermark embedded in the document, you will eventually be exposed as a fraud, as Excel skills are basic to the function of financial analysis.

If you want to build your brand the right way, here are a few tips to get you going in the right direction.

  1. Create a brand story, not an image
    With the spread of social media, customers are becoming increasingly skeptical of images that don't immediately connect with them. People are leery of companies trying to sell them things. Instead, give them a reason to care about you. Everyone loves a good story, and telling an effective brand story could lead a customer to choose your product/service over a competitor's offering. A brand story is a great way to build trust, and trust builds customer loyalty.
  2. Know your why and make sure your story reflects your values.
    After you decide to tell the story of your brand, make sure you communicate why and how the brand came into being. Articulating something about your values in conjunction with your brand story makes it easier for your story to resonate with customers who might share your values, even if they don't yet realize they need your product or service.
  3. Be consistently authentic.
    Resist the temptation to sound too corporate. Tailor your communication style to fit the level and needs of your target customer. If your customers don't feel that they are connecting with real people, chances are that they might abandon your brand for one that has a more human feel. If you were meeting your customer face-to-face, one-on-one in a coffee shop, how would you tell your story? Keep that in mind when you're trying to decide the level of authenticity your brand story should communicate.

    Once you decide on the level of communication and your brand voice, stay consistent. You can't dance ballet with your customer in the beginning and then switch up and juju on that beat later. Your customers will be confused about what your brand represents, and confused customers are almost never loyal customers.
  4. Focus your value proposition on your customer.
    While your brand story is about your company, you need to relate the story to your customer's life. If you bore the heck out of your customer with a very corporate sounding message, your chances of influencing the buying decision will plummet. Try giving your customer the leading role in your brand story. No matter what you're selling, place the focus on how your offerings will impact your customers' lives. Keep the message authentic and show enough of your personality to create a connection that will resonate with your customers.

In today's hyper-competitive business world, customers have more choices for how to spend their money than they can handle. If you can't build a brand that stands out, your company will be lost in a red ocean of competitors. Remember, your the idea behind your branding effort isn't to sell your products, it's to sell the story behind your products. So make sure your customer is at the center of your story.

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