I was speaking with a company owner who was obsessing over how to brand his offerings. I explained to him that while he could have one or more brands, he didn’t need to figure out up front what these brands said about him, the marketplace would do that for him. I told him that the phenomenon of customers branding products can be seen at work in our everyday lives. It’s a three-step process which vendors should examine step-by-step if they hope to get it working for their business.

STEP 1: You (the vendor) stake a claim

chef making what's on menu

The vendor is always the one who starts the brand-creation process: they do it by claiming to be good at something. This is even harder to do with technology products, which may be evaluated according to how fast they are, how light, how revolutionary or even how colourful – there’s little way to anticipate this. It basically comes down to fully understanding the customer’s needs and having the courage to determine what’s useful about a product. When in doubt, ask your existing customers, even ask your prospects.

Once your brand stakes a claim, please do whatever it takes to live up to it. You may even need to spend money to verify your product performs as claimed, as Intel did when it first introduced the Pentium chip and had independent tests done to confirm clock speeds. The good news is, if you’re first to make this type of claim, it’s very hard for subsequent products to come along and unseat you using the same claim – that’s because the marketplace gave you permission to be there first.

That’s not to say that you can’t use some good positioning to establish the unique attributes of your product. David Aaker is an advertising pioneer who did this successfully with products like M&Ms, using the tagline “melts in your mouth, not in your hands.” He successfully got the public to differentiate coated-chocolate candies according to how they behaved as you poured them out of the box. The marketplace agreed with Aaker’s positioning (see Steps 2 & 3 for how this happens) which made M&Ms the most-bought brand of its type.

STEP 2: The buyer puts stock in your brand if you live up to your claim

Whenever you go to buy something for yourself, do you run out to Brand X’s store and buy every product they make? No sir. Instead, you do your homework, comparing what different brands offer against what you really need. This is what you do when you go to a restaurant, you ask yourself whether you’re mildly hungry or famished, how much you feel like spending, if you’re in the mood for something new or favour something familiar – you do all of this before you pick up the menu. Your brain has to know your underlying needs, otherwise, how would it rank competing choices that all claim to meet slightly different needs? This introspection enables you to decide that having the soup by itself isn’t going to fill you, the lobster costs too much and you’re not up to trying foie gras for the very first time tonight. Only when you’ve narrowed it down to a product that fits your need can you ante up your cash in the hope that it will meet your need.

I recently witnessed this when I bought a brand-name computer (which brand I bought is beside the point). While I politely listened to each manufacturer’s positioning pitch, I found myself listening even more carefully to my inner voice about what I needed. The only vendor I ended up buying from was the one whose brand embodied the solution to my particular needs.

STEP 3: Word of the brand spreads through the marketplace

When a number of buyers personally benefit from a brand experience and tell others it’s a good brand, the impact can be tremendous. In the case of restaurants, certain dishes become perennial ‘house specialty’ items that are kept on the menu and sometimes become the dishes that a restaurant is known for. Did these restaurants know from the outset which items would make them famous? Not on your life! Most of this process happened outside of their control. Yet this shouldn’t worry vendors, because the marketplace isn’t fickle; it’s a very good gauge of how buyers collectively evaluate brands. Another way you can help your marketplace choose you is by making something interesting. If a product is boring, nobody will get excited about it and if they can’t get excited about it, they won’t talk about it with peers or other prospects. The best part is that once a brand builds buyer loyalty, it’s nearly impossible for competitors to lure these buyers away.

To recap, you as the vendor get the ball rolling by making a claim about your product that you hope buyers will agree with. Then it’s up to them to try out the product. If their needs are met by it, your customers will think of it as a strong brand…and they’ll start spreading the word for you. Soon the strength of your brand will be cemented in the minds of the whole marketplace.

So if you’re caught up with the ways you can brand your business for this vertical or for that, or wonder which product feature should really ‘speak for’ your brands, don’t become paralyzed by these choices. Rather, put your brands out there, the way a restaurant puts an entrée on a menu and see what the marketplace says.

image credits: Via Flickr – Popham, Analia Manetta