If you know what you're doing, branding doesn't have to be complicated or even expensive. Here are some ideas to consider:
1. Buy 10,000 rubber bracelets in your brand color, promoting a cause, "sponsored by [you]" Obviously you should also promote the cause on your website, in your literature, and even donate money to the cause periodically so that the promise is real. The smart thing about doing this is that you associate your brand with social responsibility, you make your employees (that includes you) feel good about working for you, and you get 10,000 people to wear your bracelet. Plus, once the bracelet is printed, a few thousand more isn't going to cost much more at all.
2. Sponsor home parties promoting your brand. They had an item in the Wall Street Journal the other day about home parties that go way beyond Tupperware. You can look it up if you want but the point is, people are social, word of mouth sells things, and nobody has any money these days. A perfect storm that can help you move merchandise on a Sunday afternoon. Pay people a commission to host events that give people something to do, a way to connect and network, and also make some money at the same time.
3. Visit people "in their hour of need" and offer them something for free. I know this sounds horrible and crass but it doesn't have to be. CNN reports this morning that Disney is visiting moms in the hospital just moments after they have given birth, offering free merchandise so as to gain an entrée with the customer and hawk more in the future. I have long thought that the Disney brand was becoming irrelevant despite their efforts to create entertainment programming that is more up-to-date. This campaign is much closer to their brand essence, which is really the wonder and fantasy associated with infancy and early childhood. And you know what? If a mom doesn't want Disney anywhere near her, that's her choice. But she does have that choice, and meanwhile Disney has positioned the brand right in front of the target.
4. Recruit a unique voice – literally, a human vocal – to represent your brand. Done well this is a hugely effective tool to gain recognition with your audience, and if you hire someone who isn't well known they aren't going to charge you a lot of money because you are giving them the opportunity to become a recognized brand in their own right. If you don't believe me, listen for 5 seconds to TV chef Guy Fieri (of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network"). What a voice! It is that same voice that sells crackers in the grocery store. Seriously. I was walking down the aisle and heard Fieri blaring out of a speaker, and you know what? I don't eat carbs anymore but I did listen to the ad. And when I saw Fieri was selling a knife set, I seriously looked into it on a par with the other knife brands, made by companies that sit around hammering steel all day! Similarly, there is a narrator on TV whose name escapes me, but he always seems to work for shows that are at least passably entertaining. You've heard his shows, usually involving dumb criminals or crazy cop car chases, things like that. The point is, I don't even have to know the name to know that if this individual is narrating the show, it is going to be good. That is a worthy brand that doesn't even involve a visual.
5. Have a "branded" way that you handle customer service calls that is unique - but not robotic. I know that this can get cheesy and silly if it is done the wrong way. Keep in mind though that what you're trying to do is establish a consistency of high-quality service associated with your product. In a world where nobody trusts anybody (and frankly a lot of the time people are not worthy of being trusted), a vendor that backs product with a certain style of customer service has a tremendous advantage. One example is The Four Seasons brand of hotels. If you've ever stayed there, you know that there is nothing that compares to that level of attention. You literally feel like the Queen of Sheba (or the King of Persia) once they're through with you. Another example, don't laugh, is humble Puritan's Pride vitamins, of the "Buy 2 Get 3 Free" claim to fame. There have been a few times that I had minor glitches with my orders, either because I got the wrong item or because I wanted to add something to the order after it was placed. Each and every time I called up, I was spoken to by a human being and treated like a neighbor, not a depersonalized "customer." I didn't get condescending, canned phrases out of a manual like, "Oh Mrs. Blumenthal, I know how distressing it must be for you not to have your Omega 3." Instead I get, "That's no problem, Mrs. Blumenthal. I'll take care of it" and "I'm so sorry we messed up your order, I will send you a $5 coupon for the next one" (and then they actually send it). And when you get emails from customer service, they are actually written by real people in real words. All of this makes the company seem real – all of it makes me want to deal with them and not "VitaminsRUs" with "LowLowLowest Prices on the Net" or whatever.
6. Do anything you can to get your product in front of the public - in an inconspicuous way. This is how I became sold on the Amazon Kindle, which I have no doubt I will buy over and above the Nook or any other e-reader, simply because I see people using it on the subway. I've also become interested in HP products by seeing "testers" using them in Starbucks. I am pretty sure that Amazon hasn't been giving away the Kindles but the fact that I see people using them makes me want one - and as people who know me know, I vastly prefer magazines to books. Similarly, people have asked me about my laptop computer – how it works, how good is it, "because I'm looking for a new one," because they've seen me carrying it around in public. I even became interested in net-books by helping a lady figure out how to use it in McDonald's "because my daughter bought it for me on eBay, I think it comes from China, and I have no idea how to use this." And all the women at work seem to wear Chico's, love Chico's, etc., prompting all the other women to wear it and buy it too. People are social, and products are social currency.
7. Create weird, poor-production, homemade-looking video. There is this restaurant in DC called The Mad Hatter that has been running absolutely crappily produced commercials running on local channels at odd hours, but their restaurant has an interesting name and the things they show in the restaurant – the ceilings, the interaction between the wait staff and the customers, etc. – looks interesting. Entire family wants to go. Even though we get the feeling it's an excuse to serve expensive breaded jalapeno poppers.
8. Use a foreign language to label your products - one in which you are fluent. True: There is a coffee storefront in the food court where I work where the coffee is expensive (illy), they don't take a credit card, and everything is labeled in Italian. The line is usually long. Always, always the line is twice as long there as at the storefront literally next door to it, even though they sell the EXACT same coffee. And I don't think it's an accident that people are constantly saying "Buon Giorno" to the lady behind the counter, who doesn't seem to speak English at all, especially when I ask for a refund because a particular pot of coffee is burnt. (Not only didn't she offer me a refund, but she told me never to come back again. I got that without her using a single English word. Prompting me to, of course, come back a few months later. Masochist.)
9. Find a way to make your product healthy. People (including me) are obsessed with health nowadays, yet relatively few products emphasize the health aspect of their offering. If you can show clearly how using your brand will help a person "hack life" better, you have an advantage.
10. Take advantage of product labeling. Is your product ethically sourced? Does it have an ingredient that other competing products don't? MENTION IT. Don't be afraid to be transparent – people actually prefer honesty, and to have a choice. Otherwise why would anyone buy the sugar poison that is Coca-Cola?
These are just a few ideas, and there are many more out there. Point is, branding runs throughout your organization and is not limited to any one department anymore, especially not the marketing department. If you are just a little bit savvy and consistent with your efforts, you have a chance to compete effectively, without hiring an army of consultants or spending a lot of money. Or even trying very hard, once you understand what to do and how to do it.
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