Your customers build your brand – Not you

Much has been written about building a winning brand and about the importance of brand and branding in general. In my view successful branding is the result of a 2 – step process which is as follows:

  1. Ask: What do we want to be remembered for?
  2. Act always and consistently to create those memories in people’s minds.

So that every time they think of what you provide, they have only one name that they can recall and that is yours. Like all truly powerful ideas, it is very simple. The key is in execution; passionately, seamlessly, and consistently.

In my view, if you are competing against anyone, i.e., if your customers or potential customers are even considering your competitors as potential fulfillers of their need, then you have failed. In the words of Sun Tzu, ‘The best general is the one who wins without fighting.’ And that is the hallmark of successful branding – that you leverage yourself out of the competition.

How can you do that?

1. Ask: What do we want to be remembered for?

It is essential to ask this question. The answer lies in another question: What am I most passionate about? We can only be remembered for what we do best, and we can only do best what we are most passionate about. So, ask, ‘What am I most passionate about? What do I truly want from life? What am I willing to do anything to achieve? What do I get the most satisfaction from?’ Make up your own questions and answer them and you will arrive at that which you are most passionate about. If you always do what you are passionate about you will become known for it and people will remember you for it. Identify that passion.

An important caveat: Never do what you are not passionate about. This is equally important because it is your overall performance that builds or mars your reputation. People don’t remember the specifics. Only the overall feeling. As someone said, “People won’t remember what you said. They will only remember how you made them feel.” If you do some things passionately and others in a lackadaisical manner, it detracts from your overall impression. Pass on what you are not passionate about to someone who is. And if you think that you will never find someone passionate about some things that you do, let me tell you that I have an accountant friend whose hobby is to read telephone directories. Takes all kinds to make a world.

2. Act always and consistently to create those memories in people’s minds.

If there’s one word which is critical in this statement it is the word ‘consistently’. It is regularity that creates dependability. People must become used to expecting the same standard of excellence when they come to you for whatever it is that you provide. Consistent Excellence. Flashes in the pan are good to create awareness but if the pan doesn’t flash every time, then credibility gets damaged very quickly.

When you do this – produce excellence and do it consistently and regularly then dependability ensues, and brand is created. Brand is not built by you but by your clients who tell others and become your ambassadors to the world. One referral by a satisfied client is worth a million bucks of advertising. I am not against advertising and PR but want to emphasize that one must keep it in perspective and not imagine that it is some kind of magic wand that once waved will wipe out all the bad taste of indifferent product and service quality. It won’t. On the other hand, ad-agency generated PR will come across as an exercise in deception and destroy credibility even more.

Many branding ‘experts’ talk almost exclusively about ‘Customer perception’ and the ‘mind of the customer’ as if they can read minds. They talk about how to ‘influence the customer’ to think this way or that as if the customer is a puppet in your control who can be influenced independently of your actions and what you provide. Their ‘campaigns’ are almost exclusively about logo design, ad copy, tag lines and color combinations. Not about product quality, delivery efficiency, service excellence or follow up. The result is that ‘branding exercises’ are all about advertising and PR and not about creating sustainable quality. This is a very big mistake because the damage to the brand which results from the eventual and inevitable disappointment when the PR mask is off, is something that can’t be measured and seldom corrected.

So, what must one do?

Focus on ‘Moments of Truth’ and ensure that these are defined, designed to create the impression you want the customer to take away and monitored to ensure that every single time, the customer has the exact same experience.

What is a ‘Moment of Truth’?

In the words of Jan Carlson, the CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, who first used the term in this context, ‘A Moment of Truth is that moment when a customer or a potential customer, comes into contact with any aspect of your business and has an opportunity to form an opinion.’

I have underlined the key phrases in this definition to highlight their importance. Who is a ‘customer or a potential customer’? In my opinion it is anyone in the world. Anyone who meets you, speaks to you on the phone, logs onto your website, reads your brochure, billboard or any of your literature or contacts you in any way at all must go away with the most positive impression possible about who you are and what you do. This must happen even if the person decides that you are not the person, he/she needs to fulfill their need at that time. They must still feel that you are the best thing that happened to them.

Moments of Truth are defining moments but are for the most part handled either mechanically (websites, answering machines and so on) or by the least paid, least trained employees (telephone operators, security guards, receptionists) with predictable results. I am not suggesting that the CEO must man the phone or stand at the gate (though having said that, it is not a bad idea at all to do that occasionally) but must know what anyone who calls his company or comes to meet anyone experiences. Most CEOs and managers when I get them to call their company anonymously are unpleasantly surprised at what happens. Most Moments of Truth in most organizations go unnoticed and uncommented upon except by customers, which is a very dangerous situation to be in.

The key to brand building is to ask, ‘What do we want our customers to feel when they think of us?’ Then talk to them and ask what they do feel and bridge the gap. This VOC (Voice of Customer) is the most valuable tool for brand building that you can imagine. It is a thermometer to gauge the warmth the customer feels towards your organization – the warmth of love and good feeling or the warmth of irritation and anger. Organizations that listen to customers regularly (by this I mean speak face-to-face not run anonymous surveys) have their finger on their pulse and are able to leverage that knowledge. They build relationships that result in customer loyalty and give them an insight into what their customers want. Apple’s iPod and iPad were the result of listening to customers and the resultant sale success is an indication of how well they know their market. Singapore Airlines advertising is supported by in-flight service that even other airlines talk about. BMW’s advertising is supported by unmatched engineering to produce a benchmark, not merely a car. Brand building therefore in my view is to listen to the customer, build a close relationship with him/her and deliver a quality of service that leaves them spellbound. Advertising and PR then is merely to inform them about new products and services.

Let me tell you two stories of my personal experience to illustrate what I mean by passion and consistency.

In 1995, I was invited to teach a leadership course for GE Asia in Singapore by Bonnie McIvor who was the training head for GE Asia. I took the Singapore Airlines flight from Chennai and landed in Singapore late in the morning, the day before the course was to begin. I checked into my hotel and since it was my first visit to Singapore, I decided to see the city. I didn’t know anyone there and went to the Concierge to ask him for advice and to call a taxi for me. He said to me, “Please go out of the main gate and stand by the curb and you can get a taxi, which will be much cheaper than whatever I call for you. Tell the driver that you want to see the city and he will take you sightseeing.” I walked out of the gate and two minutes later a taxi pulled up.

That is where it began. Before I could say anything, the driver jumped out of his seat, came around to the back, opened the door and ushered me into the rear seat, with a flourish. Then he said, “Sir, my name is Zhi Hao (sounded to my Hyderabadi ear like Jee Hao – Yes Sir)”, which I thought was great. I looked at the inside of the car as I sat and found it to be spotlessly clean with a pleasant aroma of air freshener. Zhi Hao said, “Sir there is water for you and today’s newspaper, and a couple of magazines which you may like to read.” He shut the door, went around, and got into his seat and looking in the rearview mirror, asked me, “Sir, where would you like to go?” I said to him, “Mr. Hao, I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to sit in your car and enjoy the experience.” He flashed me a huge smile and took me around Singapore, pointing out the sights with great pride. A taxi driver, I tell myself. But one who was passionate about his job, took pride in it and was focused on making a positive impression on his customer.

NMDC Class photo – I am standing – top center

My second story is from 1994 when I first arrived at GE Corporate University in Crotonville. I was there to audit the NMDC and get accredited on it to teach it in India and Asia. I was met at the airport by a limo driver carrying a neatly printed placard with my name. He took my luggage and seated me in his limo, Lincoln Town Car. As we neared Crotonville, he called ahead on radio car-phone (days before mobiles) and I was met at the bottom of the flight of stairs leading to the Crotonville Hotel lobby by the receptionist. She ushered me into the lobby and said, “Please come with me Mr. Baig. You are pre-checked in. Let me show you to your room. Your luggage will be there shortly.” She opened the door to a huge luxurious room and showed me all the bells and whistles and said, “The telephone is an independent international line, and you are welcome to call anyone you like, anywhere in the world. The fridge is stocked with snacks and drinks and will be restocked every morning. If you need anything more, please call me at the front desk.” I was very impressed with the level of service and told her that and thanked her. “We value our teachers, Mr. Baig,” she replied. That ‘value’ was seen in her actions, not in any corporate slogan or billboard.

As it happened, Jack Welch, the famous Chairman of GE was due to arrive next morning and was to take one session in the NMDC that I was auditing. I asked the lady, “I understand that Mr. Welch will be here tomorrow. Where will he stay?”

“He will stay here,” she replied.

“Is there a Chairman’s suite that he will stay in?” I asked.

“No, Mr. Baig, he will stay in a room just like this. May even be the room next to yours. All our rooms are ‘Chairman standard.’

Whether you are a taxi driver or the Chairperson of a global corporation, the rule is the same – do what you are passionate about and do it to a level of excellence consistently. That is your brand, and your customers will take it to the world.

As I am doing here today.

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sola olona

Absolutely interesting read!

Shoaib Ahmed

Loved the blog Yawar bhai . To my mind building as reputation ( brand ) is Simple and should not be confused with Easy to do 🙂
Obsession with getting and giving the best price in a low trust world , has its own challenges .
Companies which get this right win big time , and deliver Happiness to all stakeholders

Maher Khan

Excellent piece as always!

Xavier S. Arputharaj

A very thought provoking essay with practical examples. ” People do not remember the specifics. Only the overall feeling”. An absolute gem this is. Whilst we may be brilliant in our customer service on a few transactions, we may not be looking at the holistic feel that we provide to our customers. This simple statement explodes into our view the importance of providing that end-to-end fragrance of customer service.

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