By Brandon M. Gallagher Watson
A homeowner decides one day they need the service of a tree care company. They go to their computer and begin searching. “Local tree care.” “Best tree care.” “Affordable tree service.” “Insured tree service.” They scan the results looking for the company that speaks to them and the type of company they are looking to hire. What are they looking for, and how will they know when they’re found it? No consumer takes the time to read every potential company’s biography and check references. So, how does a consumer decide quickly which companies they are interested in having come out for an estimate? Whether consciously or not, the potential customer is evaluating these company’s brands. In just a few quick glances they learn everything they need to know about the company’s values, skill level, and hiring potential. In those quick few seconds, would they hire you? What does your brand say about you? Does it fit the client you are trying to reach?
Branding started off as a way for sellers to differentiate their products from those of others. Especially as products became mass produced and globally distributed, producers created ways to make their goods consistently recognizable. There are as many definitions of branding as there are branding agencies these days, but most contain some version of “a brand is any mark, symbol, or feature that differentiates one seller’s products from those of others.” As this definition is alluding, we often think of branding in terms of something you can see — the creative design like logos, colors, and graphic design. Partly this is because, well, those aspects are the easiest to see, and also because, if done correctly, the creative design should tell you much of what the company wants to convey. If the company wants to be known for its old-timey values, longevity, and traditions, they would have a logo that speaks to its venerable history. If a company wants to let you know it is on the forefront of technology and innovations they would opt for a modern design that conveyed “newness” and progress.
Branding has evolved far past being simply a visual communication. In fact, if you were to hire a branding agency to revamp your company’s brand, they would spend most of the time trying to understand your values and what characteristics define your ideal customer. The last step would be designing a brand identity to convey those values to your ideal customer. A corporate logo is a part of that brand identity, but it also includes every other consumer touch point you can think of. Business cards, letterheads, proposals, invoices, envelopes, vehicles, vehicle graphics, fact sheets, employee uniforms, ads, website, fonts, and images all make up your visual identity. Your brand is also defined by non-visual touches, such as how your employees speak to customers about your products and services.
We tend to think of branding as something only the “big” companies do. Multi-billion dollar organizations such as Apple, Coca-Cola, Target, and McDonalds are all frequently cited as companies that understand how branding differentiates them from other companies providing similar products. While these big guys spend more on a single ad campaign than most companies in our industry make in five years, that doesn’t mean small business shouldn’t concern themselves with branding. In fact, it is often more important for us to have consistent brand messaging, as we lack the resources to get messages in front of consumers as many times as large companies can. Even hiring a brand consultant is often out of the price range for many small businesses. But there are some easy steps that can be taken to use branding to your advantage.
The first step for using branding to differentiate you from your competitors is to define what differentiates you from your competitors. Here’s a quick exercise that can help visualize where you stand within your market: make a simple graph with “price” along the x-axis and “value/quality” up the y-axis. Now start plotting all the companies offering tree services in your market on the graph. The companies that claim “expert service” and charge premium pricing go toward the upper right quadrant, while the companies pretty much offering chain saws and low cost go into the lower left quadrant. There may be companies you know are expensive but don’t do the best work, they go into the lower right. Now plot where you think your company is on this graph. If you are in a cluster with many other companies you may want to find something other than price and quality by which to differentiate yourself. You could brand around your company’s safety record, your number of Certified Arborists, or, heck, even your vehicle color — so long as it is something that separates you from others. If you and several other companies are basically competing for the same ideal customer, you will need to find a brand position that helps you stand out.
Another approach to using this graph is to look for a space nobody is currently occupying, and claim that for your company. If there are already several companies competing for the “we are a premium service so you pay more” spot, you might be able to grab the “get more without paying more” brand identity. Remember that all the spots on this chart are legitimate brand approaches, but you need to ensure everything you build your brand around needs to reinforce this. Apple’s brand is defined by having the most expensive products; Wal-Mart’s brand is defined by having the lowest cost products. Both would be considered successful brands because everything they do supports these brand positions. World-famous architects are brought in to design Apple’s stores, while Wal-Mart’s stores are designed solely for utility. If you are branding your company as “Tom’s Affordable Tree Care” and you meet the client in your new BMW 7-Series sedan, the customer’s brand experience would be confused to say the least. Conversely, if you brand yourself as ‘Tom’s Premium Tree Care” while your crews arrive unkempt in dirty, rusty trucks the customer experience is also confusing. Define what you want your brand to be, construct your brand message, and then design your visual collateral materials to match your brand.
One definition of branding is that it “is the big idea about your company that exists in your customer’s mind.” This definition reminds us that what you think about your brand is irrelevant; it is what your customers think about your brand that matters. Brands often develop by default. If you do nothing to create a brand message and do not employ any of the techniques to get your brand message out there, then the brand that develops in the consumer’s minds may not be the one you want. Good branding should serve as a sort of visual shorthand — a quick way to determine if this product or service fits with their current needs. Branding not only informs customers who you are and what you do, it also helps define what type of customer seeks you out, and reassures them that they found the right company for them. Your ideal customer is out there right now looking for you. The question is, will they know it when they find you?
Brandon M. Gallagher Watson is creative director at Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements, and is an ISA Certified Arborist (#MN-4086A).