When most people think of "branding," they envision entrepreneurs conjuring up a fancy name, registering an associated domain and working with a designer to create the perfect logo.
Related: 8 Reasons a Powerful Personal Brand Will Make You Successful
Reality check: Branding isn't about design fluff and clever names. Branding is a massive endeavor that involves everything from your company's identity and personality to how you'll connect with your target audience. A failure to get these details right can crush your beautiful brand in no time.
Get it right, and the community behind your brand will lift it up. Get it wrong, and the community will tear it down.
Don't believe me? Just ask the Canadian hotel chain tasked with overhauling Toronto's former Trump International Hotel and Tower. Crews recently removed the "Trump" name from the 65-story building's facade about five years after the building opened for business. The hotel owners plan to rebrand the massive structure as the St. Regis Hotel.
So, yes, your name definitely plays a role, but the best-kept secret of successful branding is the power of community.
The power of building your own community
One of the strongest ways to drive growth is through the K-factor — a fancy way of describing the growth rate of websites and measuring their virality. Once you have plenty of nodes in your referral network working to add other nodes, your brand's exposure increases exponentially. Instead of your needing to directly generate awareness, you can let your network handle the heavy lifting.
Better yet, buyers, as Nielsen found, are four times more likely to do business with a brand if a connection recommends it.
When we rolled out our own Coplex startup-accelerator brand in 2013, our strategy didn't include marketing campaigns, billboards, online ads or search engine optimization. Instead, we fostered one-on-one relationships with a long list of players: employees, vendors, customers, partners, community members, government, bankers, students, investors, college deans, LinkedIn connections and even the occasional Uber driver (yes, we actually did that!).
I've probably consumed a metric ton of my breakfast of choice, gluten-free pancakes, over countless morning meetings with connections, but it was all in service to a back-to-basics approach designed to foster relationships and forge partnerships to solve problems.
In short, we built a tribe instead of a brand, just as I'd read about in Dave Logan's book, Tribal Leadership. This approach helped us, and now we're well-known in the Southwest — as well as other emerging markets — all because we let our community develop our brand.
Relationships are the new marketing power.
If you think plastering images of your brand everywhere will drive business to your doors — virtual or otherwise — you're sorely mistaken. That variety of in-your-face marketing and advertising no longer works in a society that sees more than 5,000 ads a day. Nobody cares about your ad, but everyone likes to create connections and feel a sense of social belonging. It's science.
Related: 5 Tips for Stress-Free Networking
Thanks to our global economy, products and services are available to anyone anywhere immediately — and at low cost. It's nearly impossible to strike gold based solely on price and product; you need a community of supporters to cover your flank before you go charging into battle. This is the reason influencer marketing has exploded — marketing agency Mediakix, for one, expects Instagram influencer marketing to hit $2 billion by 2019.
In our own case, the network we've built has become our most powerful marketing machine. More than 75 percent of our leads come from the community that has created our brand. This network has helped our company become known and respected, building our local ecosystems and the people behind them.
It takes a village to raise a brand.
So, let's say you're convinced: You want to build your own network. But, a caveat here: A brand is only as strong as the people who know it. Here are some tips on how to get the word out:
1. Stay focused.
Trying to be everything to everyone will make you nothing to anyone. Start by doing one thing better than anyone else, for a well-defined group of people. When someone asks what you do, be prepared to discuss one thing that you have truly mastered.
By keeping the conversation simple and focused, you ensure that your companion remembers you as the go-to person for your specialty and knows you're not trying to be a jack-of-all-trades. When one of that person's associates needs help in your area of expertise, you'll be top of mind for any referrals.
2. Become a storyteller.
Don't see yourself as a budding Mark Twain? That's okay. Storytellers come in all shapes and sizes. There are even online platforms, such as my buddy Park Howells' podcast, where you can learn this ancient art form. Aim to connect on a human level by sharing tales and creating influential content that illustrates your business.
Mind you, this isn't exactly a revolutionary concept. About 40,000 years ago, the Australian Aboriginals of the Arnhem Land used cave paintings to tell stories. The most effective content is relevant to its intended audience and tells a compelling story. A report by LinkedIn's B2B Technology Marketing Community found that 57 percent of respondents felt a solid story was a necessary component of effective content.
3. Be yourself.
People value authenticity in real relationships — it's what separates true friends from mere business contacts. While you don't need to become best pals with everyone you meet, open up and truly get to know the people you're spending time with. Be honest enough to let them know you, too.
Sharing challenges is a terrific way to humanize your situation. While a social channel like LinkedIn might have more than 500 million members, you need to do more than simply send invites and "like" people's posts. Use the platform to keep your network updated by discussing your accomplishments, as well as the hardships you face.
4. Make networking a team effort.
It's important to encourage your team members to network. I believe in this so much that we actually factor networking efforts into our employee compensation plan. Efforts to forge a strong community are sometimes more valuable than time spent sitting in front of a computer. Rather than worry about people getting poached or having less time to "get work done," understand that the benefits of expanding your company's network far outweigh any costs.
5. Offer assistance to everyone without expecting anything in return.
When was the last time you sincerely asked someone how you could lend a hand? This is Networking 101, but people rarely offer to help one another. Over the years, I've always asked, "What can I do to support you?" These small acts of kindness add up, and people don't forget the favors extended to them. When you yourself need help down the road, they'll remember your kindness and be willing to reciprocate.
Related: The 5 Elements of Storytelling Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know
The takeaway here is that, if you are building a brand, be sure to think about how you can piece together your tribe. Regardless of the direct benefit to you, connect people in your network who can add value to one another — these triadic relationships will help you build a powerful network of brand loyalists. Stop worrying so much about your logo and start building your tribe — one stack of pancakes at a time.
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