Branding is more than the sum of your parts

Ask yourself who you are to your customers when rebranding


Ron Rondello, owner of Harris Music, is in the midst of transforming his business into Bellingham Music Academy. Brand professionals say rebranding your business requires knowing yourself, your customers and your competitors.


When Jason Lee was growing up, there was a popular hamburger joint over on the Guide Meridian similar to Wynn’s in Fairhaven. He remembers it burning down.

“It was a great, quirky, greasy-spoon type of place, but when the building burned down, they decided not to rebuild and instead moved to a new location that had a food court feel,” Lee said. “It wasn’t the same anymore and they went out of business.”

And what’s the moral of the story, other than not to let your business burn down? Lee said you have to understand what makes your business brand work — and keep with it.

“You have to be true to the brand,” Lee said.

Lee’s approach to branding is both pithy and pragmatic. Essentially, branding is the promise a business makes to a customer and the perception the customer has with that product or service. And yet it can go beyond this definition to include everything the customer experiences — even how an employee answers the phone — because a company’s brand interacts with the public in ways the business may not be aware of or is unwilling to admit.

Lee and business partner Scott Friesen at FLIR Creative said they help businesses be true to their brand by clarifying the image and message they present to the public. Their two-man operation builds brands, whether for new companies needing visual identification, or for established organizations that need to evolve to stay relevant.

Many reasons compel businesses to update their brand. New revenue streams may allow them to expand, the market can become more competitive or the public’s perception may shift to reflect a new awareness. Businesses of all sizes can benefit from a branding campaign because a good brand establishes a position no one else has in the marketplace, said Matt Barnhart, owner of Pivot Lab and MB Design.


Authenticity in advertising

Barnhart sees bad brands everywhere. When companies fail to go to the next level or fade away, he said it’s often because their brands don’t explain clearly what the business does. A heating and air company he contracted with had a knight logo that didn’t make sense to him. He told them that they’d continue to waste money advertising if they didn’t change their logo, but after more than 10 years with it, the owner was too attached to see that it wasn’t working. Barnhart said their sales doubled when the owner agreed to change the logo two years later.

“Everyone is shouting and the more a company can focus the message, the more likely it is they’ll succeed,” Barnhart said.

Friesen, Lee and Barnhart all use the buzzword “authenticity” to describe how businesses communicate their values to customers. They said authenticity is the company’s core personality trait that a customer can share in. It is the most integral part of the branding process. If a company can’t answer the question “Who is our brand?” then a customer doesn’t have much of a persona to engage.

Branding provides the chance for companies to answer essential questions about their core values. Who are the competitors? What is it about the company that makes it unique and how can they differentiate themselves?

“A brand is what you can say about your organization that actually will mean something to your audience. To do this you have to know yourself, your audience and your competition,” Barnhart said.


Branding by any other name…

Although he doesn’t call what he’s doing “branding” or use any of Lee’s, Friesen’s or Barnhart’s terms, Ron Rondello is changing his business. The soft spoken Rondello explains a month-old plan and his long-time dream quite simply — to change his current business Harris Music into the Bellingham Music Academy.

Sitting behind a glass-topped counter while one of his new music instructors plucks an etude on a classic guitar, Rondello is confident his new ad campaign will help him attract the new customers he needs to fulfill his plan. A wooden A-frame sign outside his business on State Street announces the new music academy, and every other week he’ll be alternating advertisements between the academy and the store in the local papers.

“I really believe that whoever markets teaching music the most will get the most business,” Rondello said.

Rondello said he doesn’t see much competition, and those who he has identified as competitors only advertise on corkboards. In any case, he can afford to be patient and take his time to let customers know about the changes to his business. He sold the store’s building and has three rent-free years to transform his retail store into a full-time instruction academy at another location.

Not every business has three years to massage its identity as it tries to be competitive, attract new customers and go after new markets.

The strength of branding a business is not reinventing the company, but bringing together the external experience of the brand with what already exists internally by updating, recommunicating and reaffirming the company’s place in the marketplace, Friesen and Lee said. The purpose is to distinguish a company’s values and position from others. Friesen said relying solely on marketing can be dangerous when branding.

“Nothing reveals the weakness of a brand like a great ad campaign that drives a lot of potential customers to a company that can’t deliver on what its brand promises,” Friesen said.


More than just a name

Bob Jones, owner of Dewaard and Jones, is in the midst of a potential rebranding effort. When Dewaard and Jones got into the software industry four years ago, people would think it was a financial institution when they first heard the name. He wasn’t able to address the confusion until he became the sole owner in July.

As Jones explains what his company does, he knows it’s a mouthful. He said his problem is how to tell the people what he does in a limited amount of time. He doesn’t want to be known as “the computer guy.”

“Do we try to tell people what we do in our name, like Bellingham Software? The problem with that is it’s too bloody generic — or do I brand myself?” Jones said.

Jones plans on retiring within the next few years, so naming the company after himself is not an option. But he recalls time spent down in Silicon Valley where there was a cadre of companies doing business information systems. He said the phonebook had an endless list of companies with names like inbiz, zybiz, infobiz: Conformity had essentially biz-nickeled and dimed the companies out of a clear market identity.

Jones said Rowen Moore-Seifred from DoubleMRanch Design did the visual logo for his new brand, The Socrates Group. Jones said the logo, which consists of a red spiral arrow similar to a nautilus shell, symbolizes growth and the notion of business refining itself. Questions on the back of a new business card reinforce the Socrates allusion, evoke Socrates’ dialectic method and give potential customers a chance to ask the questions he would if they were a client.

“So now, on my business card I’ve got enough information for you to self-qualify and say maybe it’s worth talking to this guy,” Jones said.

A competitive analysis done by employee Ryan Rickerts gave him a sense of how his company relates to other businesses in the area. It led to clarity, he said, and knowing just how his company is different or similar to others.

This is exactly the kind of analysis MB Design and FLIR Creative use to develop better brand positioning and identification. Crafting and clarifying who you are as an organization requires digging deep into the organization to get a true response from every level in the company, Barnhart said.

“Once you have that clarity, it’s about voice, visuals and a mixture of the two,” Barnhart said.

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