Brand Commandments

The stone-cold reality: You are not too busy to build your own brand. Follow our instruction to rehab your company image immediately.

When it comes to branding, too many distributors and decorators have a serious case of “shoemaker’s child syndrome.” Remember the old saying? The shoemaker’s children go barefoot because their father is too busy crafting fancy footwear for his clients to tend to his own family.

Distributors often fall into the same trap, with excuses like: “I don’t have time to build my own brand because my job is building their brand,” or “I’m too busy selling to worry about marketing my own company.”

It’s a disconnect that bothers brand-savvy distributors like Rightsleeve (asi/308922) and Fairware (asi/191452). “I’ve always found it ironic in this industry that we exist to help our clients animate their brand and accentuate their brand and leverage their brand, but there are a lot of folks that don’t think about their own brand,” says Denise Taschereau, CEO of Fairware. She wonders: If you don’t have a strong grasp of your brand, how do you convince a client that you’ve got what it takes to promote theirs?

Industry companies who aren’t proactive – and who don’t provide creative solutions to clients – get pigeonholed as transactional entities, says Mark Graham, founder of Rightsleeve. It isn’t a bad thing for companies that want to paint themselves as the low-cost provider, but it makes it difficult for them to stand out. Plus, Graham says too often it contributes to the branding problem the promotional products industry suffers as a whole – the well-worn “trinkets and trash label.”

Branding matters because buyers care about it – particularly millenials, who are becoming an increasingly potent buying demographic. A recent study by Edelman, the world’s largest public relations company, revealed that millennials consider brand identification almost as important as religious preference and ethnic background when defining themselves online. Brands aren’t simply what people like – it helps identify who they are.

Sturdy brands have devoted followers who are fiercely loyal and repeatedly praise them to others. Good promotions not only define the client’s brand, but shape your own as well. So how to tell if your brand holds up? “I always say, ‘Does this pass the T-shirt test?’” Graham says. If a company puts its brand on a T-shirt, would it be worn outside the actual event? “If you can create something that is going to create this emotional connection, that sense of, ‘This is really cool. I would proudly wear that,’ that’s the Holy Grail right there,” Graham says.

You don’t have to be a knight of the round table to take on this quest. Building, promoting and managing your own brand (as well as your clients’) does take time and energy, but it’s more easily attainable than the mythic medieval cup. In keeping with our epic theme, however, here are the 10 commandments of branding. (While these aren’t chiseled in stone, they can certainly be read on tablets.)


Know yourself.

The first step in branding is figuring out what you bring to the table – round or otherwise. What are your company’s values? What message do you want to get across to customers? Too many fledgling businesses think they can just come up with a name, throw together a logo and call it a day. But experts say your brand is so much more than the sum of its parts. Logos, names, taglines and websites are all just the external trappings of something much more essential.

“Brands should be developed from the inside out,” says Kelly Fletcher, CEO of Fletcher PR, a national firm that specializes in marketing to women. “Define what makes your product or service valuable and different. What is your corporate reason for being?”

For nine-year-old Fairware, the answer to that question was simple. Taschereau and Sarah White, co-founders of the company, wanted to create a brand based around sustainability and creativity. Their mission, then and now: “We believe we can change the world through the simple act of buying,” Taschereau says.

Being environmentally friendly was never about following the hip trend of the month for them. “It’s always been part of our DNA,” Taschereau says. She and White knew from the beginning that the brand would not be for everyone. “While that may terrify some business owners, I see it as our secret sauce,” Taschereau says. Instead of fighting for prospects among thousands of more general distributors, Fairware only has to contend with the handful of competitors that cater to the eco-conscious crowd.


Stand Out.

Once you know your niche, the trick is getting noticed. When you and your competitors in the global marketplace are all saying pretty much the same thing, in the same words, offering similar products, services and pricing, the way to stand out is through smart branding, says Ryan Sauers, a sales and marketing consultant. “Quite frankly, the noise in the world is so loud and so strong, and our attention spans are so short, that it’s very difficult to be heard without a compelling and concise brand message,” he adds.

So how does a brand differentiate itself? It’s not about throwing a bunch of buzzwords into a blender, hurling the mushy mess onto a wall and hoping something sticks – though there does need to be some kind of “stickiness” to your message, some element a potential customer can’t help but remember, says Graham. You have to figure out what you do best and craft your brand message around that. For Rightsleeve, it’s about helping clients create “emotional connections” with creative and thoughtful promotional campaigns. “I knew that I didn’t want to be some lame coffee cup seller,” Graham says.

The name Rightsleeve, a spot rarely chosen in traditional logoed apparel, plays into the distributor’s emphasis on uncommon solutions. “There are so many people that have goofy names in the industry that don’t really mean anything,” Graham says. “I wanted to come up with a brand name that was easy to remember and easy to spell. … I liked how [Rightsleeve] rolled off the tongue … and fit my own brand of quirkiness.”


Be a Good Listener.

Your brand is not what you say it is – rather, it’s what others are saying about it, both online and off. “Perception is reality when it comes to brand,” says Sauers, who runs Sauers Consulting Strategies. If you want to make sure your brand message is being heard the way you want it to be, you must pay attention to feedback. Like a standup comedian perfecting a joke night after night until laughter is assured, you have to be attuned to your audience, always gauging reactions and tweaking your communications to evoke the image you’re trying to project.


Be Authentic.

People want to make a real connection with the brands they frequent. If it’s a brand that matches their values or interests or just makes them feel cool by association, they’ll gladly wear apparel or use products bearing its logo. And once they’ve latched onto a brand, they’ll often fiercely and passionately defend it. Ever witness a fight between a Starbucks aficionado and someone who prefers Dunkin’ Donuts coffee? The caffeine-fueled battle can get pretty intense.

“We have to feel we can relate to a brand, feel part of it and participate in it,” Sauers says. Having a robust presence on social media can help with this. Update your feeds regularly, be as transparent as possible, interact with your customers sincerely and write posts that sound like they come from a real person, not a robot. It matters: a study by Chadwick Martin Bailey and iModerate Research Technologies found that consumers are 67% more likely to buy from brands they follow on Twitter and 51% more likely to buy from one they follow on Facebook.

Other forms of marketing – from e-mail to traditional mailers – should also be faithful to your company image as well. Otherwise, the clients you may attract may not be the ones you want.


Honor your Core Audience.

A customer’s passion for your brand is a powerful tool, but just like in a real relationship, those feelings must be nurtured and respected. “The one thing that is sure to ruin a brand is the betrayal of its core audience,” says Kyle Kane, CEO of 180 South Group, a brand management firm. “Once that trust is lost, it is nearly impossible to gain back.”

Think of the personal brand of a celebrity like Lance Armstrong, he says. Armstrong peddled a message of “honesty, hard work and perseverance, until he was caught cheating and lost all respect from his fans,” Kane points out. On the other hand, “goddess of domestic perfection” Martha Stewart was able to bounce back after being convicted and jailed a decade ago for insider trading. The difference? Stewart’s scandal “was not a direct contradiction and betrayal of her core audience, since lying and stealing has nothing to do with cooking and designing a bedroom set,” Kane says.

Most brands don’t have to weather such massive scandals, but the same principles apply on a smaller scale. For example, if you make a mistake and a follower on Twitter calls you out, the best thing to do is issue a swift and sincere apology, then follow through with real-world actions to correct the problem.


Be Consistent.

Once your brand image is established, it’s important to keep it consistent through every facet of your business. “Your brand is everything, from your name, website, logo and slogan, to the fonts, colors and textures you choose to use, and even your tone of voice when you answer the phone,” Kane says.

Of particular importance is making sure apparel – whether an employee’s uniform or a promotional T-shirt given out to potential customers – matches the personality of the brand. When you choose the wrong type of garment, or a decoration technique that doesn’t fit, it can be particularly jarring. Steven Kanney, president and owner of Target Decorated Apparel (asi/90549), has noticed this phenomenon whenever he walks into an Apple Store. Employees’ logoed shirts are often faded, with cheap-looking puckered embroidery on the chest, he says. It doesn’t match the cool, high-end, well-designed tech the brand is known for. “Everything else they do is so good and clean,” Kanney says. “That just feels blatant to me because everything else is so strong.”


Be Image-Conscious.

If a client is trying to choose the cheapest garment out there, remind him that shaving those few extra dollars off could have a much bigger impact than just on the bottom line. The same applies for your own branding wear. “It’s what you’re suiting your people up in to go into battle,” Kanney says of logoed apparel. You don’t want to put your team in a “giant bag T-shirt that’s just a big square slab of nonsense,” Kanney says. Nor would you want to give that away as a promotional item, because who would wear it?

It’s also important to consider your design objective ahead of time, says Gina Barreca, director of marketing for Vantage Apparel (asi/93390). Not all decoration techniques work on all garments. Also, she says, quality and labels matter: “When you’re looking at the quality of a product, you want to try to get the best you can in that category, so maybe you can suggest a high-end T-shirt for a client, rather than a lower-end polo.” It’s easy to elevate or convey a particular image if you piggyback on an established apparel brand, she adds. Putting your logo on a higher-end brand polo shirt from Vantage’s Greg Norman line, for example, can give your own brand a boost by association.


Think Like a Marketer.

Salespeople are conditioned to sell, naturally. But Graham says when all you focus on is pushing product out the door, personal and company branding take a backseat. “We’re not an industry of marketers; we’re an industry of salespeople,” he says. ”I really feel that’s our fundamental challenge.”

Defining a brand means carving out time to think creatively. Moreover, it means eschewing constant self-promotion for content that reflects your company values and best qualities. Social media in particular lends itself to this way of thinking; nobody wants to follow a brand that constantly promotes itself without adding value. “If you put out solid information and creative content and ideas, you will gain traction and a following even if you’re a one-person company,” Sauers says. Constantly blasting customers with news about specials or entreaties to “like” your page will not endear your brand to the public.


Be Vigilant.

Promoting a brand is an ongoing effort. The work isn’t over just because it’s achieved household name status. Kane says he and the other brand managers at 180 South Group spend about six months launching a brand into an emerging market, through product and story placements, celebrity engagements and other public relations strategies. After that, it can be a 24/7 job to keep the brand top-of-mind and its image untarnished. “A brand is the soul of a company, and the soul knows no time,” Kane says. “One of my mentors used to say, ‘A good brand manager knows when the client has a toothache.’ ”


Tell a Story.

Just as every superhero has a dramatic origin story, the best brands have a tale to tell. Batman wouldn’t be Batman if a young Bruce Wayne’s parents hadn’t been killed, and Apple likely wouldn’t have become Apple without the charismatic influence of the late Steve Jobs. A brand tells its story just as much through visual cues, like business cards and logoed apparel, as through more literal means, like the “about us” section of the company website.

“A brand is an emotional connection,” Kane says. “A strong brand identity is the common thread that can unite the passion of many toward one common goal.”