Thinking

How Brand-building Can Give SMEs the Competitive Edge

October 28, 2018

The air is filled with a new exuberance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of ‘Make In India’ aspires to turn India into a manufacturing hub for the rest of the world. Alongside, his invitation to US companies to participate in India’s industrial space signals a robust development for India’s booming SME community.

At an estimated 64 million in 2016, India has the second largest number of SMEs in the world, with China leading the table. While it has been established that SMEs have the potential to drive industry growth, what most entrepreneurs do not realise is that apart from conducive administrative reforms, some of the challenges they face can often be addressed by one important strategy in their arsenal: Branding.
Branding is a need, not a luxury.

We live in a world that is dominated by brands. A brand inspires trust. It is the single most powerful and unifying statement that embodies an organisation’s culture and values and once well established, can create incremental value. Unfortunately, the importance of branding is often undervalued. There are certain fundamental beliefs that SMEs often have about branding which makes it the last item on their checklist. Let us take a look at some of these:

Branding is for large organizations
As is obvious, most SMEs prefer to focus on perfecting their product and service strategies first. Prohibitive media costs and the bombardment of big campaigns by big brands only shine a spotlight on their scarce resources. However, just as there are SMEs across all industries, they even exist in the branding and advertising categories. As they share the same space, they offer specialised services tailored to the needs and requirements of limited budget clients. Hence, all opportunities must be explored.

Branding is an expensive exercise
There is a common belief that branding involves huge capital investment. Those were the days of traditional media. Fortunately in today’s digital era, brands can and are often built on limited resources. Digital solutions are multiple and better targeted to audiences, giving your brand high visibility at a fraction of the cost of newspaper and television advertising. Also, entrepreneurs are nimble, quick on their feet and are therefore able to strategically use ‘out of the box thinking’ to break through the clutter at lower costs.

We know our customers and vice versa, so we don’t need branding: A possible cover-up for lack of budgets, this is often the biggest hurdle given that growth comes from attracting new, unknown customers and not just from the existing customer base. If you are not out there as a brand, there is no way someone can know about you.

We would rather invest our limited resources in our product and other critical areas of the business: Very often, it is the day to day survival that occupies the time for most business owners leaving branding at the bottom of the strategy chain. Entrepreneurs need to realise that branding is also a critical part of the business building process.

Branding builds bigger, better business
SMEs should shift their mind-sets and make branding an integral part of their business plan rather than an afterthought. It should emerge, grow and evolve along with the business and the company will see a significant difference in the impact it creates.

Building the business and sustaining growth
Growing the business with limited access to capital and resources can prove to be challenging. Branding helps in creating demand for products and services, resulting in faster sales. Even for B2B business, branding creates recognition, reputation and trust resulting in better conversions.

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Expanding from local to national to international
No SME wants to remain an SME and always aims for bigger glory. The struggle to expand into national and international markets can be long and tedious. Branding helps in creating awareness and acceptance for products and services across borders, resulting in a faster adoption.

Attracting the right talent
Great brands are trusted. They cushion their stakeholders in security. People want to work for brands that they can entrust their career with, to the extent that they would willingly compromise on a higher salary offered by a smaller or lesser-established brand. This enables SMEs to attract good talent at lower costs which further increases their success ratio.

Getting a premium for products/services
People are willing to pay a premium for an enhanced, consistent brand experience. As a brand, SMEs focusing on the same can afford to charge a premium resulting in better business and sales.

Most of the large brands we trust today have started as SMEs. Whether we talk of Walmart or Virgin in the international space, or closer to home, Reliance, Airtel, Flipkart and Hero Group, among many others.

Today, best practice in corporate brand building involves defining the corporate brand (its purpose, beliefs, verbal and visual identity), integrating the brand in the culture, designing the brand experience for every stakeholder, and then relentlessly managing the brand across the universe of touch points.

Defining the corporate brand
The first step towards building your brand is to be crystal clear on what you stand for and what your promise is. There is no magic formula or model for this. It takes smart people, clarity and creativity of thought, debate, and sometimes more research to determine the right answer. Creating the brand idea also requires a leap of faith to find something that captures the current positive brand equities as well as a vision for the brand’s future.

It needs to be something that is relevant to your audiences but also differentiated; something credible to who you are and also accountable. The more visionary this idea, the more it can sustain in the long term. GE is about imagination at work. Nike stands for winning. Mahindra embodies rise. The brand idea acts as a strategic filter for the future. It should be reflected in the visual and verbal identity of the brand. The logo, colours, typography, photography, materials and tonality should all be in sync with the brand idea.

Integrating the brand in the culture
The smartest companies know that the brand must be lived internally first before being delivered externally. Once the brand is defined, you must spend time defining the culture that will best allow you to deliver what the brand promises. This is not about fancy internal brand launches that then fizzle off after launch day. It is a prolonged programme of engaging all employees with the brand so that it informs their daily behaviours.

Such engagement programmes involve consistent interventions by way of workshops, communication material, e-learning modules and other tools to take employees on the journey from awareness to understanding to belief to action. It can take anywhere from six months to several years depending on the complexity of the organization and the degree of behaviour change involved. The goal should be for everyone in the organsation to have shared brand values which they use every day in the decision-making on behalf of the brand. IBM is one example. After employees are on board, it is important to align other stakeholder groups as well including agency partners, vendors, government partners and others – to inspire them to live the brand promises.

Designing the brand experience for every stakeholder
Once the brand and culture have been defined, examine every relationship the brand has from the stakeholder’s perspective. A useful tool here is the Employee Journey or Customer Journey. It involves mapping every stage of the stakeholder’s relationship with the brand from awareness to loyalty. In each stage touch points are listed and are analysed based on the stakeholder needs. Then, using what the brand stands for, possible solutions are arrived at for various brand interventions across every stage of the journey. Companies typically roll-out such an exercise to improve the customer experience but rarely do they think of using the same tool to define the ideal employee experience.

Managing the corporate brand
It is always possible to do things well once (typically at launch or re-launch) but the hallmark of truly great brands is perseverance. Diligence and patience are needed in huge doses in the game of corporate brand building. Companies that have built valuable brands have institutionalized brand to the extent that there is no difference between doing something for the business and doing something for the brand. They know that perfection in execution is far more important than perfection in strategy.

They employ both simple and sophisticated stakeholder experience management tools to constantly mind the gap between promise and delivery in everything they say and do. If they do make mistakes, they quickly and transparently admit to their failings, solve the problem and get going with their daily task of building the corporate brand, one action at a time.

The rules of branding don’t really change whether implemented in a large organization context or aligning to the needs of an SME. However, there are some additional factors an entrepreneur must keep some important tips in mind:

  • Influence of the entrepreneur: Most SMEs are individual driven and born from his passion, personality and values. The brand must personify these to avoid discrepancy between the brand promise and customer experience.
  • Influence of the entrepreneur on the company structure: This is based on his awareness and comfort of brand management, the people chosen to run the branding function and the objectives set for the department.
  • Execution of the vision: The brand experience begins with the entrepreneur. He embodies the spirit of the brand and will affect everything – employee interactions, product and service interactions and other touch points.

To conclude, SMEs need to build and manage their corporate brands with the same urgency as their balance sheets. Investment in brand is investment in business. Brands project power. They are your differentiator in a world saturated with assembly line goods and services. This is the first and most important step towards achieving their goals.

 

This article was first published on Economic Times

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