In-Depth

Branding 101

Think you can afford to ride on the coattails of the Microsoft name? Think again. You need to promote your own brand, too.

After going through the effort of becoming a Certified or Gold Certified Partner, you might be content to plaster Microsoft's mighty logo all over your stationery and homepage and call it a day. No doubt about it: Microsoft is probably the world's best-known corporate name, and being associated with it can open many doors (see "Microsoft: World's Biggest Brand," July 2006).

But your own company brand is equally important. While creating, disseminating and maintaining a brand can be a complex, time-consuming process, you ignore it at your own peril.

"Branding is an important part of driving leads and sales," says M.H. "Mac" McIntosh, an independent IT industry sales and marketing consultant based in North Kingstown, R.I. Well before any selling actually happens, your brand serves as your company's public face-and its calling card. As McIntosh puts it: "You want your brand to get into people's mental file cabinets, someplace they can go find you later when they need you."

But many small and midsize companies are in the same boat as vSync Corp., a Columbus, Ohio-based provider of electronic data interchange (EDI) solutions. "We don't have someone on staff who is an expert in branding," says Lisa Steinhart, marketing director for vSync, a Gold Certified Partner.
Like many other start-ups, vSync outsourced the task of naming itself shortly after its founding in 1999. Executives wanted a name that describes, or at least makes reference to, what the company actually does, Steinhart explains: "We provide synchronization between trading partners in different vertical industries" -- hence, vSync.

So what's in a name? Just the heart of your brand.

Naming Basics
You probably already have a gut sense that your company name is critical. And it is. But you don't need to feel overwhelmed by the volume of possibilities or to freeze because so much is riding on making the right choice. When in doubt, default to simplicity. The best idea is a name that, standing alone, tells people what your company does. But that might not be possible, especially if the name you want is already taken. So what are your other options?

Like everything else, company names are subject to fashion. Most recently, the dot-com boom began the trend of creating company names by sandwiching a couple of words together or making up entirely new ones. That creativity stemmed largely from the fact that many traditional company names -- and their URLs -- had already been snapped up, leaving fledgling businesses to pioneer new approaches to naming themselves. Such efforts generated lesser-known (and sometimes baffling) monikers like Avolar, BrandLadder and Spherion, and more prominent ones such as Accenture and Agilent.

Some companies choose unexpected spellings of words as their names-for example, Cynergy or Cinergy, rather than "synergy." Using odd spellings makes it easier to trademark the name and register the domain, but, at the same time, can make it tough for prospects to find you. It's a good idea to register domains of the most common misspellings of your name, too, says McIntosh. That way, you can immediately whisk spelling-challenged searchers and other confused souls to your site.

Names are also subject to misunderstanding. An important, and often overlooked, step in establishing a name is translating your company and product names into several foreign languages to make sure they don't have any unintended meanings or connotations. Idioms can lead to big trouble. For example, some German knapsack-makers refer to their products in English as "body bags," which might understandably prompt American consumers to steer clear.

Whatever name you choose, you'll need to make sure that it isn't already taken and then register it with federal, state and local agencies for trademark and other types of protection. (The exact requirements vary according to jurisdiction. Your local Better Business Bureau should be able to advise you.) The safest way to handle that task: Hire an attorney to do it. You don't want to fool around here, says Harry Brelsford, CEO of SMB Nation, a consulting firm in Bainbridge Island, Wash. Depending on what's involved, the registration fee might run as little as $1,000, or it could run much more. But at least once you've taken this step, you'll have peace of mind from knowing you're in good shape should you face trademark-infringement complaints (whether filed against you or by you) in the future.

Ultimately, you may not be able to arrive at a name that, by itself, succinctly conveys what you do. In that case, you'll need to create a tagline-a process that can be just as tricky as picking a name.

Tagline Basics
Taglines -- brief, explanatory slogans-are especially important if what you do isn't immediately evident from your company's name, says McIntosh. "You want to weave in what you do and who you do it for and the benefits into one little phrase," he says.

Premier Knowledge Solutions Inc., a Gold Certified Partner based in St. Louis, is a good example of a company name that needs a tagline to provide context and meaning. President Richard Losciale chose the tagline "Innovative Technology Training" because it immediately explained, as all good taglines should, what the company does (he also liked the alliteration).

To make its specialty area even more clear, vSync changed its tagline from "EDI Solutions You Can Count On" to "EDI Compliance Solutions You Can Count On." "There are a million EDI companies out there. We needed to differentiate ourselves," says Steinhart.

Understandably, many Microsoft partners might want to use Microsoft's name in their taglines -- but, in most cases, Redmond's corporate rules prohibits such use. Better to feature your alliance with logos and text on your Web page and stationery than run afoul of Microsoft's policy.

Lessons Learned
It's easy to get overly hung up on your logo, but that's actually among the least important aspects of branding. "Your mom might care, but no one else does, really," says McIntosh. "The logo doesn't make the cash register ring."

What does get revenue flowing is reaching the right prospects. "The brand message should ride along with lead-development messages," says McIntosh. "You shouldn't expect the brand to stand alone unless you're a huge company and can afford to spend $1 million on branding." The primary purpose of a midsize company's brand is to generate sales and prospects, rather than exist for the brand's sake alone.

Small and midsize Microsoft partners can't afford to do multimillion-dollar brand campaigns. For them, says McIntosh, the Microsoft brand does double duty, with its high recognition quotient and ability to communicate certain messages (for example, to many people "Microsoft" is synonymous with "PC"). The Microsoft partner's brand should leverage the Microsoft name as much as possible (and in ways that Microsoft allows) while promoting its own distinct message.

As for balancing Microsoft's logo with your own online, Redmond's rules are the primary consideration. In accordance with the company's policies, Losciale, of Premier Knowledge Solutions, positions Microsoft's logo at the bottom of his home page but mentions his alliance with the company many times in text higher up. "We have tried to have a fine balance, but we leave our egos at the door," he says. "Microsoft is one of the most powerful brands in the world. We're very happy to be allied with it."

Steinhart agrees. "I can't think of a case where we don't tout the Microsoft relationship. It's working for us."

URL Considerations
You can quickly and easily search for existing and available domain names on a domain registration provider such as Register.com (indeed, it only takes 15 seconds to have your hopes for your first-choice URL dashed). The trick, and the challenge, is finding a URL that's intuitive, easy to remember and works with your company name -- and that isn't already taken. New extensions such as .us, .info and .tv open up new possibilities-but they're not as mainstream, and therefore not as popular, as the standard .com URL.

Many, perhaps most, small and midsize company names don't exactly match their Web URLs. Premier Knowledge Solutions, for examples, uses Premier-KS.com. That wasn't the company's first choice, but, Losciale says, it was the most desirable option available.

URL options are simpler if you're using a made-up company name, such as vSync. The URL www.vsync.com was available in 1999, when the vSync's founders were in the market for a corporate identity. The trade-off , of course, is that a name like "vSync," while drawn from words related to the company's area of specialization, doesn't immediately convey what the organization actually does. As with most branding decisions, it's a matter of balancing and weighing the options.

Managing search-engine visibility, whether natural or paid, is another critical branding exercise. Many Microsoft partners avail themselves of pay-per-click advertising on Yahoo!, Google and MSN. "We have a person here whose responsibility is to manage our commitments to the hit engines," says Losciale.

Many domain-registration service providers, such as Network Solutions, offer additional, pay-by-the-drink branding services such as search-engine marketing. That can be an efficient, cost-effective way to go, Brelsford says: "These [providers] are really smart with the services they offer. It's $20 here and $25 there, a good fit for most small businesses."

Brand Maintenance
Once you've established your brand, you've got to maintain and extend it. The first and most important step, McIntosh says: Don't screw up. "Deliver what you promise," he says. "Enhance the brand by doing what you say you're going to do, rather than betraying it by not doing what you promise. Far better to underpromise and overdeliver than the reverse."

In addition, make sure you're sending a consistent message through all your different media (Web site, product literature, sales pitches and so forth). McIntosh describes a Manhattan-based Microsoft partner that stumbled especially badly in this area: "When you lay out all their different marketing materials from the last year, they look like they came from 10 different companies," he says. "In a competitive market like New York City, they may have missed the opportunity to plant the seed of remembrance in a prospect's mind. You want to come to mind the next time they need someone." In other words: Inconsistency breeds anonymity.

Houston, We Have a Problem
Small and midsize companies often turn to McIntosh when something has gone wrong with their branding. They've spent too much money and not seen a return. Or their revenue streams have dried up. The biggest problem, he says, is that most companies wait until they've hit a full-blown brand crisis before taking any action -- and even then, they tend to resort to stop-gap measures. They tweak their search-engine terms or buy a bunch of pay-per-click ads to try to get things moving again. With the immediate crisis averted, they forget about branding and marketing again-until the next setback occurs.

The trick is to work steadily on branding efforts throughout the year, in good times and bad. Many times, he says, material can be repurposed and reused for a minimal cost. Articles that you used in your last e-newsletter, for example, can be reused on the Web site. A few paragraphs from your blog can be pulled out and reused in your sales kit. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Freshen things up and use them again if they worked in the past," McIntosh advises. After all, effective branding depends largely on repetition -- a factor to keep in mind anytime you consider a brand overhaul.

Changing Your Brand: Proceed with Caution

Establishing a brand takes a lot of work, primarily in getting your name and tagline in front of as many people in as many formats as you can, again and again. In fact, repetition is probably the best way to make your brand stick. So once you've established your brand -- as validated by a focus group or survey, for example -- you'll typically want to avoid messing with it.

"You build brand awareness by repetition and stability," says Richard Losciale, president of Premier Knowledge Solutions Inc. of St. Louis. "Our brand is on our trucks, our stationery, the Web. We want it to stay put for a while. We have no desire to change it, and we see no need to."

After all, tales of re-branding disasters are legion. Even the world's biggest corporations are capable of serious branding missteps. The most infamous example befell a brand giant: Coca-Cola Inc. earned the world's derision when, in 1985, it launched and then almost immediately withdrew its "New Coke."

Sales and marketing consultant M.H. "Mac" McIntosh says many re-branding mistakes occur as the result of acquisitions. The acquiring company acts "jealous" toward the acquired brand, moving quickly to subsume it under its own brand. Doing so is a crucial error, McIntosh says, because the acquirer might well be throwing away the other brand's loyal customers. In such cases, the new owner must ensure that previous customers can find their way to the new entity. If corporate hubris prevents the company from clearly establishing a path from the old brand to the new one, it's guaranteed to lose some business.

To establish that path, use verbiage such as "XYZ company, formerly ABC company" or "ABC company, a unit of XYZ company," McIntosh recommends. That goes a long way toward easing customer confusion. If you acquire a brand you want to change, experts recommend establishing a transition period. During that time, keep the old brand intact while gradually introducing the market to its new identity. And no matter what other changes you make, maintain the old brand's URL -- one sure way to keep previous customers coming back. -- L.G.P.

Sometimes companies don't even know whether they've got branding problems. (To be fair, if you're doing an adequate job, problems can be tough to spot.) In that case, you might want to invest in focus groups or expert advice on what you're doing right and wrong. But, Brelsford notes, there's one good way to know when you're getting off-track: "Ultimately, if the phone doesn't ring, you know you've made a branding mistake."

More Information

Branding Resources
Web Sites
Snark Hunting, the Naming and Branding blog

Books
The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, by Al Ries and Laura Ries (HarperCollins, 2002)
Designing Brand Identity: A Complete Guide to Creating, Building, and Maintaining Strong Brands, by Alina Wheeler (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

Articles
"Building a Strong Brand Marriage"

About the Author

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance business and technology journalist.