Discussions with new entrepreneurs reflect the overwhelming number of decisions they must make as their business grows.  Businesses that have been open a few years have staff that often talk about how their business drifted from its original concept.  Well established businesses sometimes talk about stagnation and the inability to utilize resources the same way they did years ago.  Each phase of the business life cycle is full of decisions, and these decisions are often made through the lens of cash resources, available time/energy, competition, personal interests and other qualifying characteristics.  Where does the brand based business decision fall within the hierarchy of decision making processes?
Most businesses, organizations, communities, states (frankly any entity) want to promote their “brand”.  In layman’s terms, a brand is that thing that makes the general consuming public think about you in a certain context.  The brand isn’t a simple tag line.  A brand is a feeling that people emote as they think about your business, entity or organization.  Great brands reinforce positive feelings about their brand, and differentiate themselves from perceived competitors.  Ineffective brands simply blend in to the background noise of other brands that swirl through the collective consumer consciousness.
Businesses in the short term have to keep their doors open and their lights on, but in the long term a business cannot hope to succeed without an effective brand strategy.  The brand of a business must be included in decision making processes to allow for sustainability of the business (and the brand).  The following are five questions pertaining to brand that you should ask yourself as you make business decisions:
1.  How does your course of action make you different in a meaningful way?  All businesses are different is some way.  Your name, location, color scheme, etc. are all different- but does that mean anything to your customer?  By coordinating your brand and your defining factors, you can appeal to your target group more effectively.  If your business decisions continue to reinforce your brand, your target market should grow as your differentiation separates you from competitors.  If your decisions run contrary to your brand, the resulting brand confusion often corresponds with a loss of market share.  For example, if a state touts the opportunities for youth within its boarders while simultaneously ignoring the things that are meaningful to that age range, you may see a population loss within a segment of the populace.
2.  How does your decision appeal to your target demographic while reinforcing your brand?  If you talk your customers, they often say they want cheaper products- but does that fit your brand?  Advertising is littered with retailers featuring “the biggest sale of the year”, until the following week when they follow up with the next “biggest sale of the year”.  If your brand implies low cost, why not make low prices consistent every day?  If your clientele values quality, why not find ways to show your consumers what the word “quality” means to your business (and how you deliver on the promise of quality).  If your brand emphasizes selection, how do your business decisions create the depth in product lines to reinforce the myriad of choices you provide?  If a community wants to appeal to professionals starting out, but the decisions reinforce a much older mind set, a community will be inefficient in its growth.
3.  How does your potential change simplify your message?  Brands are elegant in the simplicity of the feelings they evoke.  When I hear the word “Jeep”, I think of a rugged vehicle.  When Jeep has attempted to cross over into a more “luxury” market, they have annoyed their loyalists while confusing people recently exposed to their product.  If your brand is based on service, then creating premium services without a lot of qualifying conditions should factor into your decisions (how can we offer more services that improve our value to the customer?).  If you have a service based brand, but decide to offer a discounted option without services provided, you risk offending existing customers and devaluing a defining characteristic in your organization (service).
4.  How does your alteration give you a competitive advantage?  Competitive advantages are often found when you compare your strengths with a competitor’s weaknesses.  As long as you can be honest about strengths and weaknesses, and those strengths and weaknesses are meaningful in the minds of your consumer, you can advance differentiation.  When tying your brand to your competitive advantages, you will either fool a competitor into competing against you in an area where they have issues, or you will stand out even more in the mind of a consumer.  For example, if you have a larger and more technically proficient staff, you might compete via responsiveness to your customers.  If your brand emphasizes the importance of the relationship built with your clientele, any decision you make to reinforce quick response times and consistent customer appreciation can reinforce your brand and create a competitive advantage.
5.  How does your choice improve the sustainability of your brand?  Some people use internal brand strategy to prevent business action.  It sounds weird, but some of the best decisions we’ve made within Emporia Main Street were strongly opposed because some didn’t think it fit within there concept of our brand.  We’ve seen some groups that have difficulty pointing to specific actions they take to adhere to their mission, vision or brand.  An effective brand strategy will oppose stagnation and evolve to create a sustainable business model.  Your customers are the caretaker of your brand, but your competitors are not.  Make sure your business choices, when viewed through the lens of your brand, represent opportunities to grow and improve.  Resist brand decision making that conveniently reinforces a mindset of stagnation and opposes innovation.  Consistent and measures business evolution, consistent with your brand identity, can improve the sustainability of your organization.
Without adherence to a brand specific message platform, organizations can fall into a series of excuses that cause their market share to shrink.  Businesses that don’t understand brand can sometimes unwittingly tie themselves to another business with an unsustainable “we aren’t the other guy” message campaign.  Communities can retreat into a beige strategy of homogeneity that doesn’t support pride, loyalty or destination traffic.  States can quickly become “fly over” regions without decisions that reinforce a positive brand image.  The negative consequences of ignoring “brand” in your decision making process is clear.
 
It’s true that brand is simply part of the equation of a successful businesses, and coming up with a killer brand concept doesn’t mean a lot unless the actions of your entity back it up.  Think about what your brand is, and allow the five questions above to help guide you as you continue to make important decisions about your entity’s future.