By: Robert Folse, Executive Dir. of Brand Marketing

Wow! Can the economic news out there get any more depressing? The bad news has become so oppressive and so prevailing that even businesses that are somewhat shielded from the macro-economic landscape have become concerned for their well-being in the near future. So, what is a hardworking marketing-focused business team to do during times like these? Dig out your toolbox and COMMUNICATE!!

During good economic times, well-run customer centric businesses can build remarkably powerful goodwill with their customers, prospective customers, employees, suppliers, distribution team, and raving fans. This group, collectively, is what we call the Brand Community. A Brand Community is built when people become associated with the Brand for reasons of their own choosing, but Community members are sustained when the Brand makes an effort to reciprocate interest in those Commmunity members. So, who is it that is most likely to support the Brand’s well-being during hard times…the Community! Of, course!

Here’s an example: Joe the Plumber is well known for his value-added customer service, his reliability, and his professionalism. By doing what he does best, his customers begin to refer his services to their friends, family, and associates. This continues until Joe can no longer provide his preferred level of service to the prospective customers who want his service. So, Joe recruits, hires, trains, and equips a team of new “Joes” to provide the level of service he has become known for providing. Now, Joe has a complex operation and a good deal more overhead to cover, so he brings on a scheduling and administration team. All the while this business growth is taking place, he is keeping his Brand Community informed and engaged through his e-announcements, newsletters and web site updates, and through personal discussions with his raving fans. These raving fans tell their connections about Joe’s success story when the opportunity to discuss their favorite plumber arises. Then, the economic winds change direction. Unexpectedly, renovation and home-addition projects dry up. Money is tight, and consumers begin cutting back by looking for less expensive solutions to their problems (like clogged toilets). What is a guy like Joe to do? He just expanded his operations, and added lots of new (and expensive) resources so he could continue to deliver what his Brand Community has come to expect from him. Oh NO! Poor Joe! The cost! The concern!

This is where Brand Marketing pays off. Brand Marketing happens when times are good, but pays ROI when times are hard. How you ask? By keeping the lines of communication open to your Brand Community, a company can often learn what the community needs from it when things change. In Joe’s case, his Brand Community may tell him to focus more on maintenance and upgrades rather than renovations and expansions. Just because times get tough, doesn’t mean a business’s products/services are no longer needed. They may just be needed in a different way than before. But, how will it know if it isn’t plugged into it’s Brand Community?

So…get plugged in!! NOW!! There are a lot of very effective ways to create 2-way conversations with your Brand’s Community. And, the methods you choose to use do not have to cost you an arm-and-a-leg. Obviously, the web is a great tool. By properly utilizing your web site as the central communications hub for your business, you can send out information, and request information in return. Start a conversation, by explaining your situation to your Community. Newsletters, printed or digital, help keep your Community engaged in what the business is doing from time-to-time. You get to share your work as well as your “good work” in the community at large. Don’t you want to know everything you can about the people who do business with you. Well, they want to know why they should do business with you, too!

Training your Brand Ambassadors to create 2-way communications is also a powerfully-effective yet inexpensive Brand Marketing initiative. Ambassadors can be paid or un-paid, and can often be the MOST EFFECTIVE form of communication and advertising your business will engage in.

Oh…yeah, advertising. How does this 3-headed monster fit into the equation? Well, don’t get branded by an ad agency! Why? Because they get paid to sell you advertising, not solutions to your branding challenges. Advertising, by itself, can be very effective in driving “short-term” traffic to your business (say, during the Holidays). However, unless you engage these advertising-driven new customers by cultivating their interest in your Brand, they most likely will view you as a commodity rather than as an unique and remarkable lifestyle partner. We all know by now that it is a heck-of-a-lot harder (and expensive) to get new customers in the door rather than to get repeat customers to buy from you and refer you to others. That said, Ad Agencies don’t like helping you build Brand Communities, because it cuts into their renewable cash flow. If they can keep you advertising for new customers, than they keep themselves on your payroll. When you build an engaged Brand Community, the Community sustains your sales and provides a referral base from which you can grow your sales if you so desire.

Advertising should support, but not replace your Brand Marketing efforts. Your web site should connect you to your Brand Community not disengage your team from its responsibilities to that Community. All the other tools you choose to make available to your Brand Community should work cohesively and for the Community’s benefit. If this is done well and with the same passion you put into growing the business in the first place, your Brand Community will be there to support you when you need it the most. Like right now!