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Promise Phelon

[September 28, 2004]

Beyond References: Your Brand Obituary
How Would Your Company Like to Be Remembered?

By Promise Phelon, David Ambler and Suzy McKee

Brand is an elusive concept. While many have tried to define it, brand is ultimately how various audiences understand your company. This understanding is shaped and reshaped by expectations your company creates—its brand promise, and how well it delivers on those expectations through its businesses, services, policies and actions.

In this article, we will explore what brand means for enterprise technology vendors. We will also illustrate how your company can leverage deep relationships with its best customers to define, validate and evolve its brand as customer expectations and requirements evolve. Technology marketers in particular need this learning, as most technology companies invest deeply in market research and customer profiling before a brand is launched, but do not continue brand investment post-launch. When your company truly leverages its customers, it develops an intrinsically clear and evolving understanding about what customers need, and about what it must deliver—an understanding which may then be used to evolve the brand in alignment with your capabilities and customer expectations.

While many audiences experience your brand—prospects, analysts, trade and press, employees, partners, investors and even competitors, only customers can authenticate it. Until customers validate that your company has delivered on its promise, your brand is merely a promise made, not a promise kept. A promise made is a goal; but a promise kept, a success.

Constructing a "Brand obituary" is the starting point of an exercise that allows you to see if your company has been keeping its promises—and if not, to begin doing so. A Brand obituary allows you to penetrate your brand deeply and evaluate where it is in its lifecycle. You may then compare the obituary against your customers’ perceptions of your brand promise to see how and where you need to re-chart your course. Through this exercise, you will learn the answer to the question, "If our company dropped off the face of the earth today right now how would we be remembered?"

Step 1:Outline Your Brand obituary
Preparing your brand obituary should be a cooperative exercise with senior management in marketing, reference programs, sales and customer service. The idea is to evaluate exactly where you are today while avoiding discussions about where you think you are going. Only honest self-assessment on the current state of your brand will suffice. Answers to the following questions will provide the main components of your company’s brand obituary:

  • What will people remember about our company? What top three things will come to mind when they think about us?
  • Which customers would be deeply affected by our brand’s demise? Is our solution critical to all of our customers? If not, why?
  • What will people say about our company’s achievements? Or what have we helped others achieve? Have we enabled others’ successes? Are we a leader that others have tried to emulate?
  • What challenges did our company overcome? Is our position hard-won? Have we earned it?
  • What impact did our company have on society?
  • How will people feel about our demise? Will it be a major loss? Will they really care?
  • Who will deliver the obituary? (For example, a dignitary, an industry leader, a president, a celebrity, a customer, etc.) Who else would want to participate in our final ceremony?

Step 2: Update Your Ideal Customer Profile
Strong technology brands are shaped well before products are launched, before ad budgets are assigned and before sales channels are populated. Defining and designing a technology brand begins with your company’s decision about the location of its sandbox; positioning and message development are supporting brand elements. Where your company focuses, its offerings and the buyers it targets are fundamental to building a successful brand, which is why dissecting, reassembling and shaping your target market is critical to brand success.

Your customer profile should evolve in tandem with your customers’ requirements and your offerings. Carefully review and update your customer profile at least quarterly. Build strong quantitative and qualitative intelligence about who your customers are, how they perceive you, how they use your tools, their business challenges and why they buy from you. Work hard to analyze what drives their use of your products, what strengths they look for and what their expectations are.

Step 3: Align Your Brand obituary with the Updated Customer Profile
Armed with a brand obituary and a current customer profile, you should be able to map your actual brand against your brand promise. Does your brand align with customer expectations? If not, where does it fall short? Do your solutions meet customers’ current business requirements? Are you anticipating their future goals? Do customers accurately perceive your company’s strengths and weaknesses?

By answering those questions, you will learn if your company’s brand is right on target, dangerously off base, or perhaps somewhere in between. By comparing your brand obituary—what your brand conveys today, with your ideal customer’s expectations and perceptions, you can alter your course before it’s too late.

Step 4: Fortify Your Brand
Start with knowledge. Really understand your customer base, but not just the loyalists. Get to know customers who hang on the fringes. Get to know customers who are reactive promoters or who say good things when you do something tangible for them. Pick up the phone to understand why you lost prospects and customers. Analyze the information in aggregate. Learn from wins and losses. The answer may not be to change what and how you deliver; it may to change to whom you deliver.

Build a strong industry infrastructure with an aggressive analyst relations campaign. Promote customers who are using your solution to change the worlds of their shareholders and customers. Instead of reacting to analyst calls for dozens of references, provide analysts with credible customers who have bet their businesses on your technology. Analysts are, in many cases, technologists; they know enterprise technology isn’t perfect. Share customers who are not in your formal reference program.

Observe your customers. Listen to what they say about and how they position your company. Look for and identify trends. Emulate and test what has worked for your best customers through sustained customer communications, as well as through somewhat-unfiltered customer communities and networks.

Be provocative. If everyone else is shouting "ROI," your ROI will be hard to hear above the din. Instead, get your customers to tell a markedly different story through your customer success content.

Pull your customers into discussions about the product vision. Beta is too late! So often companies spend millions on R&D, produce the beta and then react in horror when customers push back. If this sounds like your company, best case scenario is that your company makes minor changes; unfortunately, in most cases, it will be too little too late and will not build your brand.

Customer Leverage Strengthens Branding
A brand must be authentic to be powerful. Authentic brands have been validated, and are representative of the true experiences customers have had with your company. You can’t ‘create’ a brand within a department, with a process or even by engaging the most expensive outside agency. Your brand is the sole expression of the sum of experiences your customers have had with your company.

Companies that practice customer leverage, meaning companies that leverage select, deep customer relationships organization-wide, by their very nature live their brands. They create and consistently validate brands with their best customers. And they evolve their brands exactly when target markets are ready for evolution.

Any company can replicate your offering and your R&D team, but no company can replicate the experiences, innovations and results of your best customers. Find and build relationships with your passionate customers: those who are willing to put their own reputations on the line when they act as references; those who proactively promote your company to others; and those who have had exceptional experiences with your company that fostered intense loyalty. Your best customers can tell you how they understand your brand, how they feel about your company and the experiences they have had, and exactly what they need from you to help them deliver on their own brand promises.

It is exactly these deep relationships that will clear the path to an authentic and powerful brand promise; one that is fulfilled because your company delivers the exact experiences your customers and prospects crave. And although deep relationships mean your obituary will be moving and memorable, they also mean you probably won’t need yours for quite some time.

In the next article in our Beyond References series, we will discuss how product development can tap into the results of customer leverage strategies so your company can create products and services your customers truly want and need.

Promise Phelon is the founder and Partner at Phelon Consulting, a consulting firm focused on enabling enterprise software companies to shorten their sales cycles by leveraging sales and customer successes. She may be contacted at [email protected].

David Ambler, VP of Marketing for Kerls Corporation and a consultant with Phelon Consulting, is an 18-year veteran of technology marketing. He has a proven track record in driving technology from product concept to market launch with numerous companies, including Macromedia, Quark, Xerox, NEC, France Telecom and various Silicon Valley startups. David holds an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the University of Colorado. David also attended the University of Vienna for studies in International Marketing. He may be contacted at [email protected].

Suzy McKee is marketing director for Phelon Consulting. She has over fifteen years of experience developing and implementing marketing strategies in many industries including entertainment, publishing, nonprofit and technology, working with organizations such as Intuit, Tele Atlas, and the American Red Cross. Suzy holds a BA in Journalism from San Diego State University and a Certificate in Marketing from UC Santa Cruz. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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