Like many of you, I have sat through multiple presentations and webinars regarding social media. While some may touch on it, and others may focus on it, the term “brand building” comes up quite frequently. While on the phone with a dealer recently, it occurred to me that a good portion of our peers may not quite understand brand building, and hence, have a hard time applying it in the real world. For social media, this is a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

Simply put, a brand is the identity of a business, product, or service. What comes to mind when you think of Coca-Cola? How about Nike? Now maybe Apple? I’ll bet somewhere in your mental imagery, classic white script across a red background came up, along with a swoosh, and a glowing white apple with bite taken out of it. These companies have done an extraordinary job of marketing a consistent brand image, and have created a culture surrounding their businesses. If you need more examples, just walk into your showrooms. You will see brand imagery everywhere.

What comes to mind when you think of your own dealership? (Note: this works best when you think of the positives.) Is it a dedicated, veteran sales staff? Is it consistent OEM recognition? Is it community involvement? What makes your store different from the one down the road? Hopefully, multiple things come to mind. Take those thoughts and jot them down.

Now think about how you want your customers to perceive your dealership. When they think about your store, what images do you want them to conjure up? How are they perceiving your identity on your website’s homepage?  If you are drawing a blank, then it’s time to start working on that. Ultimately, it’s up to your business to craft that identity.

I think we are all well aware that Coke, Nike, and Apple have millions of dollars to commit to advertising agencies, not to mention the top-notch marketing talent they have available to them in-house. They are global brands competing on a global scale. Should you aspire to have their type of brand awareness? Absolutely! Do you need their millions of dollars to reach your market of 30,000 people? Absolutely not!

You have the advantage over national advertisers. You understand your own market better than they do. You understand how your closest consumers talk, think, and dress. If you are using your CRM properly, you may even have notes on where people go to church, where their kids attend school, and how much their fifth-wheel weighs. This information is available to you for free!

Speaking of free, those commercials you normally fast forward through are full of free inspiration. Try actually watching some commercials. What messages are you taking away? What tag lines are you hearing? Tune-in the next time you see commercials from mega-brands like IBM, Microsoft, GE, Red Bull, Starbucks, and UPS. Pay extra attention to what your OEMs are advertising and the images they are reinforcing. Take note of the fact they are not advertising “the largest inventory,” “rock-bottom prices,” or “(region’s) number one (whatever)…”

When you are ready to start coming up with brand ideas, talk to others. Bounce ideas off your spouse. Ask your friends. The wider the variety of people, the better. Then, sit down with your coworkers over some pizza and start brainstorming. Try to come up with one sentence that best describes your dealership (or department).

When you feel good about what your network has to say, have the same conversations with your most loyal customers. In fact, take a walk down to the service department and have that conversation with customers while they are having their maintenance performed. Find out if your brand identity is in line with a perceived value (be prepared for the worst). Compare notes. If the messages are the same, fire up the marketing machine. If they are not, you need to dedicate yourself and your teammates to bringing the ideas closer together. This is when you employ brand-building efforts (like social media, video marketing, and dare I say, a TV ad) to distill your message down for consumption by the masses.

Sounds like hard work, right? It can be, but it’s well worth it. Your customers will know what separates you from the competition. You will attract customers who are looking for an alternative to their local dealer. You will create a value proposition beyond price. Best of all, you and your teammates always have a guiding principle to fall back on in times of question. Trust me, you’ll forget about the hard work when you immediately start reaping the benefits. It’s “time to change everything,” “have a Coke and a smile,” and “just do it.”

Post Script

There have been several great books that have been published about brand building or indirectly touch on the subject of branding. One that immediately comes to mind is the Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for turning Ordinary into Extraordinary, by Joseph Michelli. While it wasn’t written specifically about branding, it caused me to evaluate my business practices and offered some great perspective. It’s a short and compelling study so you should have no trouble finding the time read it. (I read it in one plane trip). If you have some books that have been inspirational to you, please share. Now that the gift-giving holidays have begun, we can add some books to our wish lists.