Is your brand full of potholes?

Last night, I was driving down an avenue near my home.  It’s a popular connecting road, a long-ish street that runs nearly the whole width of two populous towns that has several schools on it, and a few traffic lights.  On one area, near the intersection of the two towns, there is a horrendously bumpy stretch that has hundreds of filled in potholes and can really make for an unpleasant ride.

When a roadway gets a pothole in it, it’s usually because there’s either a structural deficiency in a particular part of the road, or a repetitively trafficked area simply fatigues over time.  In most populous areas, these holes are promptly “filled in” with more asphalt creating a “potfill.”  Potfills are quickly deployed, and quite cost-effective.  Remember, paving a road is not an inexpensive undertaking.  Unfortunately, however, most potfills are rarely 100% smooth, and almost always create a new small bump in the road, because the new asphalt doesn’t quite bind with the existing asphalt.  And I guess most people prefer a small bump over a potentially car-injuring pothole.  But after a while, (as in the case in my town,) these hundreds of potfills –and some fresh potholes yet to be filled – are a landscape of past failures, and the original roadway can hardly be seen.

Naturally, this reminds me of marketing.

For many small to midsize companies, marketing is a challenge similar to keeping a paved road smooth.  After a certain amount of time and wear, holes in the marketing tend to become noticeable, and even conscientious marketers scramble to create brand potfills. But similar to the roadways, these random and uncoordinated “fixes” are rarely as smooth as intended and can damage the customer experience over time, rather than yielding the intended results. Let’s examine.

How does a brand get “worn” over time?
Brands are tough to manage, and even more difficult to measure.  But you can certainly examine the marketing strategies that are supporting your brand and your day to day tactics to get a sense of where things are.  Some questions you should ask:  when was the last time you reviewed your web copy?  Or your whole website for that matter?  How often are you upgrading/improving your basic offering?  Are you adding services on a regular basis?  What’s the messaging strategy?  Are you still as differentiated as you were when you launched?  When was the last time you asked your customers how they’re doing?  And what about your logo?  Is it a symbol of consistency, or has it been evolving over time?  And your service standards?  Are there standards at all?  Is your brand a bumpy proposition for prospects, or a smooth and enjoyable thoroughfare of commerce and interaction?

Patch a hole, or ditch the entire thing and start over?
In some cases, it clearly makes sense to execute a “quick fix” for your brand.  Maybe you got some bad press and quickly ditched your value prop in favor of emergency communications.  Maybe you merged with another company and didn’t want to spend a lot of money for new identity standards, so you slapped a new tagline on an old logo. Maybe you’ve got your hands on six sets of customer data, but you can’t find the time or the resources to integrate them.  It’s okay, as long as it doesn’t damage the day-to-day interactions and the long term perceptions.  But if your company can hardly be recognized as a result of years of quick-fixes, maybe it pays to strip the whole thing down and start over.  It’ll cost a few bucks, and it may even force you to re-route some transactions for a while, but it’s almost always worthwhile in the long run.  It shows you care about your customers.  It demonstrates a willingness to re-evaluate and the guts to develop something new.  And for every new customer that goes for a spin with your company, it’ll really have that “new brand smell.”

Understand your connection points and the concept of traction.
Let’s understand a key concept about roads.  They are engineered and built for the ONE connection point they have with the world:  tires.  It’s not some cars, or a lot of cars…EVERY car uses tires to connect with the roadway.  With brands, the key connection is with perceptions.  But instead of only four connection points, companies have an advantage with multiple channels, with frequency and with various forms of deployment.  So the entire stretch of your brand – every ad, every page of your website, every online checkout, every customer service call – is about making a smooth and consistent connection with your client’s or prospect’s perceptions.

When a road is bumpy, the tires lose traction with the pavement, and it makes for a treacherous drive.  Motorists will come to dread the experience, or figure out a way to avoid it altogether.  When your marketing is bumpy, perceptions are similarly jarred and your clients – and far worse, your prospects – will either dread the experience or figure out a way to avoid you altogether.

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