What's in a Brand?

Here's why it's important for companies to brand successfully.

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Starbucks has long-honored local laws that allow residents to openly carry firearms, though an open letter by CEO Howard Schultz published Wednesday asks customers to leave their guns at home before entering its stores.
Starbucks has long-honored local laws that allow residents to openly carry firearms, though an open letter by CEO Howard Schultz published Wednesday asks customers to leave their guns at home before entering its stores.

Three key ingredients to doing business online include: search engine optimization, branding and web design. Last week, Ajax Union hosted a talk at Morgan Stanley to discuss best practices in each area.The panel of three digital experts included: SEO Agency Manager Matt Sieracki, Branding Consultant Geri Mazur and ChalkDust Consulting Founder Debbie Kiederer.

Ajax Union's Marketing & Events Coordinator, Elle Spektor moderated the discussion. About the event, she said, "At Ajax Union, our end-goal is to help entrepreneurs and companies succeed. We want to inspire start-up partnerships, referral connections, and stimulate business growth." Today, with close to 3,000 members, Ajax Union is one of the most popular Meetup groups in New York City. Last year, the company was ranked number 178 in Inc.'s top 500 fastest growing private companies in the United States. The magazine's list included Top 500 alumni such as Zappos, Pandora and Clif Bar.

During last week's talk, branding was the focal point, as SEO and web design are united by this overriding theme. So, what is a brand?

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A brand is a feeling. Water is water, but Pellegrino is a brand.

People have relationships with brands. People relate to brands. Brands have value and personalities. Brands have human aspects.

Mazur asked the audience to image riding in a Mercedes, even if they had never been in one. Then imagine riding in a Honda. How do these two visualized experiences differ? Most would describe the former to be a plush experience while the latter is a way to get from point A to point B. Mercedes is a successful brand in that it instills a sense of what its brand is about: luxury.

There must be meaning behind a brand. It's not just visual. It's also not universally appealing because no company can deeply connect to everyone. Brands should target a specific audience so its communications speak directly to desired consumers on an emotional level.

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Geri Mazur covers some of the best practices for branding,

Figure out what your story is and who you need to tell it to. Then go tell it. In as simple a way as you can. And as consistently as possible. Remember that everything from your company that touches a customer or potential customer anywhere should deliver your brand story: From the design elements on your business card, website and other collateral to how your customer service people answer the phone, the colors of your interior, the blog you write and the elevator speech you give at your next networking event. Everything should deliver that brand. The only way a customer can develop a relationship with a brand is to grasp what that brand stands for. Our job, as marketers, is to make that as easy as possible for the customer. 

Web site design and SEO further support a company's brand.

Kiederer stresses the importance of having websites optimized for mobile. This is not the same as mobile specific websites, which are more expensive. Websites must be refreshed on a regular basis to reflect updates in product offerings, as well as changes in technology. No company today should have an online user interface reminiscent of 1992, for instance.

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The SEO landscape has also changed over time and Sieracki notes that companies must adjust accordingly:

More than ever, Google is evolving into an "answer engine." with an emphasis on answering user questions, especially in a mobile context. As such, SEO industry is trending towards generating informative, useful information to boost rankings for their clients. The Hummingbird update has a lot of people asking "Are keywords dead?". The answer is no – researching relevant terms that define the content of a given website is as essential as ever. However, the fever is breaking regarding code-based SEO techniques. It's not enough to park good keywords into Meta Data, headlines, and links anymore. Content is king!

Brands do not live in vacuums. They must be aware of rivals and offer content that stands out through tight, clear and consistent communication. Companies must know where their brands live in the universe and differentiate. Give consumers a reason to choose you over your competitors.

Marketing is less about what a company is selling than who the company is selling to. Understanding this concept is important because it affects the bottom line. Being a brand means more money coming in. Products are bought on price while brands are bought on meaning and feeling.

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Starbucks is a great example of great branding. Despite selling coffee that many complain tastes burnt, customers continue to purchase off the company's menu at premium prices. Mazur makes coffee at home but still buys Starbucks because, "It's a different experience." People are paying for the coffee chain's story: The logo, the beverage, the ambience. They like the process of getting Starbucks coffee.

In the same vein, a panelist asked the audience, "Who needs a $12,000 handbag?" No one. A plastic bag from Duane Reade serves the same function: Carrying stuff from point A to point B. The purchase is about the story.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we find TOMS Shoes and their " One for One" Movement – With every product purchased, TOMS will help a person in need.

Some companies will choose to sell luxury and cache while others cultivate compassion towards the less fortunate. All successful brands effectively identify their target demographic and create meaningful stories that their audiences connect with through their purchases. No one solution will work for everyone forever, but good content is the best defense against ever-changing SEO algorithms and website design.

Lisa Chau  is a private consultant focused on social media and cross–platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business. She has also taught at MIT, and guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business Strategy at Baruch College and  The New School .