Remaining relevant Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2009

Phil Alexander is putting his company to the rubber band test.

The founder, president and CEO wants BrandMuscle Inc. to be flexible enough to adapt to this economy but ever-ready to snap back into shape with the core of the company intact.

First, Alexander and his 100 employees — about 20 of which were added to the marketing agency in the first half of 2009 — have to realize that brand consistency doesn’t mean brand rigidity.

To keep your brand relevant, you have to adapt to external shifts. But first, you have to recognize what you should and shouldn’t change.

“What you cannot change is self-evident, and that is what the core product, the core principles of your business are,” Alexander says. “What you can change is your approach to it and messages that are more relevant today.”

It’s important to realize that your core is not determined by taglines, logos or even offerings. As long as those reflect the same principles, you can alter them.

But gauging what’s relevant in this economy isn’t your call to make. Only your customers can tell you that, so stay aware of their changing needs and preferences.

Focus your resources on getting input from existing customers. They already have a relationship with you as well as background and insight about you and your services.

While getting customer feedback is always important, it’s crucial to be more proactive about it now. Your customers may be dealing with dwindling resources, and without reminders of your increasing value and relevance, you may end up an expendable expense.

“They want that confidence that you are, in fact, looking to expand your offerings and that they actually are a partner with you,” Alexander says. “You want them to feel comfortable and excited about the fact that, ‘It’s tough to pay the bill to these guys, but I better stick in there because they’ve got some great stuff coming.’”

BrandMuscle Inc. sends annual surveys to clients with a consistent set of questions, asking first about their usage of the product and secondly how it could be improved. The key to these surveys, regardless of your questions, is clarifying how you’ll use the input.

“You can never commit to saying, ‘I’m going to do all of this that you are asking me to do,’” Alexander says. “That’s why you go to them on a proactive basis. Rather than wait for them to say, ‘Can you give this to me?’ go in and say, ‘I’m evaluating our services and our offerings, and I’m going to do this with all of our clients. I can’t guarantee we’ll do all of them, but down the road we’re looking at what we can offer.’”

If a majority of customers express interest in similar services, you have to weigh it against your core offering.

If a new idea matches the core of your company, the easiest way to achieve flexibility is to make local adaptations for different markets. Based on surveys as well as sales statistics, determine the customer demographics and interests in each region. Use those patterns to modify local offerings or communications. For example, locations of chain restaurants might add local dishes to the menu or run special deals during a big event in town.

When you’re determining how to adapt to changing customer preferences, your first question should be whether you’d make the same changes despite the economy.

“You do have to keep an eye both on today and on the future,” Alexander says. “So you do have to picture what it’s going to be like when you come out of this downturn. It certainly is a juggling act. You’re trying to bring cash in today but you’re trying not to destroy the future, particularly the brand.”

Keeping it consistent

Imagine if the Golden Arches weren’t gold, or if the Nike Swoosh took on a new shape. Obviously, inconsistency is a nightmare for marketing people like Phil Alexander.

But the founder, president and CEO of BrandMuscle Inc. sleeps soundly because he depends on his brand guardian, a single source who reviews the brand imagery that leaves the marketing agency.

“One of the keys for branding is to have an authoritative repository of brand guidelines somewhere in the organization,” Alexander says. “You really have to have some kind of an audit trail to maintain it because everybody could go crazy.”

Usually, the guardian is your existing head of marketing, whether that’s your advertising manager or vice president of sales and marketing. Charge that person with establishing and communicating the visual brand guidelines.

“You do want to stay consistent in terms of the look of the brand,” Alexander says. “You also have to have brand guidelines that are flexible enough to allow collaboration.”

So the brand guardian distributes rules regarding which fonts and colors to use when employees display the brand. They should also distribute templates for PowerPoint presentations, business cards and other materials.

But those rules shouldn’t be rigid. Employees should be able to work together with the brand guardian to find the best way to use the components for their particular message.

“The brand has to be consistent, but the message has to be tailored,” Alexander says.

How to reach: BrandMuscle Inc., (866) 464-4342 or www.brandmuscle.com