How a small business can build a billion dollar brand

Coca-Cola founder Doc Pemberton. Photo via the Doc Pemberton Twitter feed.

Do a quick, little experiment with me. Think of your favorite big brand — could be Amazon or Virgin or Coke. Now go all the way back in history to the start of those brands.

Now, what do you see?

If you did the experiment right, you see the now-famous founder of the company working out of a garage, the trunk of his car or a small soda shop.

My point is that all brands start small. The ones that get really big — like billion dollar big — did it by focusing on creating a brand that people can’t live without. Here’s what they did to create those billion dollar brands…and how you can do it, too.

How customers experience your brand

Before we dive into what makes a billion dollar brand, let’s talk about how people will experience your brand:

  • Website – Today most people will discover you through a search on Google. That means their first experience of your brand will occur at your website.
  • Business cards – You may feel that your website is the new business card, but that simply is not true. Every small business owner needs to carry around creative business cards, because they are great tools for introducing your brand.
  • Logo – Next, your customers will experience your brand through your logo, which should strike an emotional note in your customer’s heart. This is why it’s so important to start with the why of you brand.
  • Name – What you name your company will say a lot about you. It will hint at what you do…and how you can help them. It might trigger a certain emotion or feeling about a problem they have. Just say “Coca-cola” or “Fed Ex” and you immediately recall their brand. That’s how powerful your name can be for your brand.
  • Product – Whether it’s one or a thousand, the products that you develop and sell will probably be the most tangible way in which customers interact with your brand. If you create products that don’t match your brand, you will destroy your reputation.
  • You – Ultimately, your customers will see your brand through you…the founder. Billion dollar brands and their founders are hard to separate. We know which company Bill Gates started. And we know the content franchise Rupert Murdoch launched.

Listen: when all of these elements are aligned with your brand a very powerful thing will happen. People will buy your product day in and day out, year after year.

This is the way small businesses have become mega-corporations — billion dollar entities with the highest top of the mind recall for any products out there.

And you would like to have that kind of impact, right? Here’s what you have to do.

Commitment

Author Neil Patel

As a small, young brand, you might find yourself getting restless. Resist that temptation because you can kill any amount of trust you might have built up if you start to toy with your brand image.

For example, businesses that show their customers they don’t have a commitment to a core message will:

  • Cancel or drastically change ads – If an ad isn’t performing that very second, brands that lack commitment will drop the ad or overhaul it dramatically, causing confusion for the customers.
  • Hop from media to media – Small brands with a small marketing budget might take up Twitter, then Facebook, then Google+ and end up on Pinterest. Behind them they’ve left a trail of abandoned accounts that doesn’t instill any confidence in their customers.
  • Change your logo every other month…drastically – This is not the minor tweak to the drop shadow or an experiment in typography…this is a new look every time you feel like people aren’t understanding your brand or what you are doing.
  • Change your tagline often – As with the logo, brands that don’t commit will slap on a tag line only to replace it with a new one to “better” explain who they are six months later.
  • Buy ads for a couple weeks or less – Brands that don’t commit will not sign long-term contracts for ads. This might be done to avoid getting stuck with bad ads, but sometimes you need to wait out an ad’s effectiveness.

If you want to build a billion dollar brand, avoid falling into the above traps.

Of course, these days with Google Analytics and text ads, you can float a test ad out there for a minimal investment and get results back in 24 hours. More importantly you get information about number of impressions and click-through so you can get the true ratio of an ad’s impact.

And the number of impressions you get in that 24 hours probably equals what you might have received if you advertised in a newspaper or magazine…so waiting 24 hours is like waiting two weeks.

But when it comes to your name, logo, your website, tagline and social media strategy, you need to be consistent. With each of these elements you should include a commitment in your marketing plans with clear objectives and reasonable deadlines.

Human-side of business

Apple's U Village store in Seattle

We usually look at billion dollar companies as faceless and soulless things. We don’t think about them as being human.

But as strange as it may sound, your typical billion dollar company has figured out how to make the most of the relationships with their customers by understanding basic truths about being human.

And this starts at the bottom with basic needs and reaches all the way up to achieving hopes, dreams and desires. Billion dollar companies know how to help people tap into those hopes, dreams and desires.

Apple, who blew earnings critics out of the water with their latest financial report, delivers products that fulfill needs and wants on several levels:

  • Owning an Apple product is like belonging to a special club – Apple is probably single-handedly responsible for making geeks and their stuff cool.
  • Apple created ridiculously useful products – The iPod let people carry around a thousand songs. The Mac delivered the power of a desktop in a cool shell. The iPad helps you to consume content effortlessly. If that’s not useful…I don’t know what is!
  • Visiting an Apple store clinches that experience – That community of Apple addicts is complete with the store and the Genius bar…a place where like-minded people can share ideas.

Think about it. They’ve figured out what makes people feel like someone understands and cares about them by giving them what they want. This is why people do not mind spending their money on Apple products.

So, your first step to building a billion dollar brand is creating something valuable…but you can’t do that without knowing what your customers consider valuable.

Authenticity

Photo via McDonald's

Love them or hate them…McDonald’s is a goliath billion dollar company who doesn’t seem to be fazed by any kind of trouble.

Sure, their Twitter strategy back fired and every one pretty much knows what those chicken McNuggets are made out of this pink goop. But we still spend our money there. Maybe not as much as we used to, but that hardly matters as they move into huge markets in Southeast Asia.

What makes them so powerful is their authenticity, a value that is desperately needed in a world full of cynics.

  • Food and restaurant experience is the same – We can go to any McDonald’s in the world, and except for slight differences to the menu because of the region, we will get the same experience. If you don’t think that’s important, just travel to a different country and order food for a week. After a while you will leap at the sight of the golden arches!
  • Expectations are always met – McDonald’s doesn’t make the lack of commitment mistake. They have a recipe that works…and delivers that taste every time…whether it’s the Big Mac or Mc Rib.
  • Remain relevant with the culture – McDonald’s will make changes to their brand if the culture and the times call for it. They’ve added “healthy” items…yogurt and apples…to their menu to reflect a change in consumer taste. But they understand it would be a mistake to completely overhaul their menu.

Here’s the bottom line. You can’t please everyone. You just have to please the profitable ones.

Engagement

Sir Mix a Lot at the GeekWire launch party. Photo: Karen Ducey

Great billion dollar brands look for opportunities to engage with their customers. Fifty years ago that amounted to commercials on TV. Nowadays people engage big brands through a number of ways that smaller brands can copy:

  • T-shirts – Whether it’s Mountain Dew, a college football team or a snowboarder, we like to wear clothing that shows people we support these brands.
  • Social media – Conventional modes of social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook are now joined by more sophisticated channels provided by companies like Spigit or located only on your smart phone (think Instagram). These are channels big brands use effectively…mostly because small brands lead the way.
  • Labs – Sourcing ideas from customers to build products rolls up marketing, research and customer service into one discipline. That is the ultimate example of brand engagement. What better way to ask and allow customers to create the product they would want?
  • Entertainment – Billion dollar brands have engaged consumers through music concerts and the support of sporting events. The feeling that customers get when attending these events are then applied to the product itself. Seattle’s GeekWire accomplished this by hosting a party with famous rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot.

Don’t forget…this new world of customer engagement is double-edged. When customers are happy they rave about you…but when they are unhappy they rant. In the past, brands might have ignored those rants. Innovating small brands will take those opportunities to make the customer happy…building a billion dollar brand in the process.

Differentiation

Probably the most important element to creating a billon dollar brand is creating a unique distinction from competition that is not easily copied.

This is why patents can be so important. Google protects theirs…and Coke keeps its recipe under wraps. These distinctions occupy four categories:

  • Meaningful– Are you different from competitors in a meaningful way? Meaning…will people care about your innovation…or simply think it’s cool but keeping their money to themselves? Amazon drove bookstores into the ground because they could deliver any book in a matter of days. That’s meaningful!
  • Useful – Will your customers find your distinction practical? Google became the dominate search engine because they sought a way to give searchers the most relevant content. People obviously found that very useful.
  • Ultra-specific – A billion dollar brand differentiation can also be super precise. Southwest Airlines wanted to give fliers a very specific experience when flying…cheap, fast flights. Understand, though, that is only the part of the brand that differentiates them from their competition. There brand is all about fun, humor and sarcasm…something that Virgin Airlines shares, but doesn’t share the cheap price.
  • Urgent – General Motors built the OnStar brand by appealing to people’s sense of urgency. What could be more important than being able to immediately contact help when your vehicle has slid off the road and down a ravine?

The billion dollar brands created meaningful, useful, ultra-specific and urgent distinctions from their competitors…and then fought to protect that distinction. Your small brand should do the same.

Conclusion

Here’s the most important thing you need to remember about building a billion dollar brand…it doesn’t happen overnight. All the brands I mentioned above, except for Google, have been at it for decades. Some, like Coke, have been at it for over a century.

That should encourage you…because long-term branding success sometimes comes down to those who simply manage to survive the longest.

What other strategies to building a billion dollar brand can small businesses employ?

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions.

More from Neil Patel on GeekWireSeven signs that you might just be an entrepreneur Eleven things every entrepreneur should know about innovation… 17 things I wish I’d known when starting my first business

  • http://twitter.com/AaronParrish Aaron Parrish

    Great article Neil! You said something that I need to remember: “You can’t please everyone. You just have to please the profitable ones.” 

  • Jnoble

    Thank you for this article, Neil. I think on the engagement front, there is a lot of movement around how brands can better connect, collaborate and exchange value with customers. You can see how brands like Adobe (http://ideas.adobe.com), Bosch, etc. have on-going channels for communication with users on their products that feed directly into the product development lifecycle. This is truly creating a two-way engagement where companies know, and act on users insights and unmet needs more quickly and consistently overtime. Also, you can see how major brands like GE have used open innovation platforms (such as Brightidea) to tap the public and create entirely new levels of engagement and increase the potential for innovation around critical problems with over 50M investment into top ideas- see 
    http://challenge.ecomagination.com/ and 
    http://challenge.healthymagination.com/health

  • Anonymous

    Neil, you bring up some fantastic points to consider. One thing I see often is that startup CEOs consistently underestimate the brand building time commitment, don’t budget for brand dev, or they neglect to bring in the right talent to help them create a brand framework. VPs of Marketing who understand brand platform creation are rare. Well-chosen consultants (e.g. brand strategists or some design firms with strategy backgrounds) can help a young company develop a framework for brand creation that both establishes a point of difference and builds an emotional connection to the company’s product/services. If that framework gets turned over to a talented storyteller, ideally coupled with a designer, then you’re on the right path.