Guest column

Brand identity for local businesses matter now more than ever, says Houston expert

Here's how to think about supporting local. Getty images

Businesses everywhere are struggling to survive during these strange times. From the largest global companies to the local mom and pops, these organizations are on the brink of losing the good fight.

Brands we all rely on — including J Crew, JC Penney, Neiman Marcus, Modell's Sporting Goods, and Gold's Gym — have filed or are expected to file for bankruptcy protection in the coming days.

Those are some of the national brands. Local brands come and go with such frequency that many times only the most loyal of consumers are the only ones that realize their demise outside of the owners and employees.

What is a local brand?

Echoing throughout our everyday quarantined lives is the mantra to support your local community businesses. What exactly does that mean? A neighbor of mine is the general manager of a large national retail store in our community. It is not a local business…or is it? I certainly do not want him to fail and lose his job due to a corporate decision to shut down locations. That would affect hundreds of folks in our area that work there.

Then there is the local flower shop that is a one-location mom and pop that a family has poured everything it has into building their retail dream. Now, they face a nightmare of losing it all if things do not turn around soon enough.

What does this all have to do with brand equity?

The equity in your brand is that perceived value customers place in your services or products that makes your brand stand out. It includes brand loyalty, perceived quality and your overall brand awareness. It is why a customer choose one brand over another as price is removed from the equation.

As consumers venture out from the COVID-19 isolation more and more each day, they have decisions to make. Decisions like "Where am I going to spend my money?" This gets even more compounded by the shocking number of furloughed and unemployed people that only weeks ago were humming along fine. Discretionary income is almost becoming a thing of the recent past, meaning every dollar spent beyond rent and food is under extreme scrutiny.

It is at this very point that brand equity can make or break a local business. We all know that the coming months will be trying, and brands are simply trying to hang on to make it through the unprecedented downturn. But guess which brands will come out of this with a chance to realize even more greatness down the road? Those companies that realized from day one the importance of their brand. How people perceive it. How to build value beyond the physical goods or services. The culture of their brand and whether it permeates the organization and every brand touchpoint with consumers.

Think of building brand equity like you would when shopping for home insurance. You do not go get insurance on your home after the fire destroys it. You plan ahead and build home equity by mitigating risk. The same holds for brand equity. You plan ahead and place the importance of an effective brand strategy at the very top of your business priorities.

I have worked on brand strategy from global brands to local and regional brands and you would be surprised to see how brand strategy is undervalued regardless of company size. Too many times (actually, almost always) I see companies large and small treat the brand and marketing strategy as an afterthought, once accounting, purchasing, HR, manufacturing, sales and more are given their proper due.

Brands face pressures daily from all sides including competition, government regulations, changing consumer preferences, technology, advertising expense and more. So those brands that have the focused leadership to build a strong brand platform, as a priority from day one, will win in the long term.

The higher the level of your brand equity in your marketplace, the more likely a consumer will migrate toward your business as they begin thawing their wallets from the pandemic freeze of uncertainty. Spending is under more scrutiny than most of us have ever seen, and brand stewards that have built a strong platform of awareness, value, service, quality and overall experience stand the best chance to earn that sale from loyal customers that appreciate brand equity, even though those customers may not understand how to actually define it.

It's not too late.

While you have the time, even though the slow crawl back to some sort of normalcy can seem overwhelming, prioritize your brand strategy. Spend time each day as you would with accounting and sales to consider how to improve the equity, the value, of your brand among your customer base.

Ask yourself how you can differentiate. What are the ways you can value-add to your services that make your product even more memorable with consumers? What about employee training? Consider whether or not your people believe in your business and have the passion to exemplify those brand attributes you clearly demonstrate day in and day out. Are you following up with customers to build loyalty and learn about how to improve?

Look at the competition, regardless of size, and build a list of what makes your brand better. Then continue to find ways to express that. There is still time if you prioritize differently.

There's an old sugar-packet saying I heard early in my career that I still use today, over 40 years later that goes something like this:

"He Who Has a Thing to Sell
And Goes and Whispers in a Well
Is Not as Apt to Make the Dollars
As He Who Climbs a Tree and Hollers"

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Mike Albrecht is currently a partner and director of business development at Houston-based 9thWonder, a large general market advertising and PR agency based in Houston with offices around the globe.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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