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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Building Houston

 
 

The Ion has fresh funds to commit to its accelerator programs. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion — a rising hub for innovation being developed in Midtown by Rice Management Company — has received a $1.5 million grant to go toward supporting its startup accelerator programs.

The grant from the Economic Development Administration is a part of the organization's Build to Scale (B2S) program and will also benefit three accelerators: the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, and DivInc Accelerator.

"Receiving this grant is a big win for our city — furthering the Ion's opportunity to bring together leading minds to solve some of our toughest challenges," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, in a news release from Rice. "We believe that it's a fully collaborative approach that will lead to accelerating energy innovation and sustainable solutions."

All three of these accelerators will be represented in The Ion's Accelerator Hub and will work in collaboration, according to the release, in The Ion, which is expected to open in 2021 with cohorts set to open applications in early 2021.

"We are really excited about working together with DivInc and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship to realize the full potential of the opportunities that these funds will help unleash," says Jan Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, in the release.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has cycled through two rounds of cohorts — first focusing on resilience and mobility in Cohort 1 then air quality, water purification, and other cleantech in Cohort 2.

The 12-week Clean Energy Accelerator was only recently announced by The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship at the annual Energy Tech Venture Forum earlier this month. The program is established to support Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's Climate Action Plan.

Meanwhile, DivInc's accelerator comes out of a partnership with the Austin-based nonprofit and The Ion, which was announced in spring of this year. The goal with this program is to increase access to minority entrepreneurs.

"DivInc embodies the mindset that this generation and all the generations of innovators to follow must be inclusive of people of color and women entrepreneurs – who will build successful scalable growth companies to address tomorrow's challenges and opportunities," says Preston James, chief executive officer at DivInc, in the release.

"By removing the barriers that currently exist, we unleash this untapped potential and lift Houston to new economic heights. To do this we must establish strong collaboration with partners like The Ion, Rice University, the EDA and many others."

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