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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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.