Your brand is the sum of its values, public awareness, and people’s perception.
As a business, you have a lot of control over what value(s) your brand offers. You can also control how people learn about those values. Public perception of your brand is not as straightforward. A lot of it is beyond your control. It happens inside of your customers’ brains after their interaction with your brand.
That’s the reality of brand perception. It’s the public’s first impression and lasting interpretation of what your brand stands for. It takes seconds to form and is difficult to change.
The Innate Need to Control Our Own Image
As humans, one of our biggest needs in life is to be seen by others as we see ourselves. If there is a discrepancy between the two perceptions, we experience internal turmoil. It’s a form of personal failure.
We’ve not done a good job at presenting ourselves in the most effective way. As a result, those around us have not had the experience that we wanted them to have when interacting with us. We failed.
We now have two options; adopt the public’s perception as our own or change it. Both options are very difficult. Both require a lot of time and effort.
The best option would have been to take a more strategic approach to the interactions with those around us. This is the most effective way to mold others’ perception of us. It requires strategic planning, execution and long-term maintenance.
The same applies to businesses and their need to control their brand image. The ultimate goal is to close the gap between your brand message and public perception as much as possible. It requires a lot of time and never stops, but it can produce amazing results when done well.
How is Perception Formed?
In a 2011 article Why We Cannot Perceive the World Objectively, Michael Michalko explains that perception is, “a process of inference in which people construct their own version of reality on the basis of information provided through the five senses.” It’s influenced by each person’s expectations, assumptions and preconceptions.
People’s perception is not based on what they wish to see. Instead, it’s based on what they expect to see based on what they know about the source of the received message.
Perception is also influenced by the observer’s environment or situation he/she is in. It has many layers. Many of which are completely out of the message sender’s control.
How Does This Apply to Branding?
Businesses spend billions of dollars on branding campaigns and other efforts to mold the public perception of their brand. They want the public to know what their brand offers and stands for. It’s how businesses set themselves apart from their competitors.
Everything a brand says and does contributes to how it’s perceived by the public. This includes branding campaigns, product packaging, online presence, customer service, public relations, treatment of employees, and anything else associated with a specific brand.
People pay attention to brands’ promises, actions and deliverables. They judge all three in order to form their perceived expectations for a given brand. Those expectations are gradually solidified into an overall brand perception.
It Happens Regardless
One of the scariest and often frustrating aspects of brand perception is that it develops regardless. The brand itself can choose to be part of the perception molding process, which is ideal. But if it doesn’t, the public will still form its perception of it. The business doesn’t get to choose whether or not people get to have a perception of its brand. It just happens.
This is something that a lot of small business owners struggle with. They often assume that they can opt out of marketing because things are going well and they don’t need more business. What they don’t realize is that marketing encompasses almost all facets of running a business and that it’s not optional.
If a business opts not to proactively drive its brand message, the public will gladly do it on its own. It just may not be the type of message that the business wants. If that happens, the result is a branding nightmare.
As the popular saying goes, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. The same goes for branding and brand perception. If a business doesn’t invest towards managing its brand, it will most likely become diluted and watered down to whatever the public thinks it should be. Perceptions are formed regardless of the brand’s participation in the process.
It Takes Both Little and Big Steps
It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that branding is mostly reserved for mega brands who can afford to run Super Bowl commercials, like Nike and Pepsi. That level of branding is so massive that it often tricks smaller brands into thinking that they shouldn’t even try.
A lot of small business owners believe that branding is not important because they’re nowhere near the status of those mega brands. What they’re failing to realize is that none of the mega brands were mega brands from day 1.
They are where they are because they put in the work to make sure that their brands could get to where they are today. The end result is a collection of all the steps (big and small) taken over time.
The truth is that it’s impossible to get where Nike or Apple is without taking proactive steps to mold and preserve your brand image and perception. This means that the best time to start is right away.
Start by vowing to tell your brand’s story in a way that will speak to your target audience and influence how they perceive your brand. Don’t leave it up to the outside world to define your brand and tell its story.
Brand Perception Example: Arc vs. Moleskine
Let’s say that you need a simple notebook for daily meeting notes. You pay TJ Maxx a visit. They usually have pretty nice notebooks for a pretty good price. You’re not loyal to any notebook brand, so you’re open to buying whatever speaks your language at the moment.
While browsing the notebook selection at TJ Maxx, two options stand out. One is an eye-catching notebook offered by Arc Customizable System. The other one is an understated, yet velvety notebook offered by Moleskine.
Both notebooks will help you accomplish your goal of having something to write meeting notes in. Both are nice. The asking prices are similar. It’s now decision time. Which notebook will you buy?
If you’re like most people, you pick up each notebook to feel it and see what it looks like inside. The Arc notebook feels plastic and looks pretty basic inside. It’s unclear if it was intended for you.
The Moleskine notebook feels smooth, sort of velvety. It feels nice. It also comes with a little pamphlet that tells you what Moleskine is and who is the perfect owner of such notebook; modern people on the go. That’s you.
You think of yourself as a modern person on the go who needs a notebook to keep meeting notes in. This notebook is definitely speaking your language. You’ll most likely buy it over the other one.
Moleskine is Showing and Telling
Not only are you more likely to buy the Moleskine notebook, but you’re probably curious to learn more about the brand and what else it offers.
The story in the little pamphlet has drawn you in. It has painted a very specific picture of the brand. You now have thoughts of how modern and luxurious Moleskine products are.
You may even think that the company itself cares about your enjoyment of the notebook. It made an effort to tell you a story about it. The company understands you. It wants to be part of your everyday life.
In comparison, the Arc notebook appears to be very basic. It’s just a notebook. Nothing about it speaks to who you are. You also don’t know anything about the brand.
The manufacturer didn’t take the time to tell you a story and convince you how their notebook will be a positive addition to your life. They just want to sell you a notebook and that’s it. The rest is for you to conclude based on what you know about Arc, which is very little.
You Now Want to Know More About Moleskine
Once you get home from TJ Maxx, you’re most likely to take out the Moleskine notebook you just bought to try it. Your next step is most likely to see if the company has a website. In this case, it does and it’s pretty nice. Another win for Moleskine. They’re impressing you each step of the way.
Next, you want to check them out on Instagram. You want to see how much this brand really gets you and what you value in life. Their Instagram content is on point. They’re speaking to the joys and pains of your daily routine.
They care, they are consistent, and they understand you. You’re thoroughly impressed. Your perception of the Moleskine brand has been formed on your own accord, but also with the help of Moleskine’s branding efforts.
The Arc brand left almost everything up to the customer’s imagination. As a result, their brand perception will be all over the place and most likely not what the company would want it to be. They’ve chosen not to be part of the conversation. The conversation will still take place.
That’s the reality of brand perception. People will form first impressions and lasting perception of your brand regardless of your presence in the conversation. If you choose not to participate, you’re essentially giving up on your brand and its destiny.
Don’t Leave it Up to Others to Define Your Brand
It only takes seven seconds to form a first impression. That’s how much time you have to win someone over with your brand message once you have their attention. Once you have your customers’ attention, you must tell a story that will effectively mold their perception of your brand.
There’s also the added pressure from other brands competing for the same person’s attention. According to a 2017 American Marketing Association (AMA) article, an average consumers is exposed to around 10,000 brand messages each day. It’s easy to get lost in this message clutter, if you don’t take a strategic approach to define your brand.
Take your brand and branding efforts seriously. You may not be able to run a Super Bowl ad. That’s okay. Instead, you can launch a cool YouTube channel to connect with customers that way. Anything is better than not trying at all.
Your mission is to be in the driver’s seat of your branding efforts.
We Wanna Know
Are you a small business owner who’s been taking branding seriously from day 1? What has been the secret sauce to your success? Why do you care about brand perception? Leave us a comment.