It’s an interesting conundrum to speak to local merchants about branding and the reasons it’s used in business. For one, with a brand, you are protected and insulated against micro-market fluctuations such as transit closings, loss or redirecton such as foot traffic due to construction.
Many merchants think Branding is their logo, stickers, postcards, business cards, website, menus, etc… That’s not Branding. Those are Designs.
Branding is NOT an easy thing to know. The easiest way I explain Branding to people is by telling them to think of a religion: Muslim, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, etc… These religions are brands. I’ll argue that these religions are the greatest Brands that have ever been created. These brands have symbols and designs which signify and stand for the brand.
Brands exist in your skull. They are intangible. You can feel them but you can’t touch or hold a brand. For instance, you can draw a cross on a piece of paper which represents Christianity but that is NOT Christianity. The cross is a design and it is a tangible icon representing the Christian brand.
Christianity is a set of values and beliefs which the cross is only a design. The cross is the logo for Christianity. Other designs of Christianity might be a fish, a crown of thorns, Christ’s face or body on the cross, the holy bible, church hymnals, etc… again, these are designs and represent the brand itself in physical form like a logo for a company.
I’m writing this to create an illustration for how a brand or lack of a brand effects business. The businesses that are struggling the most are because they are NOT brands.
Brands are Intangible. They are things you hear and feel.
Designs are Tangible. These are things you can taste, touch, see and smell.
Merchants on 30th Avenue that have branded themselves are NOT suffering more than a 10% loss in business. I know. I’ve asked them. That is what they told me. I’ve spoken to over 100 merchants in less than 21 days, twice and some three or four times.
EMPLOYEES VS. ENTREPRENUERS
If you had to take a 10% drop in your salary, would you stay working at your job? Most people would. Merchants are different. They generally operate on a 15% profit margin. That’s their pocket money and they work their asses off to get it. Merchants have a mercenary quality to their personality. They are willing to risk it all for a sense of independence and personal freedom. This freedom and boldness allows them freedoms that the “employee can only dream of obtaining.” If the employee is a chicken, the employer is a chicken hawk. The independence of any merchant is a fierce being showing considerably less fear than that of the chicken. Chickens are farmers and merchants are hunters. This is their nature. They are their own boss.
This belief is their brand but it isn’t positioned that way. No one calls their business “My Fucking Way!” That idea and brand will not attract most customers. The business should be built with a customer in mind.
BACK TO BRANDS
Even a decent brand can survive a storm. It is grounded in beliefs. Beliefs are words just spoken. A brand’s roots are grounded in a stern belief and set of values. Brands have meaning and they give meaning and deification to people’s lives.
Here are the healthy prospering merchants on 30th Avenue: Queens Comfort, Sugar Freak, Blend and a little, tiny cookie shop called Chip NYC (now a million dollar business). Chip NYC has long lines of people waiting outside in the cold to get hot cookies—train or not, foot traffic or not. Chip NYC will easily survive the MTA closing storm. Customers will come on foot and walk ten blocks to get their cookies. Local merchants are baffled. That’s because no one told them how to build a brand.
Salt and Bone, a Bareburger offshoot with outstanding BBQ and meats, is down 55% in business. First, the name isn’t perfectly original. I don’t know what they stand for in the scheme of comparable brands. Their product is excellent but why are they relevant in MY (consumer) LIFE? A brand can answer that question, easily.
The businesses listed above have a strong value and belief system in place and have been rolling this belief and value system regularly through memes, photos on Facebook, SnapChat and Instagram. These businesses have built up a huge following of fans. They have people who believe what they believe. They are brands.
People travel distances for brands because they stand for something other than a commodity. Potatoes are potatoes except Idaho potatoes are supposed to be the best. Someone publicity genius branded Idaho potatoes into the populace. It took hold and has a branded identity.
You won’t find these local brands offering cheap discounts, kitschy sales, cutting deals, etc… For instance, you’ll never find Louis Vuitton running sales or deals and the same holds true for Apple, Google and Harley-Davidson. They are branded to mean something more than just a commodity.
A burger is a just burger unless you get a burger at Sweet Afton, Sugar Freak, or Queens Comfort. The burgers at these places stand for something more than just a burger… These businessss are in the business of making their customers feel a certain way. They offer fun, sophistication or a finer dining experience than all the others. Through “word of mouth” their customers are participating in the building of these brands. The two go hand in hand.
If you wanted to compete against Chip NYC cookie company you will have an impossible time competing with Chip NYC anywhere close to 30th Avenue. Each day, week and month they are open, they get stronger. In a year, their reputation and brand will have them conquering Queens. A year or two later, maybe all of NYC. This is the power of a brand.
bulC regruB or Burger Club is suffering a 50% loss under decreased local foot traffic with the subway closing. This is primarily because they either had NO IDEA what a brand is or HAD AN IDEA about brand that is NOT A BRAND at all. ItMa a common misconception that merchants believe that their independence and service to customers can be equally applied to reinventing BUSINESS ITSELF. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. And if you doubt me, just wait until you see your sales go from 50% credit cards to 90%. This is, if it hadn’t happened already. Yes, everything will be reported and transparent in the Digital Revolution.
I don’t know what Burger Club believes. I don’t know what Burger Club stands for. I don’t know if I can trust them. I do know that they sell. They sell a reasonably inexpensive hamburger as hamburgers go but I don’t know what they stand for. They are a commodity and I don’t mind paying $5. more for a burger half their size for the experience to sit in a beautiful room at Sweet Afton with a celebrity chef, even tho, Burger Club apparently has a celebrity chef too. They missed the brand part of the business equation.
I do know what Sugar Freak, Queens Comfort and Sweet Afton stand for. One stands for high-brow services and quality, one stands for down-home fun, one stands for remarkable entertainment and epic American memorabilia. They have set themselves apart from the others in the crowd. I can somehow relate to these stand-alone companies as entities. Once they have developed a following, I can either choose to join that following or not. This is a brand. Brands are like a religion.
I will travel a distance to eat or bring someone Sugar Freak, Queens Comfort and Sweet Afton. I‘ve also met Michelle, Donnie and Rory at different points along my Astoria travels. They are good people. I will pay extra for the experience not because I’ve met the owners but because they have developed a nice list of followers.
I do have a little story to tell my friends about these places when they come and visit. Those stories are part of a good Astoria story in my mind. They have built foundations for what we at BinkNyc call a brand.
If your business copy cats another BRAND and their message, you are merely supporting and strengthening their brand message. It’s not going to build a better business for you. If there are rules to a brand, these would be the first two:
- Unique: Do Something Different
- Original: Be the First to do it.
Originality and uniqueness are what some legendary brands are built on… This is because of an immutable law in marketing: “If you are first to do something, you are the original.” This perception is nearly impossible to remove once it has taken hold in the public perception and marketplace. These perceptions are impossible to ursurp. Coca-Cola still outsells Pepsi 2:1.
We all know who the first was to come to America but who was the second? Who was the third?
I’m seeking to brand 30th Avenue as a destination but getting the merchants to all agree (majority vote) to bring the brand forward (through implemation) may not be worth all the time and effort. I can impose a brand on them, but that’s not nice. They are struggling. I’m just here to help.