How start-ups can build brand reputation

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The profitability of a company can hinge on its reputation. We explore what steps start-ups can take to build theirs, without paying vast sums for PR.

A brand is more than a logo: it’s an asset. Beyond the colours and fonts associated with its trading name, a brand is how customers perceive a business. For a business to succeed its brand needs a five-star reputation.

Now more than ever customer purchasing decisions are influenced by brand perception. According to a 2020 survey by Trustpilot, 90% of respondents had made a conscious choice not to purchase from a company with a negatively perceived reputation. In January 2022, The Insolvency Service reported 1,560 insolvencies in England and Wales. Given the difficult economic conditions start-ups face, getting brand reputation wrong is not something many can afford.

What challenges do start-ups face?

Despite the fundamental role that reputation plays in sales and profitability, its consideration is often deferred until after a start-up’s market presence is better established. This is largely due to preconceptions of proper reputation management requiring vast resources and big budgets since professional reputation management is often associated with expensive PR teams and costly logos. However, a better reputation is not always a result of a bigger budget. By not taking a proactive stance on reputation building from the start, a business’s founders are essentially allowing others to do it for them – for better or for worse.

Today’s customers are powerful, with globally reaching platforms at their disposal on which to highlight the merits, or denounce the failings, of any company they choose. These conversations back a large amount of purchasing decisions; according to Trustpilot almost 93% of customers read reviews before buying online from an unfamiliar company. For start-ups lacking the reputational track record of more established businesses, the stakes are even higher.

The positive effects of a strong reputation on profitability and employee retention are clear. According to research by Weber Shandwick in 2020, global executives attribute 63% of their company’s market value to its overall reputation, while a 2019 report by the CBI stated that 76% of people want to work for businesses with good reputations. All these benefits are available to start-ups, provided they focus on a few key areas (outlined below) and develop a strategy that is both proactive and reactive.

Expert tips for brand management

1. Establish your brand’s identity

Start-ups operate in a highly-competitive, fast-moving environment. To stand out, they need a unique identity built upon their solutions and services, their core values, and what they are doing differently. From the outset, you should have a clear idea of your brand’s identity, which will then underpin every business decision you make. After all, customers will find it difficult to articulate your brand’s identity if you can’t do it yourself.

To begin, consider defining a set of core values or mission statements. These don’t have to be set in stone. As the business changes and grows, so can your values, but they should nevertheless be consistent and accurately represent what your company is trying to achieve. Share these values with your potential customers. Hopefully, they will identify with your values and in turn, promote them.

2. Define your target audience

Try to please everyone and you will either:

  • please no one (at worst), or
  • appear ordinary and mundane (at best).

When you focus on a specific audience, you can deliver tailored solutions that enhance the customer experience and acquire repeat custom. Build a profile of your target customer:

  • Who are they?
  • What are they doing?
  • How do they live?
  • What problems are they facing that you can solve?

As Steve Jobs once said, know them so well that you can then “tell them what they need well before they realise it themselves”. A brand with a reputation for knowing their customers and caring about what they want is a brand built to survive even the most difficult economic environments.

3. Harness the power of social media

Social media is a powerful resource – it is free, places millions of potential customers within reach, and its highly engaging nature makes it the perfect arena in which to build your brand’s reputation. While social media is complex, there are two key approaches to remember.

The first is deciding which platform is right for your business. Rather than spreading yourself too thinly, decide which platform best suits your business and its target audience. If you want lots of videos and photos to showcase your services, opt for platforms like Instagram. If quick conversations and news updates are more your style, then platforms like Twitter are best.

Once you’re established, start developing your content. Make sure it matches your brand’s identity and values, but also try to be as genuine and personalised as possible. Aldi’s Twitter account is a good example of a well-executed social media brand presence. Avoiding formal, one-way content, Aldi’s posts are conversational, funny, and frequently encourage engagement from customers or competitors. Through Twitter, Aldi has created an online identity that is friendly and approachable. This may not be suitable for your brand, but it demonstrates the power of using social media to talk to, rather than at, your followers.

4. See feedback as an opportunity, not a threat

Handled properly, complaints can be used to further showcase your brand’s identity, and even improve its services. For example, in 2018 supply chain issues led KFC to run out of its main ingredient. Following store closures and limited menus, the brand faced numerous knocks to its public reputation, including a Bristol campaign to nationalise the chain, and even a phone call to Tower Hamlets Police. KFC’s response gave us all a lesson in self-deprecation. In addition to changing its labels on packaging to ‘FCK’, it also assured customers that “we’ve seen your messages and we hear you”. No business is above listening to, and acting on, constructive feedback from customers. The ones with the best reputations, however, will go out of their way to make this a priority.

5. Monitor your brand

Nurture and maintain your online presence. Know what people are saying about you, and how your brand is being used. If you notice any issues, respond quickly to take control of the conversation, and mitigate any further negative fallout. American detergent company Tide, for example, faced a brand’s worst nightmare in 2017, after a ‘Tide Pod challenge’ on YouTube encouraged teenagers to ingest the company’s laundry pods. This exacerbated an already prevalent issue for pod manufacturers, and many adolescents were hospitalised. The company responded by launching a campaign to dissuade further consumption of Tide Pods alongside popular American football player, Rob Gronkowski.

Without frequent monitoring of your brand online, issues like this can slip through the net and cause serious reputational damage. Social listening tools are available to monitor mentions of, and sentiment towards, your brand online. Setting up Google Alerts is a less expensive option, delivering notifications to your inbox whenever your brand is mentioned in content on Google.

6. Start telling your story with quality content

“You need to create ridiculously good content,” says Ann Handley, author of Everybody Writes. “Content that is useful, enjoyable and inspired.” Producing content that aligns with your brand’s identity makes it easier for potential customers to find you, by helping search engines associate keywords with you and your website.

Content for content’s sake, however, is rarely the best approach. Your website will most likely be the main hub for your customers, so it is important that its content makes a good impression. Clear, simple, and helpful content is always preferable to jargon-jumbled batches of buzzwords. Make sure to remove all typos and instances of poor grammar, as this often demonstrates a lack of professionalism and due care.

As your brand grows, consider creating a style guide that best captures your voice. This will ensure all content is consistent with the brand’s identity, regardless of who writes it.

7. Look internally, as well as externally

Most start-ups evolve from one or two founders to a whole team. If that team is not aligned to your brand’s values, then quality of service and brand reputation will drop. As well as strong links between low corporate integrity and lower financial value, according to the Journal of Financial Economics, businesses with toxic cultures also experience higher rates of turnover. The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that 20% of employees leave a job due to bad culture, with many choosing to give voice to their experiences using public forums like Glassdoor.

Cultures are created from the top down. Make sure management understands and embodies your values and mission statements wholeheartedly, before communicating these to the team. Once these are embraced across the company, they are more likely to manifest externally.

8. Take a proactive and reactive approach

A quick response is all well and good, but don’t focus on it at the expense of a proactive strategy. Telling your story and shaping the narrative around your brand will build a positive reputation that is more resilient and long-lasting than the quick gains of managing a crisis well. Apply brand thinking at every stage of your business’s growth, from product development to the customer journey.

Get reputation right, and you will find that you need to convey the virtues of your business less and less – your customers will be doing it for you.

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