Beyond the Brand: How to Form Deep Connections to Consumers

“Without branding, there’s no connection between what you want people to think about your organization and what they actually do,” explained Sarah Miller, Owner of White Space, a Rochester-based company specializing in brand strategy, brand identity, and brand experience. We’re branding our company, our community, and ourselves constantly, regardless of our awareness. To make a real connection to potential consumers, and be successful with branding efforts, Miller says we need to tell a deeper story and create an experience to attract and retain consumers with similar vision.

Miller, a native of Plainview, Minn., has a twelve-year career in graphic design, branding, and marketing. When her son was six months old, she left the safety net of an established graphic design firm in Rochester and struck out on her own, with no real plans or financial stability.

“I ultimately just had to make a change in my life. Sometimes we wake up and we think that life’s just too short,” she said.

Miller loves design, but is passionate about branding. She’s helped local businesses like Jimmy’s Salad Dressings and Dips, Limb Lab, and Rochester Downtown Alliance think “brand first” to tell their stories.

Today, the term “brand” can encompass multiple things like a business name, logo, marketing, and company culture. A brand is all these things. But foremost, it’s your reputation as a business. Miller explains brand is how yourself, your company, and your community makes people feel. It’s the experience people have after an interaction with these entities. This includes immediate, visual perceptions a consumer has with a website, brochure, or perhaps even the look of a community or town. These components make up the “identity” portion of a brand.  

But to gain a deeper, lasting connection, Miller says consumers have to buy in to the emotional component of the brand.

Many people, even experts in the field, often fail to appreciate the difference between branding and marketing, Miller explained. Both, she said, are essential for a business and are closely intertwined.

“Branding is your ‘why’. Marketing is ‘how,’” she said. Branding is a long-term process that builds loyalty. Marketing is a short-term tactic that generates response.

Miller segments marketing into two steps: the identity phase and the visual phase. Branding plays a key role in each stage.

The first portion of marketing, the identity phase, is a time of self-discovery where a business builds its foundation, sets goals, and determines a core audience it would like to reach. Brand story and brand identity are a critical part of this process. These are the “why” components.

“Why do you exist as a company? As a person, what is your purpose on earth?” Miller explained. “What’s the story that makes you stand out versus someone else?”

After the identity phase, where the story behind the business is built, comes the “fun, refreshing” phase where the company visually comes to life.

“But before we get dressed, we have to figure out what we’re dressing,” Miller explained.

Now in the visual stage of marketing, the business determines how they want to be seen by others. This includes things like the website, business cards, pamphlets, the layout and décor of the office building, even the way we dress. These immediate impressions, the visual identity, are the tip of the iceberg, Miller explained, the tiny fraction of the business above water that everybody can see.

However, the largest part of that iceberg, the submerged, subliminal portion, makes up the foundation and base, the real structure and identity. For a business, this unseen portion is the core, purpose, and values of a company. It’s the personality and vision of the business that helps to form strong, lasting connections with consumers and attracts like-minded people to work for the company.

It’s the brand.

Sharing this deeper vision of a business- the branding- is essential to position the story behind the company to the target audience and find this elusive connectivity. Miller says to reach this deeper relationship with potential consumers- to brand- requires purpose, personality, positioning, and promise.

“People don’t buy what you do. They don’t buy based upon your services, your amenities,” she explained. “It’s not about the product. It’s about the experience.”

Successful brands, like Apple and Harley-Davidson, have built a culture and community that people want to join. These brands have explicitly communicated their “why” to consumers and connected their deeper vision.

“How are you making conscious decision on your own brand?” Miller asked. People are already googling you, looking at your website, and searching your social media feeds.

“Don’t let other people tell your story. They’re going to do it in a thousand different ways. Maybe right. Maybe wrong. You tell your story,” she advised.

This talk on branding by Sarah Miller was part of the Marketing in the Morning series developed by Community and Economic Development Associates (CEDA), a non-profit organization that serves businesses and communities in southeastern Minnesota. CEDA runs Marketing in the Morning sessions quarterly to help businesses grow and stay on top of the latest marketing techniques. This talk on branding can also be viewed on the CEDA Facebook page.