By Deb Gabor

I hear one question from business owners all the time: “When should we brand?”

My answer is always the same: “Early, often, and always.”

Branding is not optional, and the risks of not taking it seriously are very real. Your customers might lose touch with your brand and leave you. A competitor with a strong commitment to branding might overtake you. Or, perhaps worst of all, the market might define your brand for you.

Brand yourself, or someone else will brand you. It’s very dangerous to let your customers, or the news media, or bloggers, or social media, or your competitors define your brand for you.

If you don’t intentionally control your brand yourself, it will take on a life of its own.

Brand or be branded
For decades, cable television companies had no competition. They owned a local franchise, which allowed them to do business in a particular geographic area, and that was that. The regional cable companies had mini-monopolies because their customers had few options for home entertainment.

Hence, they often didn’t treat their customers well.

The cable companies knew their customers weren’t going to leave and, as a result, poor customer service became an ingrained way of doing business.

I don’t know if you’ve ever personally had the experience of being a customer of any of the big cable TV companies. If you have, then you’ve probably experienced the overwhelming sense of dread that comes whenever you have to call a cable company about anything. Dealing with cable companies is not a pleasant experience.

Invariably, you’ll start by waiting on hold for 30 minutes. When you do get a customer service rep on the line, you have to repeat all your account information that you’ve already entered. Then the rep will ask you a bunch of stupid questions you already answered for the person you spoke with previously. When you do schedule your appointment, customer service provides you a four-hour window of time when you need to be home. The technician shows up either early or late, or not at all. Finally, you get your cable bill, which is already too high to begin with, and discover that the company charged you way more than you expected for the service call.

When it comes to customer satisfaction—or the lack of it—it doesn’t get much worse than this.

With that atrocious level of customer service, pretty soon some of the big cable companies earned a dismal reputation among customers. You can go into a party and overhear people talking about how frustrated they are with their cable provider. “Oh gosh, I had to call the cable company the other day. What a nightmare. I’m still upset!” Everybody in the room utters a sigh of disgust because they’ve experienced the same thing.

Pretty soon, Consumer Reports or Temkin Group releases a survey and finds that the cable industry has the lowest customer satisfaction scores of any industry. Then the news media picks up the story. The bloggers start ranting. Twitter goes crazy.

Before you know it, the cable industry has been branded as an awful industry that abuses its customers. It can be very difficult to shed that reputation, and it can take years.

The cable industry lost control of its brand and let someone else—in this case, customers—own the brand. When you don’t take control of your brand’s image, and you don’t properly manage the relationship you have with your customers, the results can be devastating. And they show up on the bottom line.

What to do instead
Branding doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t need to have a major branding agency on retainer or go on weeklong branding retreats.

By answering three major questions, you can take control of your brand and understand who you are and how you fit in the market.

These are deep questions, and three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, are dedicated to understanding them and how best to answer them.

1) What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?

2) What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?

3) How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?

By understanding the answers to these three questions, companies can ensure that they are sending the right message, and that their customers’ experiences are aligning with their messaging.

Branding is not a step-by-step process
I want to be clear: Companies cannot just answer those three questions once and then hang up their branding hat. Answering the above questions is an ongoing exercise that should happen throughout the life of the brand. Branding is not something that takes place at a single point in time.

The answers to these questions will always be evolving and, even more importantly, living your brand and ensuring that customers experience your values is a constantly ongoing process.

You are in a competitive environment with changing customer needs and market forces that are beyond your control. Your brand needs to be constantly evolving to meet these challenges. You have to be in constant touch with your customers and your customers’ needs or subject yourself to the risk of becoming irrelevant.