By Deb Gabor

When people imagine our job as a branding agency, they usually picture a marketing whiz sitting in a closed off boardroom, brainstorming and crafting a perfect brand.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The reality is, branding doesn’t come from your company or from an agency you hire. Branding comes from your customers.

Your brand lives in your customers’ needs and desires, as well as their perceptions of you and their connection to you. Branding is not an inside-out activity; it’s an outside-in activity.

In others words, real branding comes down to getting inside your customers’ heads and then working inward from there. What do your customers think? How do they behave? What do they need? Where do they go to get it? Where do they shop? How much are they going to spend? What’s important to them? How does it make them feel? And how does it advance them in the goals that they have for their own lives?

This is where branding starts.

FreshDirect—Faster from the Farm to the Fork
FreshDirect is an online grocery store on the East Coast. When you order from FreshDirect, you can place a grocery order online today and receive delivery at your home or office the next day.

Since FreshDirect began operations in 2002, the company has featured a large selection of popular national brands, as well as their own private-label products. The company has direct relationships with regional growers and producers to ensure that the food you get is the best-tasting, healthiest, and most nourishing product available.

But as you are no doubt aware, the world has undergone a seismic shift since 2002. The food procurement space is changing rapidly. This space is becoming increasingly crowded every year, if not every month. It seems like new start-up food delivery companies are popping up faster than you can say fifth-floor walk-up.

So how does an established player like FreshDirect compete with energetic, innovative, tech-savvy, and, often, extremely well-funded competitors?

The company started looking at opportunities to play a more meaningful role in its customers’ relationships with food. Management asked themselves one of those deep existential questions that defines a brand, “How do we extend our value beyond just the procurement of food?”

Instead of sitting around in a boardroom brainstorming, FreshDirect spent a lot of time and effort really learning every aspect of their customers’ relationships with food to assess opportunities to address more of customers’ food challenges.

These new insights have enabled FreshDirect to expand its view of who its customers are, what its customers are trying to achieve, and how it can succeed in conquering its customers’ food challenges. The company dove deeply into its customers’ food “life cycle” to understand their emotions, desires, and challenges in their interactions with food.

After talking to its customers and surveying the competitive landscape, FreshDirect was better positioned to understand what customers wanted.

They didn’t just want a supermarket that delivers. They wanted a partner that was a part of their entire food life cycle.

As a result, the company’s branding has evolved with consumer needs, expectations, and the changing types of relationships that consumers want to have with these kinds of providers.

Don’t Know What Your Customers Think? Ask Them!
Most companies don’t have a six-figure budget for market research. So how do you learn about your customers?

Lo and behold, you learn who your customers are by actually finding and having a conversation with them. Those conversations can take place through informal market research, such as chatting with customers in Starbucks, or through formal research methods, which could include everything from focus groups, to quantitative studies, to depth interviews, to observing your customers “in the wild” through ethnography.

In the case of FreshDirect, we actually observed the entire food procurement life cycle. We followed people around while they shopped. We used video cameras and asked customers to show us what it looks like in their houses during the dinner hour. They showed us what it was like to shop in traditional grocery stores. They showed us what the insides of their refrigerators and pantries looked like. In some cases, they even showed us the family dog.

FreshDirect is a major company with a big budget, but even a company that has only four employees and makes $250,000 a year has enough customers to conduct meaningful research.

There are many different ways to talk to your customers. On the super-low-budget end of the spectrum, you can just hang around in a Starbucks and ask people to try your product or service and then ask them for their opinions. Be sure to ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you like about this brand?” Or, “How do you see this fitting into your life?” Or, “What would you change about this?” Actually talking to customers face-to-face is one of the most valuable things you can do to understand your brand.

Another easy way for marketing managers and executives to interact with customers is by fielding customer service calls or inbound sales calls. Even at the CEO level, if you take customer service calls for a few hours every month, it might just be the most valuable time you ever spend. The callers won’t have any idea you’re the CEO, so they won’t sugarcoat how they feel about your brand. And you can ask them almost anything you want and they’ll answer honestly.

Another inexpensive method is hosting a pizza and beer party (or pizza and wine party, depending upon your target demographic). Invite friends and friends of friends to visit your office or your home and try your product. Tell them you’ll provide take-out food and beverages in exchange for their time. The key here is to make sure you’re getting honest feedback. Friends and family usually will try to tell you they love it, even if they don’t. So offer them the booze in exchange for brutal, unvarnished honesty.

The above ideas are free, or extremely inexpensive. Entrepreneurs in early stage start-ups and companies without market research budgets should take full advantage of all of these and devise other methods that put them front and center with customers. On the opposite end of the cost spectrum is formal market research, such as depth interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, and surveys. Professional focus groups can yield a tremendous amount of data, but they’re costly.

Whether you’re doing it in a scrappy, inexpensive way, or an formal, expensive way, companies of all sizes should be asking their customers about their needs. Oh, and here’s a pro tip: smart companies don’t just ask this of their own customers; they ask their competitors’ customers too.

Customers must always be a central part of the equation when you’re doing brand strategy. Unfortunately, there are many agencies out there that believe they can do branding in a black box without talking to customers.

To do branding in a vacuum without putting the customers’ point of view front and center is a massive mistake. In building a strong brand that connects deeply with customers, you must conduct discovery so you can gain understanding of customers’ needs and the trends, forces, and brands that compete for their attention.

The goal is not only to safeguard against what other brands are doing but also to gain insight into your company’s unique role in the marketplace and your unique relevance to your ideal customers.

You can read more about how Sol Marketing approaches branding in my book “Branding is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell the Hell Out of Anything.”