Let’s talk about your company’s brand.

Your brand, you’ve been told, is a cornerstone of your business – likely, the business you’ve poured most of your money, energy, heart and soul into in order to make it survive and succeed. Naturally, you’re protective of both; you want to nurture them, shape them, and guide them to further strength and success. But there’s a little problem with that: Only one of them belongs to you, and only one of them is really under your control.

Your company is yours – no doubt about it. You hold the keys, you give the orders, you pay the bills. But whether you like it or not, your brand largely belongs to someone else.

Your Brand’s Biggest Stakeholders

The reason why can be understood through Luke Sullivan’s succinct summation in his book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: “A brand is the sum total of all the emotions, thoughts, images, history, possibilities, and gossip that exist in the marketplace about a certain company.”

You may have presented most of the images and started some of the conversation, but who comes up with all of those thoughts, emotions and gossip? Whose behavior establishes the history, and opens up the possibilities? For the most part, it’s not you, your salespeople, or your marketing department – it’s your customers.

Unsettling as that thought may be, it’s not usually a problem so long as your customers’ perception of your brand and your perception remain in alignment. Sometimes, though, that alignment slips – slightly and imperceptibly at first, then abruptly and disastrously.

Think here of things like the Edsel, New Coke, and Paula Deen. In each of these cases, company management’s understanding of its brand – and of consumer attitudes and expectations surrounding it – have seemed to exist on different planets from one another. When those customer perceptions and expectations haven’t been met, the results have been disastrous.

In Forbes magazine, NetApp Vice President Jennie Grimes summed up the problem like this: “It’s often your customers who know what your brand really stands for—and long before you do. There can be a vast difference between who you think you are, and who your customers think you are.” As Ford, Coke and Deen quickly learned, presenting a product, service, or behavior that isn’t aligned with what customers think will mean there’s hell to pay. The customer, after all, is always right: The Edsel was pretentious and clunky; New Coke was cloying and derivative; and Deen was insensitive and racist. What begins as a perception becomes a costly reality, and the firmly-cemented essence of a brand.

Building a Brand from the Ground Up

So if customers are taking a bigger role in building your brand than you are, what do you do? After all, in large measure, you don’t have control. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have influence.

The traditional tactic for building a brand: Careful, methodical messaging, delivered uniformly across all media and all points of contact. The careful presentation of the clever taglines, the carefully-crafted logo, the signature visual and verbal styles is essential enticing prospective customers to take a chance on your products and allying themselves with your company. These are vital tools, but they aren’t the whole story; by definition, such top-down messaging is talking to, rather than talking with.

Talking with, on the other hand, involves listening, and is a ground-up process that begins with meeting customers where they are. Pause here to say a heartfelt thanks for social media; If you’ve got a Facebook or Instagram account and even a modest number of active, involved followers, you’ve got a fantastic means of listening in on the consumer dialogue surrounding your brand. More than any market research survey or focus group, your social presence can provide near real-time feedback on everything your company does, says, and is – and vital insight into the form your brand is taking as it is shaped by the people who matter most: The ones who buy your products.

In the end, your brand becomes a collaborative creation, established on a foundation of mutual dialogue and shared understanding. By conversing rather than dictating, you can understand; when you listen, you can adapt and respond. Your marketing messages become less about telling people what to want and more about telling them you have what they already want, and your product and service offerings amount to giving them precisely that.

How well does it work? Ask Apple. At its peak, Apple’s fiercest proponents weren’t its leaders, its marketing team, or its agency. They were legions of Apple devotees, relentlessly extolling the virtues of Apple products. At the same time, the “fanboys” were investing deeply into the brand with near-religious zeal, and forming an incredibly loyal customer base, the foundation for spectacularly successful global brand – one that they themselves created.

No, your company probably isn’t the next Apple. But that’s no reason not to do what works: Rather than battle for control of your brand, willingly share it, and build the foundation for a growing, evolving brand attuned to real people, real wants, and real needs. If you play your cards right, you and your customers can co-create a brand – and brand loyalty – that your competitors would kill for.

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PGN Agency helps businesses of all types and sizes create winning brand-building strategies that deliver powerful business results. For more information, click here.