Ask anyone for their admired brand names, and the same companies immediately come to mind. Companies spend billions of dollars a year on consultants, image makeovers, marketing communications and advertising to keep their brand names at the top of the public mind.

Some of these companies have “top of mind” status simply due to market saturation — we have no trouble remembering McDonald’s, Starbucks or Microsoft, because they are everywhere. Other companies develop other “personas”: The low-price leader? Wal-Mart.

But there only can be one “biggest” and one “cheapest” in any market or industry (and they’re often the same company); everyone else needs to think differently in order to stand out. That’s just what Apple Computer did — through the slogan, “Think Different,” and a series of unique advertising campaigns, it was able to brand itself as a quirky alternative. The company maintains a loyal following, even though its sales pale in comparison to those of Microsoft.

And even companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks had to start somewhere — their category-leading status didn’t spring up overnight. They also, at one time, also had to think different in order to position themselves in their respective markets.

For those building service contractors who are neither the cheapest nor the biggest in their market (yet), a strong brand based on a set of strengths can help galvanize client excitement and loyalty, just as Apple does with its customers.

But just what is a brand? A brand isn’t just a company name, an advertising slogan, or a trademark or logo — it’s everything your company stands for. Names and logos simply act as shortcuts for values associated with your company — fair prices, quick response to complaints, professionalism, quality and so on.

“A brand is a promise between a company and a customer — what you can expect when you buy from that company,” says Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Corp., San Francisco.

In the BSC market, a strong brand can be leveraged in dealing with price-conscious customers, says Adamson.

“Anytime we hear that it’s all about price, we need to think,” he says. “There can only be one price leader in a category, and if you can’t win, you have to find a different way to skin the cat.”

“Branding is important because cleaning is easily commoditized, and many compete solely on price,” adds Don Zerivitz, president and CEO of Pro Clean Building Maintenance Inc. in Winter Park, Fla. “We work harder to differentiate ourselves, even before we bid. If we go into a bid and we already are different, we’ll be well ahead of our competitors.”

“People need to remember your company when they need you and associate something good or valuable when they see your name,” says Lin Fuller, co-owner of Maid in the Shade, a commercial and residential service in Houston.

Worth 1,000 words?
But creating that association isn’t simple; you can’t just slap “we’re the best!” on a brochure and make it true.

“Most brand building starts not with advertising, but with a real close look at what makes you different,” Adamson says. “Management needs to sit down and think, ‘when a customer asks why they should do business with me, what do I say?’”

If you can’t answer that question, you don’t have a brand yet, he says. Once you do figure out what you stand for, you must spread the message throughout your company before bringing it public.

“Most branding starts from the inside out. Get everyone on board, singing the same tune,” Adamson says.

This, especially, is important for employees.

“My people are the face of the company,” says Jim Thompson, owner of A-One Building Services LLC in Wyoming, Mich. “The way they interact is important. When we hire people, we let them know right away that they’ll be working for the best.”

Thompson reinforces his high-quality message to his employees by providing them with above-market wages, recognizable uniforms and the power to do whatever needs to be done in order to fix a problem.

Zerivitz, too, wants his brand to be associated with quality, and reinforces that association in various ways, throughout his company.

“We grew up in a commercial bakery,” explains Zerivitz. “The quality of the product was vital. When we sold that business and started this one, there wasn’t a lot of attention paid to quality. So, we started out day one with some objectives.”

The first, says Zerivitz, was to present a clean-looking image.

“Our logo, our literature — everything is cleanly designed, with lots of white space,” he explains. “Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of money on signage and [uniform] embroidery.”
Also, Pro Clean’s proposals also reflect the tidy image.

“Instead of spending $1 on a proposal, it costs $10 so we can present something orderly and clean,” he explains. “I think clutter in proposals creates a reputation of clutter.”

In addition to cleanliness and quality, Zerivitz also strives to connote professionalism.

“As business gets more casual, we get more formal,” he says. “We require a a tie all of the time. All we’re selling is what the customer sees.”

Spreading the message
Once everyone in the company is on board with your brand, it’s time to spread the word.

“Word of mouth is how small brands start — ‘you should hire us because of A,B,C and D,’” explains Adamson.

Word of mouth has worked well for Thompson.

“Most of our business comes on referrals,” he says. “We are the ‘nice people in the purple shirts.’ It really helps our word-of-mouth. We do a lot of retail and mall space, and sometimes when we come into a new store, we get asked, ‘are you the ones in the purple shirts?’ They look for us. I’m actually able to interview new customers to see if they fit into our plan. I’ve turned down potential customers who don’t fit.”

If you want to grow beyond what word of mouth can provide, you’ll need to choose where and how to position your brand. For example, although Maid in the Shade relies heavily on networking and referrals, it also uses a variety of advertising formats to reinforce its commercial and residential brand.

“Our advertising varies from charity events, large Yellow Pages ads, local papers, Web site and flyers,” explains co-owner Noel Paden.

“Anything to get your name out there is going to help at least a little, but it is important to track the cost versus actual revenue produced by the various ways that you advertise,” adds Fuller. “Try it, and if it doesn’t make more money than you spent, try something else.”

Sometimes, it can help to create an icon or symbol for your brand. Maid in the Shade offers “Broomy,” a smiling broom character.

“Broomy is on all of our brochures, business cards, Web site and advertising materials,” says Fuller. “Our employees also wear a uniform emblazoned with Broomy’s smiling face. The uniform gives that professional look to our workers.”

The uniform and logo also increase exposure for the company when Maid in the Shade employees are visible in public, Fuller adds.

Whether or not you use an icon in your advertising, it’s important that all of your materials look their best, with clean design and a unified look.

“The better it looks, the easier it is to communicate your brand,” Adamson explains. “If a company’s marketing looks disheveled or disorganized, people make the logical jump and say the company isn’t well run.”

However, Adamson cautions that contractors shouldn’t put style over substance; while a poorly packaged brochure can diminish your company in your customer’s eyes, lack of a coherent message is worse.

“If you don’t have a clear idea of where you stand, and what you stand for, you don’t have a brand,” he explains. “You might have an ad campaign; you might have pretty colors.”

Keeping the brand alive
Once people begin associating your company with the image you want to project, you’ve built your brand. However, in order to keep it alive, everything your company does and every bit of communication must reinforce the message you’re selling.

“Make sure your company lives your brand,” Adamson says. “The fast way to kill a brand is to deliver less than you promise.”

“The most important thing we’ve done to build our brand is to conduct our business with integrity and pride,” points out Paden.

“Not only do you want them to think of you as a reputable company, you need to be that reputable company,” adds Fuller. “Make sure your reputation stands up to the name you’ve made for yourself.”

Strong Brands, Strong Partners
Branding isn’t just aimed at customers. If your company has a professional, innovative brand, it may help you attract partners to help you serve your clients.

For instance, Jim Thompson, owner of A-One Building Services LLC in Wyoming, Mich., has been able to take advantage of his company’s quality brand by teaming up with its vendors, such as a utility-audit company, for the benefit of his customers. He calls this program “A-One Preferred Partners.”

“The utility-audit company looks at things like your cell phone and your electricity, and figures out ways to save you money; they get paid based on what they save,” Thompson explains. “We put a postcard out with both of our names, that offers a special deal to our customers.”

A-One Preferred Partners also has offered residential-housekeeping service to the employees of customers (especially the highly paid doctors and executives who work for his medical clients); the next offering may be a payroll service.

A strong brand also can endear a company to its colleagues, and pave the way for later partnering.

Capital Cleaning in New York markets itself as a national company, but doesn’t have an office in every state. So, the company’s constantly looking for other contractors with whom to partner. To do so, it exhibits at trade shows, and hands out trinkets such as foam-rubber “stress balls,” and playing cards emblazoned with the company’s logo. The stately image of a capitol dome helps reinforce the company’s longevity (it has been around since 1932) and commitment to professionalism.

“We’re trying to get more people to work with us,” Capital’s Elliott Kaplan says. “We want them to remember us.”

In both of these cases, a strong brand is key, because people instinctively don’t want to partner with an unprofessional or obscure company.