Of all possible marketing mistakes, two are more damaging than all others combined. The first is assuming that customers know a company and its products. The second is not having a value concept.

When someone says “Starbucks,” we immediately think of personalized coffee. In the same way, Hyundai congers up value, Maytag, durability, and, of course, Ben and Jerry’s means premium ice cream to just about everyone.

Now, think about the dozens of manufacturers, real estate firms, insurance agencies, medical organizations, banks and just about every other business category, large or small. To the average person, they blend together. Rarely does one stand out. If it does, often it’s because of a negative occurrence such as a bus company with record of accidents with injuries and fatalities.

What the business or product name stands for is critical for separating it from the competition. Without that essential differentiation, business is lost. Just knowing about a company or remembering its name isn’t nearly enough. Today, it’s the picture that the name creates in the customer’s mind that counts.

Even though this concept is basic marketing, most companies miss it. They think the way to convince customers to do business with them is to talk about themselves. They are the “stars” of their ads. Their message is: “All about us.” Companies tend to focus on what’s most familiar to them — namely themselves. This why they plaster their companies’ names on trucks, ballparks, stadiums and just about anywhere else, as if they are accomplishing some miraculous marketing objective. However, the goal of marketing is name value, not name recognition.

It’s a myth to think that a business needs to be big to accomplish this goal. It doesn’t. To go beyond the competition, ask yourself and others in your company three critical questions:

  1. “Why are we in business?” The safe, obvious and wrong answer is, “To make money.” While making money is certainly a central business objective, it’s not why companies are in business. “To serve our customers” is the second most popular and incorrect answer. Again, serving customers is necessary, but it’s not a reason for being in business.

    The only reason to be in business is to create customers. It’s amazing how many companies — big and small — open their doors convinced that customers will flock to them and then are shocked when nobody walks through those doors or the phone doesn’t ring. Even having a great idea isn’t good enough if it doesn’t attract customers. Others send out salespeople only to discover either that the market’s overcrowded or there’s no demand.

    If a business doesn’t create customers, it won’t last.

  2. “Why should someone do business with us?” This question generally brings out another laundry list of wrong answers. “We have great people” usually tops the list. While there’s no denying the value of having bright, hard working and engaged employees, that answer doesn’t do it. For example, you may have a terrific staff that is helpful, knowledgeable and responsive, but customers don’t want what you’re selling.

    Then, we often hear more than one person jump in with, “Our service is the best.” Needless to say, exemplary service is an endangered quality. Anyone who has ordered a meal at a fast food restaurant knows how frequently the meal you are handed is not the one you ordered.

    After dismissing the usual responses, the question still remains: “Why would a customer want to do business with us?” The answer depends on the value a company brings to the customer.

    While it’s popular to talk about a company’s “value proposition,” such discussions often miss the point by focusing on the company instead of the customer. Unless a company delivers value that’s compelling to the customer, there is no value. For example, General Motors analyzed what their customers wanted and launched a new 100,000-mile/five-year warranty.

  3. “How can we make sure we’re ‘top of mind’ with our customers and prospects?” It’s a disastrous mistake to assume that any company is as well known as it thinks it is. IBM doesn’t fall into that trap. Even though no three letters are better known than IBM, the company is relentless at communicating the value it brings to its customers.

    Yet, repeatedly, business executives say, “We’ve been around a long time. Everyone knows us.” What’s surprising is that they actually believe it.

    There’s only one safe rule today: Always act as if no one knows you or recognizes the value you bring to customers. If this seems to suggest that effective marketing includes both paranoia and persistence, it does. In fact, they are what drive successful marketing. Isn’t this why General Motors changed its value proposition by coming out with its “100,000-mile warranty?” They admitted the buying public didn’t have confidence in their vehicles and set forth a solution that had value for the customer.

    Keeping a company’s value at the top of customers’ minds requires both paranoia and persistence.

The way to stay focused and break through the barriers is never stop asking the three critical questions. The way to overcome the two most damaging marketing mistakes is to get the answers to those questions right.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass. He can be reached through his Web site.