Paying more than 50 cents for a cup of coffee was unheard of just a few decades ago. Today, coffee is a $90 billion industry and people don’t bat an eye at spending nearly $5 for a large cappuccino. This incredible shift in behavior is the result of perhaps the most successful branding effort ever.

“Starbucks is the quintessential example of branding done right,” says Nick Spallone, general manager of Tahoe Supply Co., Carson City, Nev. “If you want to know why branding is so important, go have a cup of coffee at Starbucks and remember there was a time not that long ago when restaurants gave away coffee for free.”

Founded in 1971, Starbucks sold coffee beans and equipment like every other business in its industry. In 1987, however, it re-branded itself and began selling high-quality coffee to on-the-go Americans. A focus on service and a unique vernacular (venti, Frappuccino) contributed to the company’s loyal following. Starbucks is now the world’s largest coffee shop chain with more than 10,000 stores in 30 countries.

Making Your Mark
A company’s brand — or identity — is what sets it apart from competitors and creates value for the customer. More than simply creating a logo or putting a label on a box, branding is the process of creating positive perceptions about a company in the minds of potential and existing customers. It encompasses both the functional and emotional benefits of the product or service being offered.

Branding is just as important in the jan/san industry as it is in the world of coffee. While a distributor will probably never have the name recognition of Kleenex or Xerox, it can become synonymous with the products it sells in the marketplace. Every business, from the multi-million dollar retailer to the regional jan/san distributor, wants top-of-mind awareness among its target audience. That’s where branding comes in.

“When a customer knowingly pays a premium for your product or services, you know your brand is working,” says Spallone, who says branding is responsible for his company’s 20 percent annual growth for the last 10 years. “A company’s brand is the equivalent of a fingerprint — everyone has one. If you don’t put time into developing your brand, it will show.”

Branding is important for any business, whether it just opened its doors or has been around for generations. To build or bolster your brand, abide by these five rules.

1. It's not just for Starbucks.
Any business, regardless of size, can create a brand. In fact, small companies need brand power as much as (or perhaps more than) their larger competitors, particularly in competitive markets where a brand can make a small business stand out from the crowd.

“The mistake that so many companies make is to try and emulate what large companies do,” Spallone says. “Rather than copying a large company, a smaller company should create a brand that shows the value in their own characteristics.”

Budget-minded businesses may be wary about investing dollars into branding. Although pricey advertising and fancy letterhead can be part of a branding campaign, they are not mandatory. The only necessity is to come up with an idea and to share it with your staff and customers.

“A lack of resources, frankly, is nothing but an excuse for one’s lack of creativity,” says James H. Gilmore, co-author of The Experience Economy and co-founder of Strategic Horizons in Aurora, Ohio. “The ideas will pay for themselves in new customers and repeat business.”

It was certainly a simple concept that propelled DadePaper into a market leader in Florida. In 1939, founder Irving Genet created a brand based on trust and dependability. He didn’t spend a fortune on marketing; he just delivered his product on time and on budget.

“Integrity and perseverance built the brand in the early days,” says Laura Craven, director of marketing for Miami-based DadePaper. “A small company may have limited resources and not be able to afford advertising, but if they build a brand reputation and are true to that brand, customers will take notice and spread the word.”

2. It starts with an idea.
There is a difference between consumer and business branding — the former is focused on specific products while the latter is all about the company itself. Successful B2B branding is about promoting a company’s strengths, such as a particular skill, high-quality customer service, or the best value for the money.

“Too much effort is made in so-called branding exercises,” Gilmore says. “It results in myriad tag lines and slogans, but seldom shows up in the actual experience customers have with an enterprise. Brand is earned. It should be the result of business behaviors, not a management activity.”

To begin building your brand, pick a theme or a message that defines your company (what it does well or what it stands for). Perhaps you want to be known as the company that treats its customers like family or maybe you’d rather be identified as experts who can solve any problem. Whatever message you choose, be certain that it is based on fact, not fantasy.

“Your brand should represent who you are as a company,” Craven says. “If it is smoke and mirrors, it can’t last.”

When Royal Paper began its branding process in the early 1990s, it was a natural progression of what the company had been doing for more than five years.

“It is all about understanding our customers and not imposing on them pseudo solutions created in a financial office,” says George Abiaad, president of Los Angeles-based Royal.

3. It must be shared.
If you don’t spread the word about your brand, it is no better than having a framed mission statement on the wall that simply collects dust. Bring your proposed identity to life with a well-planned marketing effort.

Reinforce your brand in every ad, brochure, letter — anything your business creates. Be sure the messages you are sending out are consistent and easy to understand. Strengthening the brand should become a routine part of doing business, not an exercise you practice only when it’s time to make a sales call or place an ad.

“Marketing is what ties your brand and your overall business deployment strategies together,” Spallone says. “If they are not interconnected, you’re going to miss the mark.”

Communicate the brand not only to customers but also to employees, suppliers, and anyone else connected to your company. Branding is a collaborative effort and it’s important that employees understand the company’s identity and incorporate it into all of their business activities and communications.

“Brand identity is how a company is recognized by all of the stakeholders including employees, customers, suppliers, and the community,” Craven says. “Marketing is important in reinforcing the brand with current stakeholders and introducing the brand to new stakeholders.”

4. It's a team effort.
The genesis for corporate branding must originate in the boardroom. It is critical that a company’s leader is involved in creating and implementing the brand strategy. If he or she doesn’t fully buy into the idea, it has zero chance of success.

While the development of a corporate identity must start with executives, its implementation should involve everyone in the company, from the CEO to the receptionist. After all, the ground troops have the most interaction with customers and, therefore, the greatest opportunity to bolster the brand.

“Branding can be important in any company when sales and management and everyone get behind each other and support their mutual goals,” says Lanny Schuster, president of United Sanitary, Baltimore.

Failing to get every employee on the same page is a sure-fire way to kill a brand. Without consistency at all customer contact points, the brand message will only make a promise it cannot deliver.

“The key is to instill the brand in each employee,” Craven says. “Our drivers are an extension of our sales force — they promote the brand by being helpful when making their deliveries. Our receptionists are the first people that visitors see when they enter the building. It’s imperative that these team members are enthusiastic and professional. Everyone has to be part of the program.”

4. It should change with the times.
A corporate brand must stay relevant and unique. To do this, a business must regularly reevaluate its efforts and adjust its strategy as needed. Complacency can result in companies not actively managing their identity and inevitably the brand’s impact will fizzle.

The fundamental parts of a brand, such as vision and values, may never change. On the other hand, the strategies a business employs as part of its branding efforts, such as advertising or sales pitches, should be tweaked to reflect changes in your business or trends in the industry.

“Our brand development program is always a work in progress,” Abiaad says. “We are constantly developing new products and marketing programs to enhance what we have begun and developing new ideas to carry us into the future.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to SM.