4 Secrets to Building Brand Presence

Yoshito Hori, president of GLOBIS University, managing partner of GLOBIS Capital Partners, shares his views from an entrepreneur's perspective.

Brands exist in the mind of the beholder. If no one knows your brand, then it’s irrelevant how good your actual business is. As far as the general public is concerned, you simply don’t exist.

Communication is key to getting any startup business off the ground and to maintaining long-term forward momentum.

My communication playbook—I’ll be talking mainly about corporate and service brands here—is based on four simple principles.

(a)BE DIFFERENT: Define yourself in contrast to your competitors.
(b)BE ASPIRATIONAL: Project a big vision that your customers will want to be part of.
(c)BE MEDIA PRAGMATIC: Use every kind of media to raise awareness.
(d)BE CUSTOMER-OBSESSED: Word of mouth from satisfied customers is always the most effective communications strategy.

These four principles certainly worked for me. For example, when I started a business school in Japan in the early 1990s, I was up against the country’s oldest universities. Their history and prestige made them formidable competitors.

We had no credentials, no office (other than my apartment), no classrooms (just rooms we rented by the hour) and a paltry $8000 in the bank.

What did we do? We decided to play up all these differences as positives and present ourselves as a completely “different animal” in business education. The universities were academic—so we stressed practicality. The universities focused on general management—so we focused on entrepreneurship. The universities were large, monolithic and faceless—so we did our best to be student-focused, flexible and responsive.

Having presented ourselves as new and different, the next thing was to propose a vision that would resonate at an emotional level. We deliberately did not talk about our products—the courses that our school offered—in any detail. Instead we sent out a message of how we hoped to contribute to the world by “educating visionary leaders who create and innovate societies.”

This is similar to what Apple did in 1997 when Steve Jobs came back to turn the company around. While the PC makers were busy trying to lure customers by listing processor speed, memory capacity and other dull technical specifications, Apple rose above all that, instead promising to elevate Mac users to the level of “crazy ones, misfits, rebels and troublemakers” like John Lennon, Bob Dylan or Martin Luther King.

Once you’ve formulated your message, you then need to get it out. My approach here is very practical: Use every form of media you can. Back in 1992, we did direct mailing campaigns, put ads in business publications, and did our best to get written about. (The media was happy to write about us precisely because we were a different animal.) One of the most effective forms of outreach was a series of books we published on the framework and theory of MBA. To date, the series has sold almost 1.5 million copies.

With the advent of the Internet, we made a website, started producing an online magazine and also launched a blog. As the web developed, we expanded our presence to social media like Facebook and Twitter. We also set up a dedicated video streaming site to broadcast the conferences and seminars we hold. Last year I even hosted a TV program about the various social, economic and political challenges that Japan is facing.

Media is something of a lottery. You can never know for sure which book, article, blog post, video or TV show is going to make a big impact. That’s why it makes sense to be proactive and use all the media you can to boost your chances of connecting with people.

Ultimately, however, it is word-of mouth that is the most effective marketing tool. That is why we wanted to create a community of satisfied customers who would spread the word on our behalf. We did this by introducing something highly unusual in the educational world: a service guarantee. Our business school promised to give any student who was not satisfied with their course a full refund.

When you add a satisfied community of voluntary brand ambassadors—I call them fans—to a unique and aspirational message communicated across multiple platforms, your brand is in a very good place indeed.

To be honest, I didn’t really want to do one of these “7 Secrets of X” or “8 Tips for Y” kind of posts. There are so many of them on LinkedIn, the whole approach can seem rather tired and generic. But then I thought I might as well try it at least once.

Here I have tried to distil my personal experience of corporate communications and branding down to four simple principles.

Of course, what worked for us may not be the right recipe for your business in your country. What has been your experience? Why not share it with us?

(Photo: shutterstock / Victor Correia)


Mr. Yoshito Hori established GLOBIS Management School in 1992 and GLOBIS Capital Partners in 1996. In 2003, GLOBIS started its original MBA program which, in 2006, received accreditation from the Japanese Ministry of Education and gained “university” status. GLOBIS started a part-time MBA program in English in 2009 and a full-time MBA program in English in 2012.

A Harvard MBA graduate and former Sumitomo Corporation employee, Mr. Hori founded the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Japan Chapter in 1995 and became the first board member from Asia in charge of Asia Pacific region in 1996. He also served on the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s New Asian Leaders Executive Committee and Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership, as well as the Harvard Business School Alumni Board from 2005 to 2008. Currently, Mr. Hori is a board member of the Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives), and serves as co-chair of WEF’s Global Growth Companies.

In 2008, he launched the G1 Summit – a Japanese version of the WEF’s annual Davos forum. This led to the foundation of G1 Summit Institute in 2013, which Mr. Hori serves as Representative Director.

Just days after a huge earthquake struck northeast Japan in March 2011, Mr. Hori launched Project KIBOW to support the rebuilding of the disaster-affected areas. The following year Project KIBOW was incorporated as the KIBOW Foundation, which Mr. Hori serves as Representative Director.

An avid enthusiast of the Japanese game Go since age 40, Mr. Hori has been Director of the Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Association) since June 2013.

Since October 2013, Mr. Hori has hosted a weekly TV program in Japan called Nippon Mirai Kaigi (Japan Future Conference). He has authored several books including Visionary Leaders who Create and Innovate Societies, Six Dimensions of Life, and My Personal Mission Statement.

Mr. Hori received his BS in Engineering from Kyoto University and his MBA from Harvard Business School.

He is an avid swimmer and enjoys spending time with his family, especially his five sons.

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