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 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.
1. Be Different: Define yourself in contrast to your competitors.
2. Be Aspirational: Project a big vision that your customers will want to be a part of.
3. Be Media Pragmatic: Use every kind of media to raise awareness.
4. Be Customer-obsessed: Word of mouth from satisfied customers is always the most effective communication strategy.
These four principles have certainly worked for me. 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 except a few rooms we rented by the hour, and a paltry $8,000 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 the jungle of business education. The universities were academic—we stressed practicality. The universities focused on general management—we focused on entrepreneurship. The universities were large, monolithic, and faceless—we did our best to be student-focused, flexible, and responsive.
Having presented ourselves as new and different, the next step 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, and 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 different.) One of the most effective forms of outreach was a series of books we published on the framework and theory of the 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 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. In 2013, 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 a full refund to any student who was not satisfied with their course.
When you have a satisfied community of voluntary brand ambassadors—I call them fans—ready to share a unique and aspirational message across multiple platforms, your brand is in a very good place indeed.