I grew up in Texas where the legends and myths of cowboys is a reality. We've all heard the stories of the open range and the great cattle drives that went from south Texas to the railheads of Kansas. Hundreds of thousands of cattle were moved by walking hundreds of miles before the time of trucks.
The way these cattle drives worked was that many ranchers in one area would breed and raise their cows until they were ready to make the trek north. Time and money were spent to make these animals fat and keep them healthy so that the ranchers could get the maximum price when the cattle reached the stockyards.
One of the things these ranchers discovered was that all of these cows — and there could be thousands of them on one cattle drive — all looked alike. How could you tell the cows that belonged to Mr. Smith from those that belonged to Mrs. Jones? It was important information to know because that is how the ranchers got paid — by the pound for each cow that made it to the market.
Rodeos were created to show off the skills that cowboys needed in order to work on the range in Texas. Not only did they have to be good on horseback, but they also needed to be able to rope a steer and tie it up so that it could not move. There were two main reasons for needing these abilities. The first was to inspect the animals in order to take care of any medical or physical problems, and the second was to be able to mark the ownership of the animal.
Throughout the ages, people have been marking their animals to show who owns them in order to claim them. When your property can move on its own legs, it's important to be able to identify it if it wanders off. The most common way of marking your animal was to apply a burning stick or piece of hot metal to the skin of the animal in order to scar it, leaving an identifiable mark. We know this as "branding."
By applying a brand, the cowboys and ranchers could easily identify each cow and know who it belonged to. Arguments about who owned the animal (mainly) disappeared. Ranchers were accurately paid for the time and effort put into raising the animals. And, over time, ranchers became known for the quality of the animals and livestock they raised. If you knew the cow belonged to Joe Miller, you would know what to expect from the animal based upon Mr. Miller's reputation.
The same thing is true about you and your business. You are known by the reputation you have earned in running your business. Your reputation is how the customer identifies you and how their expectations are set. That reputation is the basis of your brand.
So, what is your brand? A brand can be several things, and they all relate to you. Your brand can be the sign on your store. It can be the name that is attached to the products you sell, such as a gasoline brand. But, in my opinion, the most important brand is your personal brand.
Too many retailers think their brand is tied to the signage on their store or the name of their products. They think of themselves as the Shell station or the Texaco down the street. They may think of themselves as the Quick Mart or Food Shop sign that is above their door.
I would argue that a retailer’s true brand is based on how you operate your business. It is what your customers think about you and the people who work with you. It is how people who come into your store think about the cleanliness of your shop, the friendliness of your staff, and the fairness of your prices. Your brand is how you present yourself, and your business, to the world.
You can't necessarily define a brand by just one characteristic. It is a compilation of how your business is operated, and it may not be good or complimentary. People may think your brand is "cheap prices but a dirty store" or "friendly customer service and higher prices." The important thing is for you to understand what your brand is, as perceived by your customers, and decide whether that is how you want to be represented.
You are the person who ultimately controls your brand and how you are perceived by the public. Don't forget, it doesn't matter whether what the customer believes about your brand is true. If they believe something, it is true. Your customer's perception is your reality.
Take a close look at what you are doing and how you are presenting your business to your customers. Do you want to be the cleanest store in the neighborhood? The store with the lowest prices? The store with the freshest food? The store with the friendliest staff? Or all of the above? Whatever it is that you want your brand to be, you have to constantly work to make it true, maintain it, and communicate it.
A brand is not built in a day. It is done over time by being consistent in your actions and in your approach to business every time you have a customer interaction.
Your brand has to be the starting point for everything you do. You have to begin each day knowing the message and the image you want to convey. You have to end each day reviewing what you did and deciding whether it was consistent with your brand.
Every action — customer service, employee training, the products you order for the store, when you turn the lights on — has to be based on, and guided by, your brand.
Maintaining your customer brand is a daily ongoing project. Every day, you have to live your brand and promote it. It's the message you send to your community, to your customers, to your staff, and to yourself.
Without a brand, all retailers are the same. Customers can't tell the difference between one store and another — just like those cowboys who couldn't tell the cows apart. Your brand is how you and your business are identified by your customer.
Stand out from the herd.
Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.