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The Whiteboard: To grow, small brands often must escape personality of founders

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One of the simplest definitions of a brand is that it's a promise. All brands, in one way or another, essentially give their word that you will be glad you bought them.

You'll enjoy using the product or experiencing the service. You'll feel good about yourself because you're a choosy mother, a macho guy or a smart businessperson.

It applies to the smallest and the largest of brands, but there are real differences in how they are delivered.

When you go to McDonald's, a carefully crafted culture, detailed in a training manual, delivers the brand. Nobody walks up to the counter and asks if Ray Kroc is in, or who the chef is today.

But when you call Joe's Plumbing, it may well be Joe himself who creates the brand experience. Joe has his whole business on the line. He's more likely to be exceptionally polite, to offer a discount or to go the extra mile at no charge. For Joe, his word is his brand.

And that can be the challenge for small brands as they grow — getting past the word and personality of their leader, which can be very powerful, but may not translate well into the promise of a larger company.

Case in point: Why are there no five-star restaurant chains? Could it be because the brand experience is so tied to specific people — the owner, the maître d' and, most likely, the chef — that it is virtually impossible to extend the brand from one city to another without a perceived dilution of its promise?

I suspect that if you're going to pay $100 or more per person for a meal, you want to know that it came with the personal touch of a famous chef and not from an underling following the recipe on an index card. It is essentially impossible for brands like this to be highly exclusive and available on every street corner at the same time.

On the other hand, Leon Leonwood Bean showed how a one-man brand could grow to become a household name. The L.L. Bean brand came into existence in 1912 when Mr. Bean invented a waterproof boot and began to sell it to hunters in Maine.

He quickly established two principles for the brand that endure to this day: a money-back guarantee on any product no matter how long you've had it, and his store never closes.

He went as far as to make a show of throwing away the keys to the front door to make his now-legendary point. His guarantee was soon tested as well, when 90 percent of his early production of the "Bean Boot" was returned. But he replaced every one and improved the design.

It remains a revered (and frequently imitated) anchor to the L.L. Bean product line and is still manufactured in Maine.

Mr. Bean's personal guarantee and commitment to service is also seen today in the company's 24-hour call center, located in Maine, where customer service specialists are empowered to meet their customers' needs and handle problems without management approval. In this way, L.L. Bean's brand is represented by every member of the team.

"People do business with people" is a truism that endures. But in smaller companies, the namesake of the brand is often still active in the business and working directly with customers. To grow the brand, those personal qualities have to be conferred to a broader context that relies less and less on the founder and more on a brand concept that is teachable, expandable and independent of the person who originated it, no matter how legendary that name may become.

There are occasional bright exceptions, of course. Richard Branson is the soul of the Virgin brand that has been applied successfully to many disparate industries. His personal spirit of adventurism and independence underscores Virgin's hip, renegade image. But as his personal exploits of derring-do begin to diminish (and if anyone is going to go out with a bang, it will be Branson), will the Virgin brand be able to hang on?

Joe the Plumber and the founders of countless small businesses face the same challenge of taking a brand that they personally embody and molding it into a culture that can effectively deliver the prescribed promise across their entire marketplace. Brands that rely too much on personal brands may be successful, like a five-star restaurant, but limited in their growth.

But others can build their brand concepts on a foundation of a person's traits and ideals and then extend it effectively by leaving the actual person behind.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via www.taylorbrandgroup.com.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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