Building Brands, Starting Religions

You can sell your products, build your brand… or start a religion. It’s a very clever and useful distinction, one that every businessperson should understand.

One of Agora’s publishers reminded me of this important business-building idea yesterday, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It will help you grow your business – bigger than you might believe. And it will make it easier to sustain your profits during difficult times.

Creating a brand name gives you a big advantage over your competitors who are selling generics. You will find more places to sell your products. You will be able to cut better deals with media placement. You will enjoy higher response rates. And your bottom line will be profitable and stay that way for a long, long time.

I’m not talking about universal branding (although the same benefits and principles apply). Creating a name like Coca Cola or IBM is not an option for small-business owners. But entrepreneurs can create brands within the limited universes they sell to. And those brands can dominate their market.

Call it micro-branding, if you will.

Early to Rise, for example, is well known in the self-improvement and business-opportunity industries. The Oxford Club is a dominant brand in the financial advice industry. Health Sciences Institute is familiar to just about anyone who reads natural health newsletters. And American Writers & Artists Inc. is the best-known business servicing people looking to become freelance copywriters and designers.

It is highly unlikely that Early to Rise or The Oxford Club will be mentioned on The Tonight Show or show up in The New York Times crossword puzzle. But within their individual markets – which comprise several million buyers – they each have established themselves as known brands.

That recognition makes it much easier for these businesses to acquire new customers. When prospects receive offers from them, they are more likely to read them – and when they read them, they are less resistant to the sale.

The reason is not difficult to understand. We have all responded to great sales pitches only to be disappointed when the product or service was delivered. Because of those experiences we tend to be suspicious of any new sales pitch we see. It may look inviting, but we can’t help but wonder if the company is what they say they are.

But when we note that the offer is coming from a company whose name we recognize – a name we have seen for years – we feel less skeptical. We are less worried about being taken advantage of. We read it with a higher level of credulity.

I’ve seen proof of this a thousand times in my 30 years as a direct marketer. Promotional copy that would pull in mediocre response rates if used to sell a generic product will do very well for a brand.

Developing a brand doesn’t happen overnight. And it can’t be done by marketing alone. To create a brand you must spend years getting the name out there. And you must deliver a consistently good product so the awareness you stir up doesn’t work against you.

This is especially true now that the entire world is connected via the Internet. It’s easy for prospective customers, stimulated by a good direct-mail promotion, to check out your company by Googling your name and finding out what existing and former customers have to say. But if you are in business for the long term and you are committed to quality, there is no reason why you shouldn’t try to establish a micro-brand.

Despite the numerous and significant advantages to developing a brand, most entrepreneurs don’t do it. It’s usually because they have a short-term, promotionally oriented view of business. By that, I mean an approach to business that is based on generating yearly revenue goals – which usually translates to a marketing philosophy that can be described as “Let’s come up with another hot product!”

JSN, one of my greatest business mentors, had this perspective. He was a natural marketer and salesman, and had perhaps the shrewdest business mind I have ever encountered. Yet he never expressed any interest in building a long-term franchise. What excited him was figuring out what the market most wanted at any given time and then creating a product and promotion that would sell to that interest.

That is not a bad skill to have. In fact, it may be the single most powerful skill an entrepreneur can have. JSN taught me how to do it, and I still make it a big part of the advice I give to business owners in the first stage of growing a business.

But if that is all you do, you will never get your business beyond the five or 10 million dollar level. After 10 or 20 years you’ll be working as hard to generate income as you did when you started out. Things won’t be getting easier for you. And when times are tough, like they are now, you may find your business failing completely.

If you want to have a long, happy, and eternally profitable career, you should do everything you can to transform your business into a top-notch, well-known, micro-brand in your field. And while you are at it, you might want to consider setting an even higher goal – not only dominating your market but having customers who are feverishly loyal to you and devoted to your products.

I’m talking about turning your business into a micro-cult or micro-religion.

Think about the difference between IBM, a world-class brand, and Apple, a world-class cult. Kevin Roberts – a former executive at Pepsi – calls this “loyalty beyond reason,” according to Lucas Conley in his book OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder. This is the “phenomenon whereby customers are so enamored with a brand that they ignore price, convenience, and competitor parity.”

Achieving micro-cult status is entirely possible for an entrepreneur. Dr. Atkins, whose newsletter I helped publish for many years, was a prime example. Dr. Sears, whom I work with now, is well on his way. Other micro-cults I know or work with these days include The Oxford Club, Steve Sjuggerud’s True Wealth, and Matt Furey.

All of these businesses are well known in their respective fields. All enjoy the business-building and profit-taking benefits of brand recognition. And all have rabidly loyal customers who buy products from them almost on command and preach the gospel to others whenever they have the chance.

“Branding is encroaching on areas of our lives we never before imagined – from hospitals and education to sex, psychiatry, and cemeteries; we’re branded, quite literally, from the cradle to the grave,” says Lucas Conley. “Today anything with a brand name is vulnerable and anything without one is an opportunity.”

I’ll be writing more about micro-branding and how the businesses I mentioned above have achieved micro-cult status. I’ll tell you the secrets I’ve shared with them and the secrets I’ve learned. And I’ll give you a simple plan for converting your business from a producer of promotions to a world-class micro-brand or micro-cult.

Meanwhile, spend a little time thinking about your business objectively. Is it a company that focuses on short-term opportunities? Or does it operate under a long-term, quality-oriented philosophy? If you interviewed your customers, would they say that they understand what your business is and where it’s going? Or would they know it only as a company that sends out great promotional pitches? If a third party interviewed your rank and file employees, what would they say?

[Ed. Note: What’s your thought on “branding as religion”? Which brands do you swear by? Let us know right here.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
  • Great article, and therein lies many good advise. I have a story that has never been told and it is about Nestle probably the world’s biggest Corporations based in Swissland. Who have many well known products around the world. I achieved some years back, by kicking them out of a regional area in Australia of all their catering products. How I did that is another story. email me,or Michael Masterson to get permission
    Thanks for the opportunity, from Tiger D