Most small businesses are synonymous with their owners or, in the case of professional firms, founding partners. These individuals are the public faces of their businesses and, initially at least, probably the only press spokespeople.
There usually comes a time, though, when it becomes necessary to demonstrate “strength in depth”. This could be to attract bigger clients, to prepare the business for investment or sale, or simply to allow key staff to fulfil their potential without tapping your competitors up for a new job.
If done well this expansion of the range of spokespeople will allow the business to convey a scale and breadth of expertise that helps it compete on a level playing field with much larger rivals. If done badly, however, it can have the opposite effect – leaving the market confused as to what the business stands for and portraying it as a “jack of all trades”.
A fortnight ago I wrote about the importance of tone of voice in expressing a consistent brand image. That article focused on a firm’s generic written communications but consistency is equally important for articles written by individuals, the tone they adopt in interviews with the media, and the way they represent the business in public.
That is not to say all your spokespeople should be clones, parroting a pre-approved corporate line. There should, however, be a glue that binds them – an overarching tone that is distinctly that of the business.
The starting point for this, as mentioned in my previous article, should be a definition of brand values – and not the usual “honesty, fair-dealing, commitment to quality etc” that go without saying unless you and your employees genuinely consider yourselves to be cut from the same cloth as Harry Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. To do this properly without creating a legion of Stepford husbands and wives is no mean task for a business owner.
A business represents far more to its founder than it ever can to his or her employees. Nonetheless, good staff will make a major personal investment in the business on a daily basis: it will to some extent define how they think about themselves and they may even still be there long after the owner has sold up and retired.
They will, therefore, only be able to express the firm’s brand properly if they can see something of themselves reflected in it.
The process of defining a company’s values and brand purpose should, then, take in contributions from the widest possible pool of staff. However, this presents two contrasting difficulties:
a. The more people you consult, the closer to the mean you will end up, thus losing all distinctiveness.
b. Human nature will lead virtually all business founders to “interpret” staff contributions in ways that reinforce their own views.
You should also carry out a “reality check” by finding out what customers really think of you. The problem here is that they are unlikely to tell you the truth to your face.
Because of these difficulties it will often be more meaningful if the exercise is led either by a specialist brand consultant or a non-executive director with relevant experience. The task requires someone who can understand all perspectives, stand at a remove from the emotional commitments made by those who work within the business and talk to the owner as a peer.
At the end of this process you should have a distinctive set of values into which you and your staff can really buy, and that genuinely reflects the experience of your customers. Then comes the second part: how individuals express those values when representing the brand in writing or in person. This will be the subject of next week’s article.