Is your business doomed?

It’s 3 AM. The hour of poets, artists, writers, and passionate lovers.  No people bustling around, talking on the phone or shouting at their kids. No cars speeding through the busy streets like workers in an ant farm. It’s quiet. Only a powerful thunder occasionally breaks the silence with a loud roar, as if to remind me the outside world still exists.

These are the perfect conditions for writing. And after doing market research for the past week, I did need to simply sit down and write. Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy doing market research. It’s a lot like solving a murder mystery (sans the murder) – you look for clues, form hypotheses, test them out, and arrange the puzzle one piece at a time. All in all, it was a pretty fun week, even if it was tiring.

My friend Alex (from Embrand Studio) and I were working on a brand strategy for a client. One of the tasks was defining the target market and understanding their main pain points. It required a great deal of investigation on our part, but things went smoothly (Alex is an intellectual heavyweight when it comes to organizing a process). 

Our market research was very revealing. We managed to define the target audience and pinpoint their pains, wants, and needs with a near scientific degree of accuracy. But there was something bugging me about the different businesses we analyzed. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but insomnia-powered insight drops on you like a ton of bricks when the clock strikes 3. The thought that was clawing its way up from my unconscious mind all the way to my prefrontal cortex was: “Most of these businesses are toast. They’re not brands.”

Why do most businesses fail?

If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know this is not breaking news. I’ve been going on and on about the importance of branding like a dust-covered broken record. And I will keep going on about it until the message gets through.

In the past week, I saw many sites in the same niche. I’m sure some of them are doing somewhat well financially, granted they rank in search and use paid ads. But I’m also sure most of them won’t be here in 5 years.

This is simple statistics. 70% of businesses fail between their second and fifth year. If it’s an e-commerce business, the failure rate is even higher. So, right off the bat, things don’t look good for online businesses.

One of the main reasons for this is they’re not taking the time to develop a brand. Most people see branding as the visual make-up of their business, but it goes so, so much deeper than that. It’s like one of those wells where you don’t see the bottom and you when you throw a rock, it takes awhile till you hear the loud *thump*. If you ever hear it.

How do you know if you have a brand?

To paraphrase Tywin Lannister: Anyone who must say “I have a brand”, has no true brand. The mountain-sized, bearded man who walks into the local pub doesn’t need to posture around like a peacock. No, he merely comes in with his leather jacket, ink-covered arms, and the ability to rear-naked choke hold anyone in the vicinity, courtesy of his 15 years of BJJ training. His fellow pub-goers just know they shouldn’t mess with him. He’s confident because he doesn’t need to prove himself. He’s unfuckwithable and he knows it. One look at him and other people know it, too.

You want the same thing from your brand. Not to intimidate people (unless you’re into fields like security), but to have a clear message. One look should be enough for someone who’s never heard of you to get a general idea of what your brand is about.

But you also need to be different from other businesses in your niche. And here’s where it gets tricky. Many companies simply do what their competition does and in the process, they create no identity of their own. Like Chuck Palahniuk said in Fight Club, “Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.” Is it any wonder most businesses fail, then?

The brand test. 

I watched a very nice interview with Fabian Geyrhalter where he vividly explained how to “test” whether you have a brand or not. Here are a few questions you need to ask yourself:

  • Would your customers pay a premium for your products? If the answer is “no”, then likely you don’t have a brand. Real brands do not compete on price and do not aim at the lowest bidder.
  • Do your customers interact with your business? If the only interactions you have with your customers is through the checkout process, then you don’t have a brand. The moment someone starts dumping more money into Facebook ads or offers the same products at a lower price, you will be out on your ass.
  • Do you have a purpose beyond making money? If the answer is “no”, then guess what – you don’t have a brand. Ironically, businesses that make the most money are oftentimes the businesses that never set out to make money in the first place. It’s like reverse psychology at a universal level.
  • What are your competitive advantages over other business in your niche? If the answer has anything to do with price, you don’t have a brand.
  • What are your business values? If this question induces the same reaction as someone asking you the square root of Pi, then you don’t have a brand. Oh, and the answer is 1.77245385088, accounted for the first ten numbers after the decimal point. I’m sure you were just dying to know.

The questions above are more on the “strategic” side of the brand equation. But there’s also a visual test you can perform. Go to your website (if you don’t have one, what are you waiting for?)  and hide your name and logo. Is it still obvious the site represents your business? Will I be able to tell it apart from other sites in the niche?

It’s an elementary test, but it’s also very insightful and can cause huge trouble if you fail. Like blowing into a breathalyzer.

Take a look at my site, for example. Hide my name and logo, and you still have the copy, which carries my tone of voice. Even if you don’t like reading (how the hell have you made it this far, then?), my photography is there to visually represent my character and my personal brand. Basically, you’d have to ignore the entire content on my site if you want to ignore my brand. Can you say the same about your own site?

If you want to make sure, find your five closest competitors, take screenshots of their sites and yours, and photoshop out the logos. Then look at the screenshots and compare. How different is your site from the competition? Is it still obvious it’s you? Does your tone of voice differentiate you? Anything different about your product photography? Anything about the design? Be honest with yourself. What exactly does your site embody?

So, is your business doomed?

I don’t know. I’m a brand strategist and copywriter, not a goddamn fortune-teller. But were I a betting man, I’d say if you’ve failed the brand test, there’s more than a 70% chance your business is going down in the next 5  years. Do with this information as you will.

Till next time.

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