If you build it they will come” may work in the movies, but in the real world, attracting and keeping customers interested in your product means that you must get to know their wants, needs and even beliefs.

The most common marketing mistake that companies — both large and small — make is failure to truly know and listen to their customers, says Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. When you sell a product that you’ve created and believe in, it can be difficult to understand the customer’s point of view. But, when you don’t listen to what your customers have to say, you can quickly lose them.

It’s similar to a doctor-patient relationship. When an ailment occurs, the patient (the customer) comes to the doctor with his or her own thoughts on the matter — and perhaps even a course of treatment in mind. If the doctor fails to listen, that patient may leave feeling unsatisfied and even question the diagnosis or treatment. The patient may even choose another doctor. However, if the doctor listens and acknowledges the patient’s concerns, he builds a relationship that keeps the patient coming back.

Marketing a product is about building relationships with people. So, if you want to grow your brand, you must learn to focus on the customer.

A changing world

Customers are driving changes in the marketplace today. But they are not the only driving factors. The avenues through which people receive information — and which you can use to position your product — have mushroomed. Gone are the days of the big three networks dominating the television and mass-marketing campaigns, explains Kahn. The flood of cable television channels and the Internet have helped fragment the marketplace. Given all of the choices, it becomes even more important to differentiate your product, identify your target audience and then select the best way to deliver your message to reach those targeted consumers.

And your brand equity — what consumers think or feel about your brand — is how you differentiate yourself in the marketplace, says Monte Hemenover, of Avenues for Change in St. Louis, Mo. 

Take, for example, the Volvo brand of automobile. Safety is the term most people associate with it, because the founders of the company committed to the idea back in 1927 that “…cars are driven by people. The guiding principle behind everything we make at Volvo, therefore, is and must remain, safety.”

Subsequently, other car makers — those with more stylish cars — started making their cars safer and emphasized this benefit to potential customers in order to blur the distinction that Volvo had achieved in consumers’ minds. But Volvo continued listening to its customers. Today, its cars are more stylish, and the company has further defined its mission to include preventative safety and personal safety.  It has led to a new slogan,” Volvo for life.”

While products may go out of style, or may be revamped to meet changing needs, a good brand is timeless, Hemenover says.   

Fragmented marketplace

As a marketer, you can segment and target customers in many ways, such as age, race, gender, income, location, and the number of children. That has led to an abundance of messages and product choices — all the more reason for tapping into customer needs so you can better target the audience most likely to buy your products, says Jim Montel, vice president of trade marketing for Dairy Management Inc., and former marketing manager for Borden.

When you convey the benefits and positive attributes of your products, you are really letting the consumer know what’s foremost on his mind — “What’s in it for me?” 

The unlimited product choices available today — even in food — means you must define your target audience up-front. Take, for example, foods identified as “organic,” “all-natural,” and “grass-fed.”  While there are some similarities between these products, the customer perceives each one differently. Subtle differences exist in the customers’ concerns, beliefs and what they are looking for in a product. It is only when you understand these differences that you can position your product to attract those customers.

No matter how good your product is, unless you reach out to customers and help them connect with your product, they will probably never know it exists. That’s because new products are introduced every day. And they all want the same thing — to win customers. Identifying your target audience and really tuning into their wants, needs and beliefs can help you make that connection.

“People are creatures of habit,” says Scott Downey, associate director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business at PurdueUniversity. As a marketer, “you want to become their habit.”

Nowhere is that more evident, says Downey, than on campus during the first few weeks of a new semester. Marketers know that if they get students to recognize and try their brand within the first two to three weeks of school, they may be able to create a four-year relationship with them.

Customer is king

Identifying your target customer takes thought and research. Marketers call it STP — segmentation, targeting and positioning, explains Kahn. Pick the segments that you want to serve and focus on them.

For example, if you are selling farmstead or artisan cheeses, marketing to women with children is too broad of a target. You must further define your audience. To do that, you must think about who would want to try your cheeses, who would enjoy them, who would be willing to pay a premium price, and where those people shop, says Montel.

And in order to position your artisan cheese, you also must define the product benefits (tastes like no other) and attributes (hand-made, local farm) that would best appeal to your target audience. 

Following this example even further, the target audience for your artisan cheeses might be dual-income couples without children and an annual household income of $150,000 or more. That’s a much different target audience than if you were marketing Colby or cheddar cheese made on the farm, in which case you might go after women between the ages of 25 and 45, with children, and a household income of $40,000 or more.

Reaching these two customers requires different strategies and, quite frankly, different products. Part of targeting your audience must include identifying the brand persona or brand equity that you want customers to perceive and relate to your brand and its products.

Going through the STP process helps match your products to the right customers. And when you know your customers, you can introduce your products in such a way that customers want to learn more. Telling them your story and your priorities will help them form a relationship with your brand.

3 benefits of building a strong brand

According to Scott Downey, associate director of the center for Food and Agricultural Business at PurdueUniversity, there are three key benefits to building a strong brand.

1.         If the brand is clearly associated with quality, there is an opportunity for premium pricing. An example would be Starbucks.

2.         If you have built a strong brand when you introduce a new product, your loyal customers are more likely to try your new product because they trust your brand name.

3.         A strong brand distinguishes you from your competitors.

The difference between product and brand

Although some people use the terms “product” and “brand” interchangeably, they are not the same thing, says Monte Hemenover, of Avenues for Change in St. Louis, Mo.

He uses these rules-of-thumb to help people understand the difference:

  • Cheese is a product made in a processing plant. A brand is sold or purchased by the customer.
  • A product can be copied. A brand is unique and difficult to copy.
  • A product can become outdated. A good brand is timeless.

A few definitions

Because branding is such a large topic, a few key definitions may be helpful. These were adapted from the book “The Brand Mindset,” by Duane Knapp.

  • Genuine brand. The internalized sum of all impressions received by customers and consumers, resulting in a distinctive position in their mind based on perceived emotional and functional benefits.
  • Brand promise. The essence of the brand’s benefits — functional and emotional — that customers should expect to receive when experiencing a brand’s products and services.
  • Brand equity. A brand’s valuation based on the totality of its perception, including the relative quality of its products and services, financial performance, customer loyalty, satisfaction, esteem, and so on.
  • Brand loyalty. When customers have positive feelings regarding a brand, they use the brand’s services and products regularly.

Books of interest

If you would like to learn more about growing your brand, check out any of the following books. You should be able to find them at a bookstore or your local library.

  • “The Brand Mindset,” by Duane Knapp.
  • “Brand Harmony,” by Steve Yastrow.
  • “Brand Leadership,” by David A. Aaker.