With your mission statement nailed down, it is time to focus on your brand. Marketers like to throw the word “brand” around, but the reality is there remains a lot of confusion over exactly what is meant. Poorly implemented, a brand strategy can leave clients confused and unimpressed – exactly the opposite of what you intend. Whether you are the owner of a large corporate agency, an employee in a storefront or a sole practitioner working out of your home, branding is a vitally important component of your overall business and marketing plan.
Most simply defined, your brand is the total sum of people’s perceptions about your company. It is not whatever you say it is…it is the way that people who have come into contact with your company think about it. You can certainly shape those perceptions, but at the end of the day, the center of gravity in branding is found in the minds of the people who know, or think they know, your company. Those same people also have a great deal to do with how others will perceive your brand. Therefore, smart travel agencies spend a lot of time developing, maintaining and communicating their brand.
A brand requires diamond-like clarity to be accurately communicated. There must be an explicit promise of value for the brand to resonate with the consumer; and consumers are capable of differentiating strongly between similar commercial experiences on the basis of brand. For example, can you differentiate between Wal-Mart and Target? Volvo and Mercedes?Apple and Dell? CNN and Fox News? Most people can easily and consistently differentiate between these brands. A strong brand allows you to more easily retain your loyal customers and greatly benefit from word of mouth marketing. If you want to be able to charge a premium service fee as a travel consultant, in fact, if you want to rise into the top 20% of your industry, you can only do so with a strong brand. There are three critical steps to building a strong brand:
Communicating the Brand
Maintenance and Fine-tuning
The goal of a branding strategy is to create an association in the mind of the public with you and travel – when clients think of travel, they think of you in the positive light you intend.
Too often, branding happens without any intentional thought or direction – the company’s brand simply evolves from customer experience. If the travel agent is very good at what he or she does, excellent at communication and customer service, an unconscious approach to branding will work, but never as well as a directed, focused branding strategy.
Crafting and developing your branding message
The first step in a branding strategy is to craft a clear message, which is why we began with our study of mission statements, to give their brand focus and clarity. Branding requires clarity from the outset of the development process. Do you know, clearly, what message you are communicating to clients? What is your unique selling point ("USP"), the reason that clients would purchase travel through you rather than anywhere else? Your message will most likely involve three elements: People, Assets and Expectations:
People – what do the people in your agency represent in terms of expertise and personality?
Assets – What assets do you have at your disposal that enhance your expertise?
Expectations – What type of experience can clients who use your agency expect?
It is fairly certain that a successful branding strategy is going to involve an emphasis on the people associated with your agency. However, many agencies place their branding emphasis on product rather than on their agency’s key assets. Their websites and marketing collateral are filled with the logos of suppliers. This is a valid tactic, but the strategy is less than clear for most travel consultants. People certainly do respond to Carnival’s logo. However, why would the client buy a Carnival cruise from this particular agency? If the purchasing decision comes down to product, it too often becomes centered on price – a battle that is difficult to win against large discounters. Agencies are far better served by focusing on their employees. Who represents the agency? Why are they unique? What is their training? How much traveling have they done. What is their story? Why are they a travel agent? Do you have a niche? Ensure that the individuals that make up the corporate body each understand and reflect the brand message of the whole. Businesses are called “companies” for a reason. Look to the company you keep and build your business on the most solid of foundations – its individual associates.
While the people of your agency are certainly its most important asset, what others do you have at your disposal? Is the fact you are a local business an asset? What relationships in the world of travel have you built? What consortia do you belong to? What inside information do you possess? What type of buying power or insight do you have through consortia or other organization?
Finally, given the people who work at your agency and the assets you have at your command, what is the benefit to the client? What kind of experience can people who use your agency expect? Personal attention? Expert planning? Local accountability? Satisfaction? Advocacy? A life-long relationship? Long term consulting and advice?
Exercise Spend some time going over each of the elements of a brand – People, Assets and Expectations. Write full paragraphs on each at first, and then drill it down until you craft a short, clear and succinct message that details what is truly unique about your travel planning practice. Now, imagine a client comparing your agency against a large, online discounter. The discounter is offering a $200 discount on a cruise your client wants. Can you craft a message so strong the client is still compelled to buy from you?
Communicating your brand message
A brand is a short cut – when your brand is strong, clients and potential clients that have been exposed to your brand will think of you when they think of travel. Your brand will carry your company’s message and, as a result, your company will have a distinct market advantage. But these good results can only happen if you are communicating your brand to the market clearly and in a consistent manner. Further, your brand must appear with sufficient frequency to gain consumer mindshare. A quick examination of each of these elements can help you to better understand the importance of communicating your brand. A company’s logo is one of the most prominent communication tools most travel companies have. Many brands look to first and foremost create a visual system for their brand that is instantly recognizable to the public. Most often, the visual system consists of the company name, a logo, a font, a color palette and other visual cues that create a visual impression of the brand. If you look at the logo of a car company, for example:
What does the logo “say” to you. The brand is not the logo, but the logo communicates the brand. The chances are very good that when you see the logo for Volvo, you think about reliability, safety and value. Those are the very expectations that Volvo wants to produce in our collective minds, and has done so most successfully. Consistently and with a high degree of frequency, Volvo has re-enforced its brand message in its advertising, in its dealerships, by word of mouth and its marketing collateral.
Think about the branding message you want to develop for your company. Your task is to crystallize that message in every point of contact you have with the public. Every communications tool you have has to clearly communicate your brand. Your logo, your emails to clients, your advertising, your brochures and other sales collateral have to consistently evoke your brand. Your customer relationships have to re-enforce the message you intend.
Your goal is to work through your marketing plan and ensure that it encompasses sufficient frequency to continually put your brand in front of the public through all of the tactical marketing and advertising channels you have at your disposal. Choose a few very solid distribution channels and craft marketing tactics that specifically address that channel. If you are successful in communicating your brand, you will create in the mind of the public a set of expectations and a promise of a unique value proposition.
What do you call yourself?
Let's think of the process of branding in a very common example and you will see quickly its importance. We have all heard the advice to develop a short answer to explain to others what we do as travel consultants, but how many of us have actually done so? Jay Conrad Levinson calls it a “sound bite.” You may have heard it called an “elevator pitch.” Whatever you call it, it’s pretty important to be able to intelligently answer THE QUESTION: “What do you do?”
We know it’s coming in practically every new encounter. Some of us tense a bit. This could be a terrific prospecting or networking opportunity for our travel practice. It’s also an opportunity to completely blow a chance to engage someone as a possible client. How to best answer the question?
Your answer needs to be short and to the point. Better still, it needs to relate directly to the listener in a way that it will stay with them. Your explanation of your role in travel planning should go to the pain travelers feel when they contemplate large travel plans, and to yourself as the solution. Your answer should be your “reason for being” phrased so that it directly relates to the listener.
First, let’s look at a few things not to say: Wrong answer #1: “I’m a travel agent”
Why is this the wrong answer? Because the term “travel agent” is just a label. Your listener will automatically assume they now know everything there is to know about you and the rest of your answer will fall on dull ear drums. Other labels like “travel consultant” or “travel counselor” are better because they force the listener to think a bit to engage for understanding.
Wrong answer #2: “I research travel for clients using state of the art technology and a wide network of relationships in the travel industry.” This answer is phrased strictly in terms of you. Avoid answering by telling how you do what you do. When you finally do get to this part of the conversation, by the way, avoid using industry jargon. Remember to demystify travel for people.
Wrong answer #3 “I find the best prices on travel for my clients.” Yikes. Let’s steer away from making price the centerpiece of the conversation.
Here are some other possibilities: “I keep people out of trouble when they travel.” Or, “I work with clients looking for really distinctive travel.” Or, “I work with clients who like to travel well, but who struggle to find real value.” Or, “Have you ever planned a vacation and run into problem after problem? I work with clients to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Each of these answers serve two functions. Firstly, they state the pain that travelers feel when they plan travel. The answer is stated in terms of the benefit to the traveler, not in terms of the process used by the travel agent. Secondly, these sample answers invite further conversation. People love to talk about travel, that is one of the great aspects of our industry. People also love to talk about pain. Just listen to the conversations of anyone over 35 and see how quickly the topic turns to pain of some type, physical or otherwise.
Re-purpose your mission statement expanding on it to form a way of describing what you do as a travel professional. Shoot for a paragraph of materials encompassing the people you work with, the assets at your disposal and the expectations clients can have of the experience of working with your agency. Keep working on it until it feels completely natural to speak and you are happy with the way it expresses your central mission in travel. Remember: use an answer that lets the questioners talk about themselves and their travels. It could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship!
Gather your marketing materials, your business cards, your brochures, your advertisements, your logo, every "point of contact" with the public. How well does each embody your mission statement? Are they consistent across the board? What are they "saying" about your travel practice?
Maintaining Your Brand Message
Branding sets up expectations of a unique value in the mind of the client. If you have clearly articulated a brand message in all of your communications tools, those consumers coming into contact with your brand will have expectations of what it will be like to do business with you.
Your brand integrates every aspect of your business where clients come into contact with the company. For that reason, maintaining your brand is a continual process of interaction, feedback and adjustment. If any aspect of a client’s experience with your company does not meet the expectations that you set up in your brand marketing, maintenance is required. Brand consistency throughout your organization reinforces your message and creates the right atmosphere for your travel practice to grow and prosper.
Branding goes well beyond your outbound marketing efforts – it begins with your internal alignment of core values with your actions. Whether you are a one-person shop or a 100 Million dollar agency, you should have a program in place to ensure brand consistency. Communicate your brand positioning internally and see that it is consistent through your mission statement, your values and corporate identity. Establish brand guidelines for everyone to adhere and train your employees and co-workers in customer service skills couched in the context of your brand. Make sure that every piece of collateral carries a consistent message that resonates with your brand strategy.
Monitoring social media is an excellent way of keeping track of the perceptions of your brand. When consumers mention your company on Twitter, Facebook or in an online forum, your brand image is being shaped. Elicit client feedback and use both positive and negative comments as a way to monitor how well you are meeting the expectations set by your brand strategy. When clients have concerns, address them openly in the context of maintaining your company’s brand image. Periodically step back from the day to day activities of your business and reflect on the feedback you are receiving. Monitor how well the experiences of your client are synchronizing with your brand message. Don’t accept silence as a positive indicator. The worst feedback possible is silence. Ask for input, expect to receive both the good and the bad, then be prepared to act on it.
Do a Google search on your own name and on your company name. What do the results tell you about your brand? Set up a "Google Alert" on your name and on the company name to capture any future mentions of your agency proactively.
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