Illustration of people assembling the word
iStock photo/aurielaki

Brands exist in the mind of the beholder. If no one knows your brand, then it’s irrelevant how good your actual business is. As far as the general public is concerned, you simply don’t exist.

Building brand presence is a matter of communication. Communication—with your team, with the public, with the media, and with the world—is key to getting any start-up business off the ground and maintaining long-term forward momentum. If you’re not sure how to start (or struggling with plans that aren’t working out the way you hoped), here are four secrets you might be missing.

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Yoshito Hori’s Brand Communication Playbook

My communication playbook—I’ll be talking mainly about corporate and service brand presence here—is based on four simple principles.

  1. Be Different: Define yourself in contrast to your competitors.
  2. Be Aspirational: Project a big vision that your customers will want to be a part of.
  3. Be Media Pragmatic: Use every kind of media to raise awareness.
  4. Be Customer-obsessed: Word of mouth from satisfied customers is always the most effective communication strategy.

These four principles have certainly worked for me.

Large group of yellow rubber ducks, with one purple rubber duck showing how being different is important for brand presence
Want your brand to stand out? Be the ugly duckling. | iStock/enviromantic

Be Different

When I started a business school in Japan in the early 1990s, I was up against the country’s oldest universities. Their history and prestige made them formidable competitors. We had no credentials, no office other than my apartment, no classrooms except a few rooms we rented by the hour, and a paltry $8,000 in the bank.

What did we do? We decided to play up all these differences as positives and present ourselves (build our brand presence) as a completely different animal in the jungle of business education.

Universities were academic—we stressed practicality.

Universities focused on general management—we focused on entrepreneurship.

Universities were large, monolithic, and faceless—we did our best to be student-focused, flexible, and responsive.

Be Aspirational

Having presented ourselves as new and different, the next step was to propose a vision that would resonate at an emotional level. We deliberately did not talk about our products—the courses that our school offered—in any detail. Instead, we sent out a message of how we hoped to contribute to the world by educating “visionary leaders who create and innovate societies.”

This is similar to what Apple did in 1997 when Steve Jobs came back to turn the company around. The PC makers were busy trying to lure customers by listing processor speed, memory capacity, and other dull technical specifications. Apple rose above all that, instead promising to elevate Mac users to the level of “crazy ones, misfits, rebels, and troublemakers” like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Martin Luther King.

Retro old microphones sit on a table, showing the many media outlets for building brand presence
Get the word out about your brand through any media you can think of—and then some. | iStock/BrAt_PiKaChU

Be Media Pragmatic

Once you’ve formulated your message, you’ve got the foundation of your brand presence. Next, you need to get the word out. My approach here is very practical: Use every form of media you can.

Back in 1992, we did direct mailing campaigns, put ads in business publications, and did our best to get written about. The media was happy to write about us precisely because we were different. One of the most effective forms of outreach was the GLOBIS MBA Series, a series of books we published on the framework and theory of the MBA. To date, the series has sold almost 1.5 million copies.

With the advent of the internet, we made a website, started producing an online magazine, and launched a blog. As the web developed, we expanded our presence to social media like Facebook and Twitter. We also set up a dedicated video streaming site to broadcast the conferences and seminars we hold. In 2013, I even hosted a TV program about the various social, economic and political challenges that Japan is facing.

Media is key to building your brand presence, but it’s also something of a lottery. You can never know for sure which book, article, blog post, video, or TV show is going to make a big impact. That’s why it makes sense to be proactive and use all the media you can to boost your chances of connecting with people.

Be Customer-obsessed

Ultimately, word of mouth is the most effective marketing tool. That is why we wanted to create a community of satisfied customers who would spread the word on our behalf and take care of much of our brand presence for us. We did this by introducing something highly unusual in the educational world: a service guarantee. Our business school promised a full refund to any student who was not satisfied with their course.

When you have a satisfied community of voluntary brand ambassadors—I call them fans—ready to share a unique and aspirational message across multiple platforms, your brand is in a very good place indeed.