If your business sells T-shirts on the Internet, you probably aren’t dependent on a few key customers or limited by geography, although you have to compete with every other online T-shirt provider with a website.
But if your business requires strong relationships between people (if you refer to your customers as clients, for instance), then you will likely have challenges expanding a local brand to regional. The reason, of course, is that a single person can only stretch his or her influence so far. A lawyer can only juggle a certain number of clients. A commercial realtor can only know a limited number of people. There is a threshold at which the personal attributes of key people in a business reach their limits. And often that boundary can be defined geographically when a local brand starts eyeing up the potential of the next city or county, or maybe the next state.
Reaching into new markets may reveal a sobering reality—a brand that was built on personal relationships, where the person and brand are interwoven, may have trouble growing past the reach of those relationships without re-tooling their approach.
Imagine with me for a moment a fictional law firm known as Ruth, Mantle & Berra, located in Yankeetown, USA. George Ruth was the founder of the firm and gained prominence as a civic leader in Yankeetown. He has since retired, but Michael Mantle and Lawrence Berra have continued to build the practice to one that is well-respected locally. But when they decide to open an office 50 miles away in Red Stocking, no one has ever heard of either of them, and they appear to be just another law firm with a typical variety of legal services.
Ruth, Mantle & Berra will have to make a choice between two main strategies. First, they can continue the slow and steady process of building their business by growing personal relationships and local reputation over time. This will require that either Mantle or Berra move to Red Stocking, or that they add a key employee or partner who can take on this role on a permanent basis.
The second choice is to begin shifting their brand strategy to one where the organization represents the brand as much or more than the people who lead it. The trust that they had built as well-known members of the community in Yankeetown now has to be built with the brand of their firm instead, or at least in concert with building personal relationships. They will have to examine what brand messages will best set them apart in their new market—can they build a brand based on being a more innovative law firm, one with provable expertise in certain law specialties or experience in certain industries? They will need to build coherent stories around these messages and deliver content that helps reinforce them.
In short, their brand marketing will have to move to a new level and take on new forms of communication to compete in a brand new, competitive marketplace, where the firm of Williams and Yastrzemski is already firmly established. Building personal relationships will always be important to a business like this one, but building their brand as a company will be a key to growth for Ruth, Mantle & Berra in the Red Stocking market.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and Reading Eagle.