Remember when you were a kid stuck in the backseat of the car on long drives? If so you probably also recall playing “count the license plates,” looking for cars from different states to combat the boredom endured on road trips before built-in VCRs and DVD players became mainstays in minivans. While we're all a little old to play that game anymore, I'll bet that plenty of you do count the competitors' delivery trucks when you're out on the highways. You guess where they might be heading and which builders they are making deliveries to that day, and you size up the condition of the vehicles and the corporate messages they convey around town.

When I'm behind the wheel, my personal checklist includes the size and type of truck; the graphics, logos, and overall corporate branding that they incorporate; the driver and his uniform or lack thereof; and whether or not the truck is clean and well maintained. When I'm not at home in Washington, D.C., and I spot a truck from a dealer that's not familiar to me, I play my own version of the counting game by evaluating these points and developing an overall corporate image of what the company is like, including its size, operations, products, and services. To test my theories, I often later search the Internet for the dealers to check out their Web sites and read any articles I can find mentioning the company. In the end, my first impressions usually are on the mark, and those impressions stick.

I'm not a marketing consultant, but—like most people—I routinely make these types of observations. Make no mistake: Many current and potential customers can and are accurately sizing up your company by the external image it conveys—on trucks, on collateral materials, and through the behavior of the people wearing the uniforms. Moreover, they are then using those assessments to determine whether they want to do business with your organization.

Considering this vital link between perception and profits, if you only think “logo” when someone says brand, it's time to break out of this one-dimensional paradigm and adopt an integrated brand marketing strategy focused on building loyalty, increasing visibility, and meeting the needs of your customers. To successfully make the transition, you have to back a branding initiative with financial resources, including funding for advertising and PR campaigns (as you'll read about in this month's Market Matters), focus on long-term return on investment, and analyze market trends to make sure your money is getting the best yield.

The American Marketing Association defines a brand image as: “The perception of a brand in the minds of persons.… It is what people believe about a brand—their thoughts, feelings, expectations.” If you consider all of your customers and potential customers, that adds up to a lot of different opinions about your company. The challenge then is to promote a unified message about your organization, employees, products, and services by developing your own brand personality, which is the character of a particular brand as intended by your company. Take the first steps by 1) evaluating your company's unique strengths in the market, 2) determining a strategy to better position your products and services, and 3) identifying the marketing tools that will draw attention to your competitive advantages and shape a strong, positive corporate identity. And above all, communicate that brand strategy to and through your employees, whose actions and interactions need to portray your message as much as any logo.

It's always better to speak for yourself than to be spoken for.

Lisa Clift, Editor