The June 2010 issue of Specialty Coffee Retailer features the article “The Harmonious Brand,” which discusses basic elements of retail branding and includes a short quote by me about Gwilym Davies’ disloyalty card as a brand statement.

Some additional comments from that interview not appearing in the magazine are found below:

SCR: Why is establishing a consistent brand and a consistent brand message paramount for specialty coffee retailers?

AH: Although intangible, a strong brand image is typically the most valuable asset of any company. Strong brands reduce the costs associated with attracting new customers, increase the customer loyalty which is so crucial to financial success and also makes those loyal customers more likely to buy other products marketed under the same name. However, unless your brand is unique, clearly defined and consistently presented it will have little or no value.

The message of any brand is essentially a statement of trust by the seller that should genuinely set accurate buyer expectations for the value of products or services that brand represents. Inconsistencies like cheap retail sale trinkets in an otherwise upscale decor or worse, a sprawling menu of food offerings in a self-described “specialty coffee shop,” cue customers that your brand is less than genuine. If any element of a business does not match its projected image, that business is lying to its potential customers. Anything out-of-place will raise customer suspicion and skepticism and reduce the willingness to use your products.

SCR: What are key steps that retailers can take to establish strong brands in the minds of their customers?

AH: Most businesses (not limited to the coffee industry) operate with the false understanding that their logo is their brand — it is not. A logo is just a mark of a company’s identity that represents the brand, but is not the brand itself. –A company’s brand is the embodiment of everything that company is and does.– To their credit, management often focus on operational elements that have a direct correlation to brand identity like the quality of products, speed of service, cleanliness of retail bathrooms or professionalism of its employees. Operations is a good place to make short term gains, but in order to be truly effective and genuine, branding must come from the top down and encompass all actions made by a business.

SCR: In this economy, how can retailers go about creating a brand economically?

AH: Every company big or small must determine its unique place and the ideals that it values, then apply them to every business decision. A business must “be itself,” as any attempt to be something else, regardless of mountains of cash spent on advertising to the contrary, will fall flat.

For example, is your small business brand “green?” You’ll need to carefully review the business practices of all of your suppliers and change those that do not meet strict standards, institute recycling programs, employ innovative energy saving measures, hold coffee composting workshops and become actively involved in local environmental groups — but it does not stop there. Being genuine rather than a tagline means that your ideals exist beyond the walls of a brick and mortar retail shop, so your management has likely instituted the same policies at home, uses the most energy efficient methods of reaching work each day and offers employee incentives to do the same. Brands are not a gimmick, they are a way of life.

SCR: I’d like to present ideas that explain brand harmony and brand dissonance. Do you have any good examples of harmonious brands among the independents?

One perfect example (and one that has received a lot of press) is Gwilym Davies’ Customer Dis-loyalty Card. Gwilym is the owner / proprietor of Prufrock Coffee in London and 2009 World Barista Champion, a man who can be arguably described as among the most genuine in an industry already known for many charitable and compassionate figures. In a move that is truly harmonious with his own love of coffee and the coffee business, Gwilym selected a handful of the best cafes in town -his direct competitors- and placed their names on punchcard for all of his customers to visit. After receiving a stamp from all 8, the card can be redeemed for a free drink prepared by Gwilym, himself. Is this a gimmick? Did he select inferior competitors in order to prove that his beverages are the best? No, he just wants his customers to enjoy better coffee. That sort of selfless honesty creates a strong brand message that is difficult to outdo.

SCR: What are some competitive strategies you’ve seen work in the area of brand development on the part of retailers?

AH: I think that this is reasonably described in the answers above… I can elaborate if you are looking for a specific example.

SCR: How should a store’s brand be reflected in its web site and Facebook image? Why is it important to do so?

AH: Social media like Facebook and Twitter offer the opportunity for any brand to extend their experience directly into customers’ homes or offices and further creates a convenient two-way channel of communication. Effective new media brand marketers use these tools to extend the brand experience, not merely by promoting advertising messages, sales or events, but by giving more insight into the reality of their business and its people. Ironically, all of this technology allows brand marketers to present a more whole “human” image of what a brand represents, which can develop much stronger emotional bond with customers than was ever possible using traditional 2-dimensional media. There is a thin line among younger generations between “friend” and “Facebook friend,” which when used honestly creates an extremely powerful tool for marketers to understand their customers’ needs and for customers to understand their favorite brands’ values.