Research shows that your first impression on a stranger happens within 7 seconds. In a business situation, some common questions that are most likely answered non-verbally are: Are you someone to approach or to avoid? Do you have status and authority? Are you trustworthy, competent, likeable, and confident? Yes, your appearance and demeanor count more toward that first impression than what you say or what’s on your resume. Right or wrong, people judge you by the way you look, act, and dress.
If you work in an office environment or something similar, you can strip off that power suit, ditch the high heels, take off that tie, and venture out publicly in a well-worn sweat shirt and torn Levis without damaging your image, once you’re off the clock. However, do sole proprietors and small business owners have that same luxury? With a few exceptions, the small business owner is an extension of the business and his/her image is a direct reflection of what that business is. To maintain a consistent brand message, these individuals truly need to look-the-look and be promoting their brand at all times in public. This goes beyond what you might initially think.
Take Debbie Teeters, owner of Joli Boutique in Centerville, Ohio. I visited her shop for the first time last week and found it difficult to describe: beautiful, whimsical, elegant, earthy, fun, formal, casual, exciting, indulgent-priced, budget-priced. Yes, these descriptors are diverse, so I asked Debbie how she came to the decision to open her boutique and what to sell. Succinctly, some years ago she experienced terrible customer service, and came to the opinion that, generally speaking, customer service was going by the way side (more on this later). She also had an idea to open a boutique with “a little something for everybody”, which was confirmed when she visited a boutique in Ft. Lauderdale Florida. The woman who owned the Florida boutique took Debbie with her to France for a buying trip and Debbie knew that her idea for a career change was the right one.
On these shopping trips, Debbie doesn’t shop to see what others are buying. She will observe what is popular in terms of style and color then buy with this, as well as the needs and tastes of her customers in mind. She is more a fashion leader than follower with an unparalleled offering of clothing and accessories. Additionally, her goal is to offer the customer an experience, not just cool fashion. During my visit, I observed her chatting with a mother and daughter; the small talk that ensued was genuine. Debbie truly DID want to know about their trip from out west. Debbie DID want to know about the 4 month old baby that was with them. She also joked about the sneaky tactics women employ to hide their purchases from their husbands. By the end of the short check out time, these customers had truly received “an experience”.
Many studies have shown an association between image, purchase intent, and sales revenue with image affecting not only sales volume but also the price that customers are willing to pay. Whether she’s attending business and networking meetings or shopping at the local market, Debbie is always wearing clothes from her boutique, a testimonial for its unique offerings. However, her brand extension goes beyond the clothes. Outside of the boutique, Debbie is engaging, genuinely friendly, and cares about what the other person is doing, thinking, and feeling. She is an extension of the experience of Joli, which is what she’s really selling, and an excellent example of true brand extension. For her to act in any other way would do a disservice to the branding efforts she employs in her boutique. It would send a mixed message to customers resulting in less than optimal returns.
If you are a sole proprietor or small business owner, is what is your brand extension saying? Are you truly walking the walk and talking the talk with everything you do? What is the brand “you” saying about your business?