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December 1, 2017

There’s nothing wrong with getting your name and logo out there. It’s certainly not a negative, and it doesn’t hurt when you can take advantage of a sponsorship and get yourself associated with a positive and/or popular cause in the community. That’s why you see so many corporate logos associated with the “run for the cure” or a similar type of community event.

But if you’re hoping to leverage community involvement as a branding strategy, I believe there are limits to such efforts, even though they are undoubtedly positive.

That’s because real community involvement is a personal involvement. Your logo doesn’t form relationships, and a corporate entity doesn’t say hello to people in coffee shops or serve on boards. Only people can do that.

This takes me to the topic of what really produces results when you have a business and you’re trying to leverage your position in the community. Is the greatest value in people having heard of you, and possibly having heard (or at least believed) good things about you? Or is the greatest value in having people really know you?

I believe it’s unambiguously the latter, but I also need you to know this is a much longer-term proposition, and there’s no way to fake it.

If your problem is that nobody’s heard of you, you do a lot of things fairly quickly to address that—especially if you have a budget for it. You can sponsor events, donate to causes, put on seminars, enter a float in the Fourth of July parade… you can make yourself visible if your problem is that you’re invisible.

What that doesn’t do is build relationships, and it’s relationships that build trust. This is also part of your community strategy, and yet it almost feels wrong to call it a strategy. Because if it’s not who you really are, it won’t be natural to you, and you’ll spend a lot of time wondering why you’re not forming the bonds you’re looking for with people.

People like to do business with people they know. That doesn’t mean you have to be their best friend or their next door neighbor. You don’t necessarily have to be Facebook friends, although there’s nothing wrong with that unless you’re completely obnoxious on social media.

But if someone is used to seeing you around town—at the grocery store, at the coffee shop, at the high school football games, at the library or the city council meetings—then you’ve demonstrated simply by being present that you embrace a certain commitment to that community.

“But how do I use that to turn them into a customer?”

OK. Patience.

This is why I said it takes a while, and this is why I said you can’t really think of this as a strategy. People can sniff that out. You know the shameless realtor, right? The guy who hands out his business card to everyone who says a friendly word to him?

“You like me? Maybe I should be selling your house?”

Maybe it works because an awful lot of them do it, but when you go from “nice to meet you” to asking for the sale that quickly, you’re sending people a message that it’s not really a sincere friendship or a personal connection you’re interested in—except to the extent you can convert it into cash.

What feels more genuine to people is when they sense you share their love of the community simply because you’re part of it. People understand that you own a pet store and that you’d like their business. They’re not going to begrudge you for that, and when the opportunity happens naturally, they’re going to be glad to hear about how much you’d like them to buy their pet supplies from you.

They might also respect that you sponsored the beat-cancer run, or the little league team, or that you bought an ad in the community newsletter. In fact, they probably will respect those things. But the proof to them is going to be what kind of person you prove to be in real life, and the only way to provide them with that proof is to let them get to know you.

Employees can also be good ambassadors for your business, but their ability to do that is limited. For one thing, most employees of retail stores don’t work there for years, so most simply won’t be around to persevere through such a long-term proposition. It’s possible you may have an employee who sticks with you a long time and becomes very recognizable to the community. In that case, heck yeah, encourage that employee to fly the flag in his or her personal contacts with people.
But no one can do it like the owner of the store. No one else personifies the store’s place in the community or its commitment to support the community’s people and its institutions. No one else is likely to still be connected to the store in 10, 20 or 30 years. And there’s no one else whose character and integrity can be assigned as directly to the business as that of the owner.

So if you want your logo on the back of that shirt along with all the other logos, fine with me. It’s not a bad thing. But it’s only going to get you so far. Real community connections happen between people, over the course of time, and you can’t fast-track that.

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