This past October, the National Comfort Institute Annual Business Leadership conference theme was, “Through Your Customers' Eyes, Your Image, Your Brand.”

The idea behind the theme came from a visit with a contractor in the Northeast, OH town of Ashtabula in 1991 when I was editor of Contracting Business. Behind the contractor's office was an area that connected to a shop. Near the door was a full length mirror with a sign above it that read, “THE CUSTOMER'S EYES.”

The owner of the company was Dominick Volpone of H.J. Ziegler Heating Co., Ashtabula, OH, Contracting Business' 1991 Residential Contractor of The Year. When I asked him what the mirror was all about, he replied, “I tell my service technicians and installers to look in that mirror before they leave the shop, and ask themselves, ‘If I or my wife were the customer, would I be comfortable with someone who looks like the person in the mirror coming into my home?’”

This image stayed with me for the last 18 years, maybe because the message was so simple yet drove home the point. As I prepared for our conference this year, I read numerous books on branding with authors ranging from gurus like Larry Light and David D'Alessandro, to Trump University's James Burgin and Jon Ward. Even though the books taught different lessons about branding, there was a consistent message throughout: Your brand is about who you are, what makes you unique and different, while your image is the reflection of your brand, good or bad.

Your brand doesn't stop with how your field people look; it has to do with all interactions your company has with the public. In fact, it even has to do with how you interact with employees, and how they interact with each other.

Your brand is steeped in your image — how you're perceived in the marketplace. Whether you know it or not, you've been either building or tearing down your brand since the first day your company started in business. The question is, have you been building your brand on purpose, or by default?

Think of your brand as a prism through which every interaction and every transaction with existing and potential customers goes through. Your brand prism colors every transaction, every day of the week, month, and year. What does your prism look like? Does it reflect and filter your interactions in a positive or negative light, or some of both?

Another common thread throughout my brand research is the message that the meaning or symbolism of your actual logo, brand name, etc. has little to do with your brand, rather the name becomes recognized because of what you represent — who you are.

The McDonald's brand, for example really does not describe what the organization does, but the name has become synonymous with hamburgers and fast food. What part of the MacDonald's brand name describes itself as a fast food restaurant? Often the worst thing a company can do is run out and try to reinvent itself as a new, fresh brand. This often leads to confusion in the marketplace and a decline in your brand awareness.

What are the qualities of a good brand and image? Well it depends on several factors, like what market you're trying to serve, who your target demographic is, and how you want to be perceived by current and potential customers. The very first step is to analyze who you are. This is hard to do by yourself, it usually requires an objective third party. There are many organizations that specialize in this.

A hotly debated aspect of branding is whether you should “self-brand,” or “private label” the products you sell and install. I'll save a fuller analysis for a future Last Word, but my short opinion is that self branding is a great way to differentiate yourself in the market, especially if your delivered product is substantially different than your competition. It's often difficult to make that distinction in an ad or marketing campaign.

For example, if you're a performance-based contractor, self-branding is ideal — it removes the “apples to apples” equipment comparison from the equation and focuses the customer on how you're different: you deliver performance resulting in better comfort and real energy savings. Once in front of the customer, you can help cut the noise about one box vs. another, and focus on the delivered product. I can't think of a better differentiator to tie to your self-branding.

Look at ways you can sharpen your image and build your brand to best position yourself and be viewed by your target market as the company people trust, like, and want to do business with.

If you're interested in my reading list or want information on companies that can perform your brand analysis, drop me an email (see below).

Dominick Guarino is Chairman & CEO of National Comfort Institute (NCI), (www.nationalcomfortinstitute.com) a national training and membership organization focused on helping contractors grow and become more profitable. Email him at domg@ncihvac.com or call NCI at 800/633-7058.