At its simplest, your business' brand is what sets it apart in the marketplace: The quality of whatever you do; the price -- whether high, low or competitive; and the level of service.

It's perception. What customers, suppliers, employees and others who connect with your company think about your business, that's your brand. Interestingly, their perceptions may be different from yours -- which means a download of Sue Kirchner's free book, 10 Questions to Ask about Branding, might be a good idea.

Kirchner is president of Brand Strong Marketing Inc. in Palatine. Her book is an e-book, found on the Brand Strong Marketing website,

Essentially, the book is 10 questions business owners should ask their customers about the business. Whether your business is a factory, bakery, retail store or virtually anything else, the answers will provide valuable insights into how the marketplace perceives your business -- i.e., your brand.

What follows is a sample of the questions, with guidance from both the book and a conversation Kirchner and I had last month about the information the questions are intended to solicit. Keep two Kirchner comments in mind as you read: "The more people you ask, the better you'll be able to fill in your gaps in perception," and "You'll find out from your best customers why they love you, which (should) help you find more people like them." Let's go.

• What does our company do? is Kirchner's kickoff question, suggested as a way to determine how customers collectively would describe your business to someone else -- a referral, for example. The answers also should tell you whether your customers know the range of products and services your business offers and what, if any, value customers ascribe to them.

• What problems do we solve for you? If you're a plumber, the answer should be fairly straightforward. Listen, however, to what's not said. For example, do your customers know that your knowledge of water and how it flows can help solve drainage problems?

• What's the one thing we do that you can't get somewhere else? You should get two answers to this question: The most important product, or service, you offer to that customer, which should provide some later thoughts on what services to promote. Maybe "a better price" is your customer's answer. Or "good advice;" "you listen to me;" or "everything I need is right here." The answer is equally important for what customers don't say. A customer happy with the one service she buys may not know of the other services you offer. Other customers may not know either.

• What three words would you use to describe our company? Reliable, honest and trustworthy might be words you'd be happy to hear; they describe your business' personality (or brand characteristics) in the marketplace. So, though, do words such as pushy, sloppy and bored. Analyze the answers from your survey carefully.

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