I've spent many a meeting with a CEO trying to explain the ROI of branding, only to be met with, "I don't care about branding ‘fluff.' I care about sales." That's usually when I want to poke my eye out with a sharp stick.

Obviously we are all in business to make sales. That is the ultimate metric. But when sales are flagging or no one is talking about your product or service, the solution is not to hire more salespeople or frantically start tweeting. Perhaps you need to take a step back and look at your brand strategy.

What's that? You don't have one? Or maybe you think you have one because you have a really cool logo and website on which you spent a lot of money?

Branding is more than just pretty design or slick ads. Branding is about a company's core: why it is in business, what value it offers and to whom. Brand is your reputation: What space in peoples' minds do you occupy? Are you luxury and high-end, or cheap and disposable? There are many valid markets-you just have to know where you stand and communicate that consistently through everything you do.

Clarity and Consistency

The BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Global Brands report, commissioned by communications services group WPP, is the only valuation that takes into account customers' opinions on brands and attaches a dollar value. In the April 2010 report, the value of the top 100 brands rose by 4 percent in the last year to more than $2 trillion--growing 40 percent over five years. Strong brands outperformed the stock market, even during the recession.

Branding paves the way for a faster and more efficient sales cycle. Just as a suitor doesn't propose marriage on the first date, a customer does not buy from a vendor the first moment they meet. Customers need to travel through decision phases as they get closer to a purchase. For some products, like chewing gum at the checkout counter, that may take 30 seconds. For other products or services, like enterprise software, that could take six months. Good branding can move prospects along that journey faster. It helps make direct marketing activities much more effective. Companies have to earn customers' attention: in their e-mail inbox, on the shelf or to get past the gatekeeper. Brand awareness--and an instant connection to what a company is and the value it offers--can do that.

The questions that can lead to the right brand strategy include: What business is the company in? What benefits does it offer? Who is the ideal customer and what does he or she care about? What is the company personality? What does it offer that competitors do not? If company executives can't answer these questions, customers won't be able to either.

Clarity and consistency is key to such brand awareness. This extends beyond just advertising and promotion: If a brand is built on stellar customer service, how quickly do its own employees return calls, pay bills to vendors or set up new customers? The brand needs to be consistent inside and out--not just in slick ads but in operations, hiring processes and product quality. Leaders can't just slap a coat of brand paint on the business and expect people to believe: They have to walk the talk as well.

Building a Brand

There is an efficient process for building a brand strategy--without breaking the bank. But a business first has to figure out its own unique brand, mission, purpose, desired image and ideal audience before deciding which marketing or operational tactics to implement.

Too many companies are performing "random acts of marketing" and just praying something sticks as they throw money away, or taking the advice of someone who gave that same counsel to six other businesses. Strategy before tactics. Always.

To get a return on investment, first develop a brand strategy around delivering a clear, consistent promise based on your goals and ideal audience. Then ensure the organization delivers that promise in everything it does. Branding is not just the responsibility of the marketing department: It's an organizational compass that guides every employee, process and customer touch point.

Decisions such as who to hire, with whom to partner and where to distribute need to align with the brand promise as well. Otherwise, your company is just wasting time and money on random marketing and tactics that will get you nowhere fast--no matter how many salespeople you have on the street.

Maria Ross is a Worthington native and the founder and chief strategist of Red Slice, a Seattle-based branding and marketing firm. She can be reached at (206) 285-4829 or maria@red-slice.com.

Reprinted from the April 2011 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.