What makes a brand? We are inundated with branding everywhere we turn in our personal and professional lives. It is designed to pull at our heart strings and connect with us emotionally. Though we like to believe logic, price comparison and product quality are key to our purchasing decisions, in reality, we subconsciously are swayed by our relationships with brands.

A brand can be very complex, but is typically made up of two components: physical and emotional. The physical brand is the tangible product customers receive or experience. In the aquatics industry, a physical brand includes your facility, whether it be a small municipal aquatics center with a play structure, lap pool and three slides, or a large waterpark with a continuous river, surf machine, and numerous thrill rides.

The emotional part is what customers feel when they see, interact with, or hear about the physical product. Words such as safe, fun, memorable, exhilarating or informative may describe this component.

There is a reason that marketing and advertising fuel a $100 billion industry. If your signage just listed the park’s attractions and prices, how effective would it be for your bottom line or customer experience? Take that base information and add bright colors, a well-thought-out logo and a catchy slogan. Which version will people connect with and remember?

Why do we need to communicate or even establish a brand? Because even if you have not identified your brand, you still have one. Much like having a social media presence, if you do not create one, your customers will. Why not be part of that process and help craft the direction of consumers’ perceptions?

What is your claim to fame?

The first step in identifying and communicating your brand is to determine your current claim to fame or your liability. Peruse your social media accounts and newspaper articles for clues about where your facility struggles and where it shines. Examine your customer surveys for trends that reflect your strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps you have excellent, attentive swim instructors, but your recreational swim check-in process is slow and a source of tension for customers.

Building your brand around your strengths will prove to be a much easier task than trying to overcome what the public perceives as weaknesses. For example, there are several jokes or perceptions around Whole Foods, a primarily organic grocery chain. Many call it “whole paycheck” in reference to the expense of organic food, while others call it “whole ingredients,” for its support of healthy eating. Either way, customers are talking about this brand and making their own assumptions. The company is very adept at crafting its message and brand of “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store” with revenue to support its success.

When crafting your brand, look at the local competition. Is there a larger park, or a small, successful swim school? Find your niche specialty and capitalize on it! If you are smaller but have a large waterpark nearby, perhaps your niche is “family friendly,” where parents can feel comfortable knowing you do not have the high-thrill rides that typically attract the teenage, drop-off-for-the-afternoon crowd that can take over larger parks. On the other hand, maybe you are that larger park. You can tout that your facility is cutting edge, with so many high-thrill attractions that purchasing a season pass and coming every week is the only way to experience all the fun. By differentiating where you are successful compared with your competitors, you can fill a void and guide customers to subconsciously connect with your business instead of competitors.

Communicating your brand message

Once you have identified your brand, determine how to communicate your message to customers. You can do this through theming, slogans, color palettes, logos, mascots, advertising and programming.

Begin by selecting a palette of five to six colors that complement your park. When creating advertising materials, stick to those hues. Then, when a customer passes your coupons in the grocery store, they’ll take a second look because they know it’s your facility and that you offer something they are interested in.

Using the color palette, design a simple logo that contains the facility’s name, is fun, and shows movement. If you already have a great logo, develop your color palette based on that.

The Cove Waterpark, a 9-acre municipal seasonal waterpark and year-round competition pool in Southern California, is a great example of how branding should be applied. Its family-friendly service brand is centered around a vision to “provide a positive, memorable experience through sustainable recreation programming.” The Caribbean-themed park features bright colors, tropical animal statues, palm trees, treasure chests, themed signage and ride names to support the brand. Its tagline of “Your Aquatic Adventure Awaits!” is listed on its marketing materials, and team members answer the phone with, “Ahoy Mateys, this is _____. How many I assist you?”

The Cove uses every challenge as an opportunity to spread brand awareness. For example, during the peak of one season, the park experienced several fecal incidents at the same time every day, resulting in unhappy customers and lost revenue. A mandatory “potty break,” was implemented, during which all guests under 12 were required to exit the water for 15 minutes. Though this greatly cut down on fecal incidents, some customers were unhappy with the new policy. To help parents who didn’t need the reminder to take their children to the restroom, Cap’n JAC, the pirate tiger mascot, would come out approximately 5 minutes before the end of the “potty break” and perform a choreographed dance with some staffers. Guests quickly learned the dance, and what was once a dreaded time became a focal point event for the park. As a result, there were fewer fecal incidents, children would quickly use the restroom so they would not miss the dance, and concessions revenue grew substantially.

Mascots provide an incredible opportunity to address customer service issues during inclement weather and maintenance situations, and they build brand awareness at community events outside a facility’s gates. Identify opportunities within your programs to reinforce your brand, whether it is your swim lesson level names, day camp theme, or a special event.

See "Mascots Save the Day!"

The main point of establishing a brand is for customers to ultimately buy into it and support your facility, but unless you find ways that work specifically for your park, your brand will remain unknown, and customers will decide for themselves.

Staff = brand ambassadors

One of the most influential ways to communicate or reinforce a brand is through staff. Consistency of guest experience guides your customers’ perceptions. If your message successfully communicates that your park offers above-and-beyond service, but the guest interacts with an employee with a poor attitude, the time and money spent creating and communicating a brand may be for naught.

Customers are service-savvy and willing to spend extra to support facilities with integrity and that appear genuine in their brand delivery and support. Implement a consistent training and reinforcement program that will guide staffers into “being” your brand. Teach them that they have a responsibility to uphold the brand at all times, whether on the clock or not. Children admire aquatics staffs, and their encounters in the real world — whether at the grocery store or outside mowing the lawn — can have a positive or negative impact on your brand. Because people have many options for where to spend, they may stop patronizing your business because of negative interactions or encounters with a single person. Consistently reinforcing this idea with your staff through interactive training exercises and secret shopper programs can help weed out employees who are not fully representing your park’s brand.

North-Richland Hills Family Waterpark, better known as NRH2O, believes guest service is of utmost importance to its brand. The brand reinforcement begins with the hiring process, when management explains how important guest service is to the park. Once a staffer is hired, they receive statistics and examples during training sessions. Those who show outstanding guest service are rewarded.

Don’t fall into the pit

Now that you have created a brand for your park, have communicated the message clearly to your customers, and your employees are ready to “be the brand,” here are a few things to avoid:

Failing to monitor the brand: The brand must be woven into all aspects of your facility and programs so that customers can identify your branding in seconds. Designate a person or team to perform a brand-consistency check on anything the public will see, including signage, social media posts, and even swim lesson cancellation notices. Every touch point with a customer is an opportunity for brand reinforcement, but each time you diverge from your color palette or font, it dilutes the efficacy of the brand. Over time, it will become so ingrained in your team that the brand checks may become less necessary.

Incongruous policies and procedures: If you tout it, don’t let customers doubt it! Review policies and procedures against brand promises to identify weaknesses. An example: You want your brand to communicate “family-friendly,” but you do not provide changing tables in the restrooms or allow strollers in some parts of the facility. Adjust or eliminate policies that cast doubt on the genuineness of your intentions.

Ignoring customer feedback: While customer requests cannot always be accommodated, because of safety or hygiene standards, often there are trends in feedback that we can evaluate. People who verbally give negative feedback actually make up a small percentage of unhappy customers, but social media has emboldened many to make their feelings known. Responding to these reviews, whether positive or negative, supports the idea that your facility cares about its customers and is genuine in its branding. Failing to listen to feedback on a consistent basis can deter customers from visiting your park.

Becoming static: While it is important to remain consistent in your brand application by using your color palette and mascot, many things can be altered to keep customers engaged. Use a different layout, print size, or shape on printed media, or add fun music or moving graphics to a website. Look at big brands such as Coca-Cola or McDonald’s to see how they have changed their logos and brands over the years. They stay current and relevant, always adjusting to customer demands. Yet they remain true to their brands, deviating only slightly with each update.

Deviating from the niche: Often we must wear multiple hats. We want to do everything and be everything to make our facilities great, but that is not realistic. The same is true of our brands. While we will always strive, it is unrealistic to think we can be the most family-friendly, have the most thrill rides, the best-trained lifeguards, cleanest restrooms, lowest prices in town, and remain open at times convenient to anyone. We have budgets and limitations that help define who we are. Focus on your claim to fame, tout it, and work to always refresh and be the best in that arena.

Developing a brand message, communicating it to customers and employees, and remaining genuine in its delivery is a journey. As you go through the process, you’ll find that some strategies don’t work for you. Learn from those experiences. By consistently reinforcing your brand, you will ensure that customers consciously and subconsciously continue to support your park through their willingness to spend disposable income on admission and programs, and spread the word that your facility is the best place to (fill in the blank)!

NICOLE VAN WINKLE is an account executive at Counsilman-Hunsaker, specializing in feasibility studies, training and management for aquatics facilities. She has operated waterparks and aquatics facilities in California.