Editor’s Note: Keith Cassell is founder and president of Cassell Design Group, a creative design agency in Durham. This column is the latest in the Entrepreneurial Spirit series done in partnership between the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and WRAL Local Tech Wire.

DURHAM — No no. It’s not the five-letter "B" word you were thinking of. It’s all about your company "brand" and that translates, funny enough, into customers’ feelings. When building your brand, how you tie into your target audience’s emotions is the key issue you have to consider.

Your brand is you, or who you want to be.

Your brand defines who you are. A strong brand makes you stand out, while a weak brand could loose customer confidence and send your product or company down the tubes.

Al and Laura Ries defined brand in a simplistic and functional way. Brand is something that "should be designed to differentiate your product from all other cattle on the range. Even if all the other cattle on the range look pretty much alike." Chances are, you aren’t a rancher but the principle applies to your product in the same way. The brand you and your agency create is one of the best tools you have to make your company or product overshadow that of your competitors.

Too often people hear the word "branding" and immediately think about a company’s logo or the corporate identity pieces. As a designer, I can understand and relate to that. But it’s a small piece of a much larger puzzle.

Your brand is a symbol for who you are. It’s a feeling that the consumer gets when they use or buy your product. What kind of experience do you want your customer to have when engaging with your company and products? What feelings do you want them to experience when they see your company logo? People don’t leave their emotions at home. They travel with them day-in and day-out. Your brand should capitalize on those emotions.

We don’t care how it works – as long as it works.

Entrepreneurs focus on their product or technology. Yes, that’s critical. But what makes a product sell? Is it understanding the nuts and bolts of how your product works, or is it making the customer want to buy it? Understanding doesn’t always lead to a purchase. I can’t tell you the first thing about how my car works, but I can tell you how I feel when I’m driving it. That’s why I bought it. They made that emotional connection. That’s what makes the impact – not the product information, but the road into the customers’ belief systems.

So how do we build a strong brand for your company?

1. Understand your customer from top to bottom.

Understanding who you are going to serve is critical to developing your brand. If your product is a revolutionary pacemaker, you want your visual elements to target a demographic that is suitable to your product. For example, a good designer would likely steer away from themes that make us think about Disney, MTV and Pamela Andersen. But they we will focus on elements that make the customer feel comfortable, safe and at ease.

So how can you figure out what your customer is thinking? Simple. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Think about what might attract them to your product. After you’ve performed that exercise, review your customer’s consumer habits. Who is buying pacemakers and where are they getting them? What sales channels are your customers’ buying from? What other products are they buying? What are they watching? Where do they eat? Get the data and use that information to your advantage.

2. Some examples.

If you own a television, you’ve seen Apple’s recent advertising campaign. If you haven’t, you can view them at . It’s a great example of how an advertising campaign is reinforcing, and in Apple’s case, re-building a brand. Their computers are selling like hotcakes for the first time in years and the iPod is a run away hit. They knew their customer and stayed connected to their audience, many of who happen to be design nerds like myself. Now they’ve taken that and expanded their audience to a national scale.

So Apple has developed a simple equation. Apple = Cool. Who doesn’t want to be cool? That’s their brand. "We’re cool. We’re hip. When you have an apple, you will be too." It’s the emotional connection that they’re trying to evoke.

There were many components that have helped Apple take back some of the market share it lost to the PC. They made some smart moves with their technology platform and their marketing strategy. All of these decisions helped them develop a strong and very visible brand. But smart advertising and consistent brand reinforcement is what keeps the momentum going.

Bottom line – a good brand is clear and easy to understand. It is a personality. It’s not the name of the company, but instead, it’s your corporate personality that makes the consumer remember the company name. It’s an experience.

3. How does your design play into all of this?

Is a good design critical? Absolutely. If your customer looks at your collateral and it reminds them of something their five year old brought home from art class, you have a serious problem. To develop an identity that is rich and diverse, it is necessary to explicitly link your company’s identity to its core brand. Perceived value is important to consider. Does your design give the kind of value that is comparable to your brand. It should reinforce and enhance the brand.

Before you break out the big design guns and spend big bucks on the corporate brochure or the website, it’s important that you understand who you’re talking to and what you want to say. What’s your company culture? Philosophy? Goals? Does your design reflect those values?

Yes, you want an interesting and visually pleasing design. But if you haven’t answered these basic questions, your target audience isn’t going to be able to connect the dots and that could mean a tougher row to hoe for you and your company.

A strong brand accompanied by great design (and a little luck) will help you create a great business.