Let's play a game of word association. I say “Wal-Mart,” and you say what? Chances are “low prices” was one of the first responses that came to your mind. How about “Nordstrom's”? Did you think “customer service”?

These almost instantaneous responses represent expertly crafted branding. Wal-Mart may have a broad selection of products, friendly greeters, and the ability to push local retailers out of business. But ultimately, the giant company is built on a foundation of low prices. Nordstrom's is in a similar position. The quality and selection of clothing are of the highest regard, yet I can't help but think first of the company's return policy and the patient, courteous sales staff.

That's what makes a great brand message—the ability not only to succinctly define the exact impression you want the general public to have of your products and services but also to be able to exemplify that message. In other words, a brand identity has to be simple and authentic.

In today's tough economic times, maintaining a strong brand identity is more vital than ever. Yet that kind of soft marketing expense is often the first to be sacrificed during belt-tightening season. Not so at The Bozzuto Group. In the year leading up to its 20th anniversary in April, the Greenbelt, Md.-based firm commissioned a holistic research study to help identify the qualities its residents, investors, and employees associated with the business.

Bozzuto conducted 12 focus groups, completing one-on-one research with 94 individuals in all, as well as quantitative Internet research. Some of the results were surprising. “If you had asked me a year ago what differentiated us from our competitors, I would have said customer service,” said company CEO Tom Bozzuto. “What our customers said is that what differentiated us is that we do what we say we're going to do; it's trustworthiness, or integrity.”

The finding resulted in the company changing its tagline from “Bozzuto brings you home” to “Founded on values. Built on integrity.”

What's more, the research helped the firm uncover answers to some of its most pressing internal questions. For instance, the company's top executives often debated about how managing affordable housing would impact the Bozzuto reputation when it came to high-end product.

The reality? No one was fazed. “Most of our customers actually saw it as a positive thing that we were providing housing for all people,” Bozzuto said. “One of the focus group participants said it best. ‘Everyone deserves a great place to live.'”

The changes are subtle ones, but such nuances give successful firms an advantage when times are tough. Yes, consumers are returning to rentals in droves, but they also have many more housing choices before them. And it's exactly that environment that necessitates brand differentiation. Kudos to those firms that chose to make their brands better known internally and externally. They are the companies that will be around when the economic tides turn. Just wait and see.