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One face to the customer
Building a brand that unites company efforts in a customer-relevant manner

By: Tim Riesterer

Tim Riesterer is president & CEO of The Brady Company, an integrated marketing communications firm specializing in programs that improve sales channel productivity for industrial and medical business-to-business clients worldwide.

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Make selling easier, faster, and cheaper.  Build a brand.
     Harry Beckwith (Selling the Invisible)
It’s worse than the three faces of Eve...  the many faces some companies present to their market and their customers.  While decentralized divisions and distinct business operating units have done wonders for the agility of corporate America, we are starting to see at least one bad side effect:

A systematic erosion in the ability of a company’s brand to attract prospects and maintain customers. 

This is particularly evident in companies where multiple business units sell to the same customer.   Imagine the poor enduser being barraged by scads of self-styled, separate and unique marketing messages generated by individual business units; all with parochial profit/loss objectives.

By separating marketing resources into proprietary parcels for each unit, these companies further dilute already limited budgets.  The laws of marketing physics dictate that these groups “must” create exclusive programs, messages, positions, names, logos, icons -- in the name of reaching their personal product goals.  But, many times at the expense and detriment of the company’s overall market position and brand image.

Most companies simply do not have the resources -- people or money -- to sustain customized, fragmented product or division-level approaches, and achieve breakthrough success with today’s customers.

180 degrees off course

That’s because today’s customer is changing.  While the business world goes about its internal-driven restructuring, its customers are reorganizing themselves to buy a completely different solution than is being created by these so-called management gurus.

Your customers, in increasing numbers, are looking for a more complete, trustworthy single-source solution.  You don’t have to look too hard to verify this.  Supplier consolidation is a well-documented trend.  These “new customers” require vendor partners who assume more important turn-key responsibilities.  Systems integration and related after-sale services, such as inventory management, are among the new expectations.

How does a company appeal to these customers when it is perceived merely as a collection of islands in a stream?  How does it instill confidence in its integrated solution when decentralized marketing messages create images of concrete silos where inter-dependent products and services should be seen?

The answer:  companies must reach all their critical audiences with a cohesive, consistent message presented in a manner that is immediately identifiable as a single, positive corporate brand. 

This requires a strong corporate positioning strategy to unite your company’s offering in a customer-relevant manner that provides clear and tangible proof of the superiority of your solution.  The process, however, requires significant discipline for strongly divisionalized companies looking to put an umbrella over their fiefdoms.

A day in the life of the brand

The first step in organizing and rallying disparate agendas toward a singular brand position is a market study.  A meaningful brand market study is more experiential than it is empirical.  It reaches out to all relevant audiences with the power to influence a brand position and the company’s ultimate success:
Company executives:  “What do we already know?”   In-depth, one-on-one interviews with key company executives from appropriate corporate and division areas of responsibility.

Top customers:  “What has been your experience with our brand?”  Visit 5-7 preferred customers to witness a day in the life of the brand.  These will be the customers who already committed to your complete offering despite the lack of a single message.

Top losses:  “Where are our gaps?”  Interview 2-3 significant sales losses.  Companies who fit the profile of a preferred customer, but who chose a competitor.

HQ customer visits:  “What turns prospects on?”   Use observers to take notes during tours and discussions with promising
  prospects visiting your headquarters as part of the sales process.

Field experience:  “What is the sales environment?”  Ride shotgun for a day or two with a few regional-level salespeople to experience the day-to-day competitive environment.

Secondary sources:  “What market information already exists?”   Access existing data on market trends, perceptions and ranking of vendors, buyer demographics and decision-making protocols, etc.

Requirements for building a brand that sells

Based on the input from the market study, companies can begin to discuss positioning options.  Mini-worksessions and “what if” meetings should produce reasonable brand position hypotheses.  In his book, “Selling the Invisible,” Harry Beckwith lists several requirements for creating a position that has real market impact:
You cannot be all things to all people.  It’s about sacrifice.  What one distinctive  thing will give your company an edge.  A lack of sacrifice is a lack of positioning.  Focus also allows you to rally and pinpoint resources for more support.
Halo effect
Recognize that investing in one positive image will have associated impact on your company’s entire portfolio.  Remember, “no one ever go fired for choosing GE (General Electric).”
Start with current position
Find out current customer perceptions and turn them into a benefit.  Emphasizing  those issues that most relate the brand to improving the daily life of its users.  If the gap between perception and reality is too big, your customers and prospects won’t make the leap to a radically new position.
Be different
Don’t just try to be better.  Positioning is about clear, positive difference.  The  subtleties between whose better don’t stand up long enough to count.  So, stand out  in a parity situation.  Give prospects a real, sustainable reason to choose you.
Be distinctive
In a world of information overload, your brand position and message need to be  unique, hard-hitting and pertinent, as well as sensory and creative.  You won’t  listen to clichés.  Your customers won’t either.
If you are comfortable that your positioning options stand up to this litmus test, you will want to entertain select feedback from some of the same audiences who participated in the original market study. 

Their qualitative responses will provide the material for an in-depth position development plan, including some creative execution to demonstrate how the brand position will “come to life,” in the day-to-day lives of company staff, customers and prospects.

Bringing the brand to life:  Put out an “all points bulletin”

The use of marketing communications, such as advertising and publicity, as the primary drivers of company branding is dead.  A good corporate theme or “tag line” alone cannot carry the day when contributors to (and detractors from) brand equity exist across an entire organization.

As a result, “organization alignment” is the most critical component to a brand position’s success or failure. Aligning all the forces inside an organization that impact the brand is key to building brand equity.  Why?  Because communications messages being sent to the market need to line up with the experiences customers have with the company.

From a customer’s perspective, all experiences affect brand image, not just those designated as “brand building.”  For example, among customers with a favorable impression of a company’s advertising, a negative service experience will always stick out as the impression they have of the brand.  In addition, the resulting negative word-of-mouth “marketing,” will carry more sway over potential customers than anything advertising could ever accomplish.

The goal for bringing a brand to life is to make a proactive effort to drive the organization toward aligned brand equity development -- in all facets of the customer experience.

Taglines as booster rockets

Similar to the space shuttle which needs a high-energy set of booster rockets to breakthrough earth’s gravity before it can soar, an organizational alignment program needs a spark to get it moving forward.

This is where a classic “tagline” or theme can make or break brand building.  The discipline of identifying a few key words that communicate the full weight and force of your brand message is the cornerstone of an organizational alignment effort. 

With a tagline, you have a rallying cry and focus.  All actions, applications and associated activities get their energy from (and always point back to) this dynamic positioning device.  More than pithy wittiscims or half-baked platitudes, this tagline must stand up to three critical questions:
  1.  Does it provide a clear, recognizable and sustainable differentiation from the competition?
  2.  Does it respond to your customers’ most pressing needs in a compelling, believable manner?
  3.  Does it provide guidance for management decisionmaking, hiring, training and resource allocation?

Right where it counts

Now comes the hard part.  An ongoing, consistent commitment to making this position a reality in the company.  Will it be posters in the cafeteria, or will it be a program that (re)aligns from the innards? 

Does the organizational structure have to change to support the brand position?  Will we reprioritize product and service development based on our new market focus?  Must after-sales support networks and programs be staffed and trained differently to deliver and complement our “one face to the customer?”

A complete brand building program will generate significant momentum and equity that can be leveraged across the entire company to support significantly improved prospecting and sales activity, as well as helping create customers as advocates.

© Copyright 1999, Tim Riesterer, The Brady Company

Other Articles by Tim Riesterer

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