So You Think You Know Your Brand?

A company must have a three-dimensional view of its brand.

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Are you battling imports and losing market share? Has your product become an “unplanned commodity” as your sales negotiations with customers more and more revolve around price rather than value? Is your marketing team launching new products that support your brand and differentiate your company in the marketplace? Do you even know what impression your brand is making on customers?

These questions resonate within so many companies because the leaders of those companies continue to build their strategies only within the walls of their corporate headquarters and continue to view a brand primarily as the purview of their marketing departments. This internal, one-dimensional view of a brand — which is ultimately more wishful thinking than reality — cannot possibly maximize the impact of the brand on strategy or on the marketplace. Leaders have to help their companies adopt a three-dimensional view of their brands in which the company’s conversation across all levels and departments, and its conversation with customers and various other constituencies, help dynamically to co-create brand identity and strategy. To differentiate the company and garner competitive advantage, there must be a transition from mere brand consciousness to consistent brand articulation and brand behavior, both inside the company and “on the street.”

In the past, a customer’s primary link to any brand was through marketing and sales. Yet, most companies spend their time teaching their salespeople, customer service people and even marketers how to sell products, not brands. Most sales-people have been taught to sell intuitively based on the customer’s reaction to the following three things: product (how well it meets the buyer’s standards for price, styling and quality), relationship (what level of trust, past history and integrity has been built between buyer and seller), and performance (how good is the company’s follow-through, problem solving and customer service).

In fact, salespeople often sell everything but the brand. They will sell on the basis of price, delivery, product quality, features, benefits and warranty, but seldom do they speak to what the brand means to the buyer in terms of lifestyle, experiences or emotional connection. However, that often-missing aspect of selling a brand is crucial to the future success of more and more organizations.

For example, DeWALT is selling more than power tools to end-users, it’s selling and associating itself with the image of NASCAR by sponsoring races and holding some of its “DeWALT Experience” product expositions at NASCAR events. Waterford Wedgwood is selling more than crystal, it’s selling affiliation with hand-cut precision and the lifestyle that goes with it. Starbucks is selling more than coffee, it is selling a place for connection or contemplation. Purdy is selling more than paintbrushes and applicators, it’s selling the feeling of a job done professionally, with hassle-free cleanup. All these companies have made intuitive if not intentional choices to sell their brands, which differentiates them from their competition in a way that pure product and service differences cannot. Still, most organizations either can’t or won’t sell their brands. There seem to be four key reasons for this:

It’s marketing’s job.

Over the years, the brand has been associated with marketing in most companies. Marketing creates it, nurtures it and drives it in the marketplace. Accordingly, most companies have not made an effort to engage the sales organization in owning the brand.

There’s no budget.

Many companies think that the only way to sell a brand is by spending millions of dollars on television or mass media to build the brand’s image. However, not every company can, or should even try, to promote its brand in this way.

Selling is about products and services.

As stated above, most salespeople earned their stripes by becoming product or service experts, memorizing features and benefits and making competitive comparisons. In their minds, there has been no apparent need to sell the brand.

Selling is about logic, not emotion.

Because of the traditional emphasis on product and service features, salespeople gravitate toward selling from a logical standpoint. Most of them focus on real, demonstrable attributes like lower price, longer warranty, more horsepower, longer shelf life or more run time. When that happens, the salespeople (and company) have missed an important opportunity to leverage the emotional connection that loyal customers have with their favorite brands.

The first three steps in the buyer-seller interaction should remain unchanged; they are still critical to an organization properly serving its customers. Products still must meet buyers’ needs and specifications for a fair price. Relationships still must be cultivated, even with longtime customers. Performance still must include strong service after the sale, perhaps more so now than ever. Without these factors, a brand is little more than pure imagery, a hollow promise.

Even when these factors exist, however, the brand is much more than the simple sum of its parts. Executives and salespeople alike must begin to co-own the brand with the marketing department and communicate its message consistently and intentionally in the marketplace. Company leaders have to move beyond their own intuitive, implicit understanding of their brand to create an explicit strategy to define brand attributes and disseminate brand ownership throughout the company. Marketers, in turn, need to allow the brand to be influenced and articulated by sales with input from the customer. Salespeople need to find real ways to capture the brand and bring it alive for the customer.

Leading With Your Brand Pillars

Every solid brand has impenetrable advantages that uphold it in the marketplace. These “brand pillars” represent strategic choices and investments the company has made during its history to provide better products or services to its key customer base. They are usually aspects of the company’s operations, approach to the marketplace or a business model, yet they have a distinct customer focus. They are not generally birthed in the boardroom, but originate on the lips of the customer. Brand pillars have simply become so much a part of the company that they are widely seen by customers as part of the fabric of the business.

An industrial products company’s pillars may be end-user commitment, quality and value, innovation and creativity, unmatchable service. A consumer packaged-goods company’s pillars may claim category management, national promotions, name recognition and product innovation. For instance, Apple Computer’s brand pillar is innovation, Volvo’s is safety, DeWALT’s is end-user marketing. Notice that although there is very little specific description of the company’s products in these pillars, buyers, especially in the business-to-business setting, make purchasing choices based on them because they represent certain priorities, strategies or operating advantages that imply value. This value has to be leveraged by weaving brand language into conversations throughout the company and into salespeople’s conversations with customers. There are key strategic reasons why leaders should help their organizations speak from the strength of their brand:

It is the best defense against transactional buying and commoditizing of the category.

The transactional buyer usually devalues the quality of the product and the brand by purchasing based largely on price, thus treating the product like a commodity. Companies that value and sell their brands can defend against the transactional buyer by creating value through differentiation of their products and services.

It is the best defense against price objections/imports.

Price is a common and increasingly frequent objection due to the expansion of imports from overseas. A strong brand takes the emphasis off price and puts it on value.

It is the best offense for negotiating key account programming/incentives.

When selling to larger customers or repeat buyers, salespeople often are embroiled in negotiating the best deals for their company. Buyers believe that they have extra leverage due to their sales volume, size, business model or impact in the marketplace. To combat this, the salesperson needs to use the brand as a leverage point for negotiating contracts, rebates, promotional buy-ins and incentive programs. If done well, a brand is the best offense for positioning the company in repeat buyer situations, in key customer relationships and in important negotiations.

MANY COMPANIES TODAY RECOGNIZE that active, aggressive leveraging of their brands is their best opportunity in a highly competitive marketplace to increase market share, profitability and customer loyalty. However, most do not go about it correctly. A brand can no longer be merely a marketing construct, a symbol that embodies the attributes of a product or service. Today, brand identity is co-created with, and inextricable from, the customer experience, and that experience must be heeded and used internally and externally to reinforce the identity of an organization and the value of its products. The leader’s job is to build a culture within the organization based on its brand pillars, and it is everyone’s job to articulate the brand and believe completely in its message, emotional statement to customers and the collective voice it wields within the organization and marketplace. The brand should be at the forefront, and not buried just beneath the surface, of all crucial conversations — both internal and external. Only then can a brand deliver true differentiation and competitive advantage.


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