‘Brand Trilogy’ Can Give Your Company A Competitive Edge
The ‘Brand Trilogy' can help you create a competitive advantage while realizing greater market share and margins.
By William R. (Max) Carey
Date Posted: 4/1/2000
The Brand Trilogy can enable your company to sustain a competitive advantage while realizing greater market share and margins.
‘Creating the Brand’ is the methodology of building a strategy to differentiate your company’s products and services in an increasingly commodity-driven marketplace.
‘Creating the Brand’ means defining your business in terms of the outcomes it provides to your clients or prospects as opposed to defining it in terms of the product itself or the process followed – both of which may be susceptible to duplication.
‘Selling the Brand’ is executing a strategy of elevating the prospect contact level and making a transition from a transactional sales approach to a consultative sales approach. Once the product or service is defined in terms of an outcome, it appeals to the mindset of a higher level within the company. ‘Selling the Brand,’ not the product or service, requires dramatic re-orientation and training of most sales forces.
‘Living the Brand’ involves fulfilling the brand promises developed in the execution of the strategy. Every aspect of the company needs to be designed in such a way that it reinforces the outcomes positioning and allows your sales personnel to sell at higher levels. By using a performance model, which is a series of actions or behaviors that reinforce the brand identity, your company can develop a design that enables you to ‘Live the Brand.’ This is the consistent process of innovating and adapting to not only keep up with the marketplace but to dramatically and pro-actively anticipate the demands of the changing marketplace.
People accuse me of being a fanatic about wanting every small, growing company to develop a brand identity. I am. It is because I went broke as a commodity company that did not try to distinguish itself from all the other companies in our market. We were so much like everyone else in the marketplace that we had no separate identity.
The critical lesson we learned:
Since most buyers believe there’s not much difference among competitors’ products, the method of bringing your product to your customers will be more important than the product you bring.
If you ignore this brand-identity phenomenon, the only way you can prosper in the commodity-driven market battle is through volume and economies of scale. You will forever labor in the marketplace dictated by price and delivery. Since your customers can buy your product or service from numerous sources, they will competitively negotiate you down to the lowest possible common denominator. You will become the victim of increasing predatory pricing pressures. Even worse, you will face the challenge of every new competitor who comes along.
Company attitudes and plans are moving from a short-term to a long-term focus. Businesses are asking more of vendors, and vendors no longer see selling as one transaction after another. There has been a shift to advisory relationships. Companies that have entered into beneficial relationships to integrate different areas of expertise have gained a powerful advantage. In this environment, the companies that offer a niche product or service, with clearly differentiated brand identities, will be the most successful.
Your mission is to position your company in this competitive environment. You will have to be smarter in picking your markets, think long-term, and make commitments to vendors and customers. The most successful companies will offer specialized expertise to their customers.
The critical success factor for a small business will be the ability to identify the "intangible value" of your product or service. No longer will a certain product, low prices, or great service generate success in the marketplace. You have to create, sell, and maintain a solid brand identity and attract the prospects who are most likely to identify with your brand.
Your customer will have to believe that your product or service is different from, or more valuable than, the other products in your market. And your customers will have to be willing to pay more for it. In a nutshell, that is what brand identity is all about.
A brand identity is broader than a brand name, which usually is a label given to a consumer product. Brand identity is what distinguishes one company – and the support it gives its product or service – from another. Brand identity is connoted in the hearts and minds of your customers when they hear your name. It is always measured in the eyes of the end user, not us.
As consumers, we like to believe that we have an unlimited ability to retain purchase alternatives in our minds. However, consumer market experts will tell you that this is not true. Your recall – that little store shelf in your mind – of any product line is no more than three to five brands, on average. In addition, research shows that you comfortably buy only from your shelf. Your shelf, by definition, is full.
In order to reach new, high-value customers, you have to get on the shelves in their minds. There are only two ways to do it. One is to reach up and knock someone else off the shelf. The second way, which is much easier, is to create a new shelf; you can build a shelf all your own, a specialty shelf, next to the other one.
How do you create that other shelf? Through brand identity. Analyzing, formulating, marketing, and adapting your identity for the future will be the most significant event that will take place in your company.
All your brand alternatives, decisions and strategies will be framed around one or more of the following: personal brand, product or service brand, market brand.
A personal brand focuses on the people who bring your product or service to the market. An American marketing giant – one of our most successful institutions ever – branded its people before its product line. Do you remember the IBM look, the blue suit, white shirt, red tie, neat hair and shined shoes? IBM’s people were so competent, so well trained, so well presented, and so well received, that they became the IBM team, the IBM look, and the IBM brand. In effect, the brand was the trust and confidence in the ability of IBM employees to help consumers make intelligent computer buying decisions.
A product or service brand centers on the specialness of the product and-or service you bring to the market. Companies often ‘wrap’ a product in a special service so that it will stand out from similar products. A highly visible example is Mary Kay Inc., the cosmetics company. A Mary Kay customer buys a promise of beauty, not simply cosmetics. A Mary Kay representative told her she would receive a facial or makeover, and that she would feel and look prettier than she had ever felt or looked before. That was what happened. In the end, the woman asked herself how she could look and feel so pretty again. The Mary Kay representative told her she needed the cosmetics, and she bought them. The Mary Kay brand is specific: it’s beauty, not cosmetics.
A market brand creates identity through the special group of people you decide to sell to. Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz are examples of market branding. When you’ve become someone in America, you buy a car from them. Generally, for growing companies, market brand is the easiest of the brands, the most accessible, and the least disruptive. Look at your customer list and ask yourself:
• Where are the markets of greatest opportunity?
• What do they need most?
• Can you present yourself as bringing specialized expertise to that sector?
To support your market brand, research your end user’s industry: it’s growth, future, fears, and goals. Then carefully wrap your brand around whatever you discover. Don’t talk about generic applications; talk about specific applications, using the industry’s parlance and perspectives.
Somewhere among these three potential brands – personal, product or service, or market – is your brand future. The highest degree of branding effectiveness takes place when you align specialized products or services with specialized markets.
Take a look at the products and services your company supplies. Ask yourself: what do your customers receive? Don’t say on-time delivery, or customer service, or quality. These are not characteristics that will enable you to stand out from the rest, to create your own niche.
Your brand identity is the business that your customers and prospects think you are in. You can control what you send them; you cannot control how it is received.
If you want to find out what business you are in, call your customers anonymously or have someone else do it. Ask them about your company and your product or service. Your customers will describe your business three ways:
1. by virtue of your product, which is the simplest and least sophisticated form of identity,
2. by virtue of your process, the ‘extras’ you wrap around your product,
3. and by virtue of the outcomes, what your product or service does for the customer; this is the most sophisticated form of brand identity.
The first step in creating a brand
This question is the cornerstone of brand identity. Write it in big letters on the top of your notebook as you analyze your product or service, your process, and your outcomes.
Much of the information you need will come from customer and vendor surveys and industry analyses. If you don’t have recent customer and vendor feedback on how – and what – they think you are doing, getting such feedback should be a top priority.
Maintaining brand identity in a competitive environment is a constant process of innovating and adapting to changes in the marketplace as well as anticipating future demands on your operations systems. To be successful, the most important challenges you face are redesigning your business, changing your traditional modes of operation, refocusing your target customer base, and creating a new sales strategy.
In order to build a brand identity, you have to remodel your business design. Take a long, hard look at your company’s structure before you can begin. Assess all aspects of your business – marketing, sales, accounting, customer service, administration – and analyze the outcomes each part creates.
All outcomes fall into one of two categories: they either support your business strategy or they hinder it. Those that support your business strategy contribute to growth and profitability. These outcomes include increased market share and margins, higher levels of customer satisfaction – whatever you use as your measurement system. You need to understand what designs are creating these results and formalize them and make them better. When the system you design works, then you are living your brand.
Outcomes that hinder your business strategy lead to declining growth and profits. They are not enough to provide the margin or the reinvestment capital you need for operating revenues to grow your business. These outcomes may include declining market share, flat margins, smaller customer base, and fewer repeat orders.
If your outcomes are not sufficient for driving the strategic intent of your business, you have only one alternative: change the design of your business. Every aspect of your operations must add outcome value – profit and growth – to your business. Otherwise, it must be altered or eliminated.
The second challenge you face in creating a brand identity is taking a hard look at your business strategies and the processes you use for carrying out those strategies. My favorite quote from Rudyard Kipling is framed on my office desk; it is the story of my early entrepreneurial years: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again – and expecting a different result." To gain market share, are you using the same strategies over and over again and expecting a different result?
What percent of the total universe of customers who could buy your product or service do you need to effectively sell to and control in the next 12 months to reach your performance goals? Do you have to close 3%, 5%, 20%, 50% of your market to reach your goals? Whatever the percent is, that will dictate whether you have a good year. Your future success depends on your ability to effectively target the customers and companies that have the greatest propensity to buy from you and to establish long-term partnerships with them.
You must locate, identify, and partner with customers and companies with characteristics that would make them likely partners for you. Survey your customer base and determine whether you have a platform for a long-term relationship – not just one sale. Once you identify them, you have to develop strategies for establishing a relationship with them. You have to become marketers.
Your customers can brand you by your product, your process, or your outcome. The least sophisticated branding is product branding; the most sophisticated is outcome branding. In moving from product identity to outcome identity, you have to establish in the minds of your customers not just what your product is and how it is processed, but what it does for them – the value added.
Xerox Corporation went from being the ‘copier company’ to the ‘document company’ after Japanese competitors entered the market with faster, more technically advanced copying processes. Xerox repositioned itself as a problem solver whose products and processes rescued customers.
You might be afraid that branding will limit your opportunities or back you into the wrong niche. Test-market your brand or multiple brand opportunities in specific, finite markets. Make certain your brand identity direction has been clearly established before investing precious capital in brochures and promotional pieces.
Focus on opportunity markets instead of market opportunities. Opportunity markets are those that have the potential to be benevolent to your brand in terms of strong growth, positioning, margin opportunity, and value-added pricing.
(Editor’s Note: William R. ("Max") Carey Jr. is founder and chief executive of CRD Inc., a sales and marketing consulting firm in Atlanta. This article is based on a seminar he gave at the annual meeting of the National Wooden Pallet and Container Association.)
Do you want reprints or a copyright license for this article? Click here
Research and connect with suppliers mentioned in this article using our FREE ZIP Online service.