Business 101: Branding your business: Cultivate a good name and keep it

Whether you operate one location or multiple ones, and regardless of how many decimal places represent your revenue, your business has a brand. It may have been carefully created through time, or it may simply be the unintentional result of your day-to-day activities. Either way, it is your business identity, your promise to the customer. It can be more valuable than your entire inventory, more priceless than seasoned staff.

You need to treat it as the asset that it is – define it, cultivate it and protect it. The consequences of not doing so can be disastrous, as can be learned by taking a look at one of the most infamous brand blunders in marketing history.

In the 1980s, Coca-Cola experimented with altering its classic Coke soft drink. Blind taste tests showed that customers preferred the newly formulated beverage to both regular Coke and competitive cola, Pepsi. Coca-Cola thought it had a big winner on its hands and it released New Coke with much fanfare.

It was a disaster; New Coke bombed on the market. Coca-Cola found that it had underestimated its customers’ sentimental attachment to the classic Coke product. New Coke had jeopardized Coca-Cola’s strong brand loyalty.

The company recovered by reintroducing the original beverage as Coca-Cola Classic, eventually dropping New Coke from production. Last year, BusinessWeek magazine named Coca-Cola as the top global brand for the second year in a row. Coca-Cola learned (expensively) just how strong its brand was in the eyes of its consumers. Coke may be a great beverage, but it’s a better brand.

Your business’ brand is what connects you to the market. It is more than just a name and a logo; it’s a culture and an assurance to your customers that they can depend on your company for their needs, whether parts or service. Often, distributors stock the same parts on their shelves, and many shops offer the same services. The way you differentiate yourself in the market is what’s going to attract – or repel – potential customers. Time spent fully considering and developing your brand strategy will pay dividends.

The heavy-duty aftermarket is changing rapidly. Globalization and consolidation are forcing many companies to re-evaluate how they do business and with whom they partner. Now is a critical time for aftermarket businesses to take a closer look at their brand strategies and to make sure they stand out positively in the market.

“In many cases, a distributor’s tangible products sold are the same as others in the market,” says Jeff Paul, director of marketing, VIPAR Heavy Duty. “It is a distributor’s people, how they bring the goods to market, their level of service and how they treat their customers, as well as value-added services, that differentiates them and adds strength to their brand.”

When thinking about what your brand means, create a concise mission statement that summarizes what your company is all about. “It’s important to keep in mind that your brand is much more than a catchy name, an attractive logo or a creative tagline,” says Paul. “Your brand defines what your organization stands for and who you are.”

To reach a point where such a statement can be written, you have to ask questions, such as “What are your core corporate values?” and “What products and services are your specialties?” Don’t rush this stage of branding; these questions require careful consideration since their answers will form the essence of your brand strategy and ultimately will shape your business. The more accurately you answer these questions, the more compelling and memorable your brand.

“Branding is about choosing the road you want to walk down,” says Pat Biermann, president, HD America. “The important thing is to develop a strategy, go with it and stick to it.”

One of the most important elements of a successful brand is consistency. If you don’t provide a dependable product or service, a customer doesn’t know what to expect and the last thing anyone in today’s aftermarket wants more of is uncertainty. When you’ve decided what it is that separates your company from your competitors, you need to make sure that all elements of your brand match and support your branding decisions. Aim for a consistent, seamless message, in image, word and action.

“Establishing a brand is not done simply by noting the characteristics you want to define your brand, telling people and assuming they will take your word for it,” says Paul. “The process of establishing your brand and maintaining it is done by consistently delivering on those characteristics.”

Once you show customers that you’re as good as your word, they will be more open to your suggestive selling. If, for instance, a customer’s truck receives timely and accurate repair work at your facility, you have gained his trust and he will be more receptive to your suggestions for additional parts sales.

“Globalization is bringing so many products into the market,” says Biermann. “Pick anything – a brake drum, for instance – there are so many different ones that the end user becomes suspicious, wondering, ‘which one of these things should I be using?’ That’s why I think it is important that you develop a name and cultivate trust.”

New emissions regulations, rising fuel costs and concerns about counterfeit parts mean that customers are going to have a lot of questions about service and products. If you can establish your business as a reliable, consistent solutions provider, your brand will inspire customer confidence. A stronger brand, one that walks the walk, is going to survive a changing aftermarket.

Every manager has dealt with an employee who just “doesn’t fit.” Maybe he is surly with customers, or lacks drive and energy, but you haven’t had the time or scraped together the resources to replace this lackluster worker. Complacency on an issue like this can be a large misstep. If your brand stands for stellar customer service and passion for the business, this employee is a major liability. In a competitive market, one poor experience may send customers knocking on your competition’s door.

Branding is an ongoing process and it’s critically important to make sure all parts of your business, including personnel, reflect your mission statement and brand identity. Don’t just assume that once you’ve put in the hours it takes to conceive a brand and to outline a branding strategy that it will be smooth sailing; protecting your brand requires vigilance and recurrent examination.

“A brand may evolve over time,” says Paul. “A business should use its brand characteristics as a benchmarking tool. As a company changes, evolves and expands, it can measure these activities and make decisions against its brand definition to ensure that it’s staying true to, and not diminishing, that brand.”

When making hiring, expansion and growth decisions, always ask yourself how these choices reflect your brand. Will your decision ultimately point back to the center of your brand identity? Everything in your business, from your staff to your logo, should evoke the same feeling and inspire customer confidence. Periodically revisit the original branding questions you answered about your business and make sure the answers are still in line. Talk to your customers about how your business is perceived in the marketplace. And importantly, involve your staff in the ongoing branding process. Getting personnel on board with your vision is an essential move.

And finally, if an opportunity has the potential to draw your business away from its core competencies or put it in violation of its mission statement, think twice before proceeding. Don’t be waylaid by every seemingly attractive marketing opportunity or new idea.

Active branding can be a difficult process and a road that’s filled with hidden “New Coke” traps. If you find that you’ve strayed from your brand, or taken it to a regrettable place, reassess what you’re doing and steer your business back on course.

Know What Questions to Ask
When defining and maintaining your brand, it’s helpful to consider (and occasionally revisit) the following questions, courtesy of Jeff Paul, director of marketing, VIPAR Heavy Duty:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What are your core values?
  • Do you specialize in a particular service or product offering?
  • What is your company’s mission and what does it stand for?
  • Are you expressing your brand in innovative ways?
  • Do your salespeople reinforce your company’s core values when working externally?
  • Is your brand part of your corporate culture?
  • Does your advertising and creative material reinforce your brand’s defining characteristics?
  • When someone sees your brand name and logo, do they think of your brand characteristics?
  • Are you tying your brand’s image to your company’s mission?
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