Your Brand: Creating Space

Brand Differentiation. It’s what we as business people talk about and try to achieve. However in any given market space there are a hand full of businesses that most consumers, much to our chagrin, see us as homogenous brands with interchangeable logos.  So the question becomes how do we separate our brands and create space between us and the peloton of competition behind us. Let me illustrate with this anecdote.

As a marketing manager I am called upon by sales representative by printing companies wanting to talk to me about their printing capabilities and why I should use their service over the other printers in town.  Over the years, I heard countless sales pitches that sounded as if they shared a script.  Each had a Heidelberg high-speed press that printed 11 million dots per inch, and my customer’s advertising pieces would look life-like.

Finally one day I was having lunch with a pleasant young woman who pulled out her beautiful folder filled with a plethora of sales brochures and samples, all of which could have come from any of the previous printers that I had met.  She then began to layout the reasons I should give her a shot. I stopped her dead in her tracks. I said “let me guess, you have Heidelberg high-speed equipment and can turn my jobs around in 14 minutes, right?” “And they’ll all look so beautiful that I will receive marriage proposals from my customers” I added.  She didn’t know what to say so she said “yes!”

That’s when I told her “look (salesperson’s name) I get this from all of you. You all have similar equipment, some of you can do personalized 1:1 direct mail and all of you promise excellent customer service, but do you even know what I want out of a printer,” and it was as if a light went off… and she began asking questions.  Now, she really didn’t know WHAT to ask me, since all she had ever been shown was how to “pitch,” but that’s for another story, place and time.

So back to the question, how do brands create real differentiation or “space” in the minds of their audience?  Let me let YOU in on a little secret the advertising world has known for a long, long time….YOU SHOW THEM…YOU TELL THEM…YOU PROVE IT TO THEM! Three things you need to keep in mind when it comes to creating an image or “brand”:

  1. Know who you really are as a brand, what your competitive advantage is and who you are targeting. For example, if you carry high-end, expensive products, you better know that the your clients are going to be expecting performance. So ALL of your advertising, promoting, sales, operations, and even your company vans, better back up that image. If your strategy is to be a low-cost supplier, don’t try to brand yourself as the Cadillac of the industry. Buyers are smart and will figure you out, and your brand will be tarnished.
  2. If you are not actively creating this brand using electronic and traditional media, you passively allow your brand to be molded by the actions of your employees and information shared among peers in your market.  Case in point: a) what position does the Rolex brand have in your mind? b) how did it get there? Thank you.
  3. Once you get the opportunity, you better deliver. If your brand expectations are high, every phone call should be greeted with smiles, pleases and thank you’s. Your products better deliver on your promises, as should your service levels. And when there is a problem (and they will occur, this we all know), they better be handled promptly and with the customer in mind, not our bottom-line.
  4. Don’t be afraid to share!  The knowledge base within your organization is an untapped source of gold for setting your company apart from the competition.  Thought Leadership has been a strategy for years, since the explosion of blogs and video libraries like YouTube.  Imagine a company that regularly helped customers think through their problems before they became problems and didn’t even charge them!  Now I’m not suggesting you give away trade secrets or patented processes, but there are a wealth of topics that you could expound upon, create value in the minds of your prospects and when the time comes for your product or service, guess who’s positioned right where you wanted to be?

On a personal level, some people are very good at branding themselves and creating space between themselves and the rest of the pack, just ask someone like Donald Trump.  Like him or not, you know exactly who he is, he backs it up honestly and he even has a trademark logo. Do you know what it is? (think…hair)  But when it comes to business, business leaders often forget it works the same way in their own markets.

Now, a discussion about brand separation, differentiation or space could go on for days, but I have reviewed the key elements, I’ve listed above. Actively telling people who you are helps to create your “brand” or “image” or “position.”  Backing it up with the appropriate level of product and service will reinforce the brand you have proactively built.

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What is “Thought Leadership” and What Does it Mean to My Brand?

I first heard the term “Thought Leadership” about four years ago from my friend and online mentor, Paul Barron.  Paul has been establishing “Thought Leadership” far longer than most of us has been on the web.  Paul was one of the first bloggers on the internet, blog about the food industry.

I remember him telling me “it’s not about selling on the internet, everyone’s doing that.”  His strategy was instead of telling everyone how smart he was and what he could do, he proved it by sharing information that would help the reader do something better, become more efficient and effective. It seemed odd to me at first, that by simply sharing some thoughts or links one could establish such a position in the marketplace.  But it works! Assuming of course that you actually KNOW something about which you speak, or write or shoot on video.

If you look around the web today, there is no shortage of people and their “how-to’s”, “to-do’s” and “whereto’s.”  They’re realized that by sharing knowledge people will take favor with what they have to say.  The goal of course being that when the time comes, you get the opportunity.  I can tell you unequivocally it has worked for me.  Most of my new clients come from call-ins as I’m simply too busy to make outbound sales calls any longer. And I haven’t called and asked for business from anyone for probably two years!  Just two months ago, about an hour after one of my monthly emails went out I got a call from the owner of a dealership in a major market exclaiming “it’s time for me to do this.” And we were off and running!

He had been seeing my marketing materials, the posts I’ve written here, on my website, perhaps through my Twitter account or through industry groups I belong to via LinkedIn. And when the time came for him to take action and begin proactively market his business, I was one that came to mind. But what is a person to share? Doesn’t it go against the grain of sharing our knowledge base with potential competitors?

I would never suggest revealing trade secrets or other proprietary information in mass media. But there are many ways to help your customers and prospects run their businesses better by simply sharing knowledge that you and your competitors already know, but no one is discussing, right? In the industry I serve (material handling) there are tons of things to share like;

  • How to inspect brakes, when should they be replaced?
  • How to perform proper service?
  • The difference between OEM, reman.,and aftermarket parts.
  • What proper safety training looks like.

There are many, many topics you could think of on your own by soliciting the advice of the pros within your business, namely your department managers and ask “what could we share that would provide benefit, without tipping our hat to any proprietary processes or information we possess?” The answers might astound you. Where and how to share, though?

I like blogs just like this! You can organize your entries and categorize them, tag them and tweet them using your Twitter account. Then by linking your blog back to your website your organic search ranking will improve as now you have an inbound link to your website that’s full of valuable and recent content matching the content of your website, or complementing it.

Share your information on LinkedIn by joining some of the groups that your customers and prospect belong to and start conversations of your own within the group.  Answer pertinent questions within these groups, and begin to show those in the group that you are out there on the leading edge of being a “go to” resource to improve their businesses.

Social Media, email campaigns, your website and direct mail are all great vehicles to spread your knowledge around. By working them all together you build a web of constantly changing and growing information to help your customers and prospects. All of which will eventually lead them to one conclusion, when the next need arises, you have to be one of the calls they make.

Oh and as for Paul Barron? Well you can Google him to find that he IS the face of Fast Casual restaurants, just published his book “The Chipotle Effect” and has nearly 75,000 followers on Twitter, of which I am one!

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Back to the Basics

I read a good article a few days ago which explained why you will always need a good website and that chasing the Social Media hounds is something to avoid. While I feel that Social Media is here to stay, there is something to be said for maintaining your course and and not losing sight of the things that brought your business to this point.

Then I reflected on my nearly thirty years in the business world and began reminiscing about the many sales forces and management teams I’d worked on and thought of the many times we were taken “back to the basics.” For many of you reading this, you will remember the sales training days of old when sales training got so esoteric, you wondered if we were in sales training or in medical school training to be a psychologist. I mean remember the diagrams and “quandrant graphics” showing where different types of buyers stood and how we were supposed to analyze them then place each buyer in a neatly defined area only to learn we had mis-diagnosed them and forgot that we were supposed to be dealing with building relationships?

Many of you just chuckled because you remember scratching your head and saying “Who is this guy and what the hell is he talking about, I have a family to feed and I’m supposed to play Dr. Phil?” Yeah, THAT training. The all-day, multi-day snooze-fest, accompanied by a hard-cover three ring binder full of all kinds of useful information that immediately went on our bookshelf in our office to show everyone that we understood the “essence of selling.” As my favorite Sunday Football pre-game show hosts might say “C’mon Man!”

Then one day while working in the printing industry we got yet another announcement we would be attending a two-day workshop put on by the 3M Company (always great stuff from them) entitled “Back to the Basics.”  Yeah, how to shake a hand, look someone in the eye, and lie your ass off.  No, just kidding. But really are your shoes shined? Is your car clean? Do you know what you’re doing today? Is your week planned? Or, are you gun slinging it through your work week? Yeah, THOSE basics.  Refreshing it was and we learned quickly that before you can run off an play psychologist in your sales function, you better have a really firm grasp of the basics of selling, or you might as well hand a machine gun to a monkey(VIDEO).

Fast forward to 2011. You’ve built your website. Maybe you have a plan for it. Or, maybe it’s your corporate catalog. Perhaps someone is feverishly trying to get traction with your company Facebook page, Twitter account, Corporate blog, Linkedin Company Page, YouTube Account, eMail Campaigns and all the many wonderful marketing tools available to us, which by the way grow by leaps an bounds on a regular basis.  Now know this. I am a fan of Social Media and I believe it is a great way to COMMUNICATE with your audience.  Not sell to them, but COMMUNICATE. And I won’t hijack my own post by going down the road of Social Media use explanations (there are at least 375,689 guru’s, experts and swami’s that have already done so on the web).

My point is, as we all venture down these new lovely paths and learn to use new marketing and selling tools, are we making sure our business fundamentals with regards to marketing and selling, are sound? Are we regularly working with, providing tools to, and training to our sales force? Is everyone in our company who has interactions with our customers and prospects well trained to do so? Do our processes serve us, or our customers? How easy is it to do business with us? All these simple things that either put you on the map, or took your competition off of it.  Let me ask you this, have you ever called a company and when an actual human with a pleasant demeanor answers the phone, do you ever find yourself having an internal sigh of relief? Yeah, THOSE little things…

Good selling!

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What You Can Do With Those Call Reports!

Call reports, the bane of every salesperson’s existence.  How do I know this? I have been subjected to them!  Now, before you put up your defenses, cross your arms, and become disgusted with me because you require them, ask yourself this: are these call reports producing R.O.I. to pay for the time used to complete them? In my twenty-seven plus years of management, sales, sales management and marketing management, I frankly have NEVER seen an example of where these time suckers have paid for themselves.

I of course submit this caveat: I do know there are exceptions to EVERY rule.  If you are one of those companies that has instituted a rigorous sales call report program, monitors it for results and measure the R.O.I., then my hat is off to you!  However, it generally goes like this: the sales force generally uses productivity time on Monday morning or Friday afternoon to do their best to recall the week’s events, put them on paper, and turn them in to the Sales Manager.  Then, by July, the Sales Manager usually has seven feet of reports stacked on the desk, thus sending a clear message to the sales force that these are a useless waste of their time. I know one former principal of a large dealership, who in his early years, wrote “sleeping with (the bosses name) wife” during the afternoon on one of his reports.  He waited and waited for the Sales Manager to say something to him, like “nice.”  However, he said nothing, and my friend actually approached him to point it out, exploiting the weakness in their system.

If you hire educated, motivated individuals and provide them proper training and ongoing guidance, there is no need for a daily or weekly call report. You won’t need to babysit them to be sure they’re not playing golf or having sex with your spouse in the afternoon.  Their results will paint a portrait of their efforts.  Now, that said, how does  a Sales Manager ensure they are staying focused?  We all know that salespeople (myself included) have a tendency to be perhaps, just a smidge, A.D.D.  So as a business owner, you want to be sure they are calling on the RIGHT prospects, correct?  In steps the “Top Prospect List.”

This list was introduced to me some twenty years ago by probably the best Sales Manager I have ever worked for, and we still are connected today on LinkedIn.  His name is Eric Leaman, and when he introduced this “Top Prospect List” to me, I was actually thrilled to have it.  It worked like this: I knew that every Friday at 2pm, Eric and I would have a phone call (he worked in N.J. and I was in Kentucky).  At that time, I knew he would have my previous week’s “Top Prospect List” out on his desk and I better have mine as well, and it better be updated (Eric didn’t take excuses). We would review my activities with these accounts during the week, including phone calls, personal sales calls, literature, samples, how I felt about the account, and what our next steps with the account would be.  If I felt it was worth keeping them on the list, then we would retain them.  However, if I felt nothing was going to happen in six months or so, we would agree to remove it and replace it with a new target prospect.  This process kept me focused on a narrow target of activities for the week and ensured to Eric that I was indeed working the types of clients that was congruent with the company’s direction.

This process is integrated into many CRM modules these days, and if used wisely, it can make a big difference in the direction of your sales force.Lets face it, that is really what you are interested in any way, right? However, if you are a small dealership that has not or will not be using a CRM platform with sales management modules and functions, then you can download a copy of the same form I used back in 1992, except now, it’s electronic!  No more pencils and erasers!

You can download a free copy of this Top Prospect List HERE from my website.  You can expand it to be Top 50 or contract it to be a Top 5, depending on the size and scope of the products you sell.  But I can attest that through my years of selling and call reporting, this little gem is the ONLY ONE I found truly useful to help me increase the sales in my territory.  And as Eric always closed his communications to me…

Good Selling!

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Altering Your Logo and Brand

Starbucks is changing it’s logo much as Nike did in the 90’s when it dropped their company name “Nike” from the logo, relying simply upon the “swoosh” as their brand image.

The changing of brand logos is hotly debated in marketing and advertising circles as some companies have successfully altered their brand and others have struggled with attempts, and lost ground.  But why is Starbucks doing this?  And further what effects might it have on their “branding” efforts with those not familiar with the Starbucks mermaid.

The power of branding comes from a consistent and methodical exposure of your prospective customer base to your company name and logo, hence the term “branding,” like a calf, get it?  If you truly want to brand, you have to commit just as companies like Nike and Starbucks have, to investing in the branding process.  Now what the branding process looks like depends on your customer and prospect base, what media they expose themselves to and the size of your budget.  But too often companies think a couple of post cards a year are effective enough to “burn-in” their brand image, that’s primarily because we as executives are exposed to our brand image everyday, so we begin to project our opinion on our brand, onto our prospective customer base.  Bad idea.

Consider that you have perhaps six to 10 competitors doing much of the same things you are to create “position” by burning in your brand image.  Now combine that with the hundreds of other products and brands your customers and prospects are exposed to daily and you can see that your brand is going to be forgotten pretty quickly.

The concept of changing brand images is nothing new, and sometimes it is necessary.  Often times logos and brand images become outdated and need to be updated to reflect corporate strategy changes, cultural shifts and recent design concepts.

But abrupt, dramatic shifts can be dangerous to brands with a  very well established brand and can often confuse a market and cause your products to fade into the clutter that is the background.  Instead, brands are often encouraged to make small changes over a period of time, often a few years until the brand is changed.  As an example, look at the old Aunt Jemima logo that we grew up with and contrast it with the new logo that changed in 1989 after public pressure about the “mammy looking” logo began to unsettle customers.

Whether or not Starbucks change of logo has a long-term effect on the company’s sales remains to be seen.  But one thing for sure, it has a lot of ad-men, and women talking and debating the intelligence of the move.  And underscores the importance of actively promoting your brand, keeping it consistent, and protecting it for future goodwill.

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Digital and Traditional Marketing Coexist

I’ve been saying it for years, now Google has provided a study which confirms it, savvy marketers are not a “one trick pony.”

While B2B companies continue to invest in digital media such as adwords, email and website, the astute marketers are also retaining traditional methods as well like trade shows, publication advertising and yes, direct mail.

The reason is pretty simple, your mix must be multi-channel to be certain you’re reaching the maximum number of targets.  For example, looking at your email statistics you will see that a 20% open rate (which is good) leaves 80% of your audience out of the loop.  How will you attempt to reach these targets with your messages?  Direct mail and other forms of direct response can help you shore up those you’re missing.

Make sure your messages, brands and strategies are consistent along the marketing continuum for creating the best awareness of your brand and company.  But be sure you’re reaching out with as many channels as makes sense for your market, your budget and your brand(s).

Read the full story HERE.

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How Are You Saying “Thanks” To Your Customers This Holiday Season

It’s the time of the year when we’re reminded it’s time to say thank you to our customers and wish them a “Happy Holiday and Prosperous New Year.”  But with technological advances and the speed at which we’re working, are we still keeping it personal?

I’ve worked with, and for, companies that send these nifty little email greeting cards. Cute, but personal?  I don’t think so.  I send personal cards, signed by me, not imprinted with my company name, to each of my clients.  Sure it takes time, but to me it’s worth every minute invested.

We live in an era where customers are forced to press a series of buttons to place an order or leave a message, when customer satisfaction is determined by a survey and email seems to be the order of the day. I think this is a great time for each of your sales reps to take the time to personally sign, address and add a personal note to each holiday card could be a nice touch.

And if you’re sending gift baskets or the like, be sure that your reps or company representatives are delivering them personally, if it is at all possible.  I realize you may have clients out of your delivery zone. But then, even some of those might deserve a trip to personally visit, and hand them their gift.  Trust me, clients appreciate the extra effort of getting out to see them in remote areas.

Oh, and just in case, you may want to consider Holiday Cards for professional use.  Merry Christmas could be an offense to customers that say, are Jewish or engage in a religion that does not recognize Christmas.  So keep it personal and keep it neutral.  But be sure to take the time to formally say it….Thank YOU!

Oh, and have a Happy Holiday and prosperous New Year to each of YOU.

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The Power of Blogging

I meet with customers who regularly ask me “why should I blog, why would anyone care?” In a media with literally millions of blogs, most of which having no substantive value or contributing to the improvement of an industry, it’s easy to see why many have this attitude.

However, pick the right target, make it interesting, have a strategy, and you can build an excellent base of readers, which will include regular customers and prospects.  Here’s an example.  In late 2007 just as the recession was gaining momentum, I noticed that all we heard on mainstream media was the negative, and the superlatives they would use for dramatic effect, I believed, could have a very negative impact on consumer confidence.  So I turned off mainstream and looked to reliable sources via the web for my news.  What I found was on any given day, around our country, there still were positive things going on in our economy.  There were industries flourishing, companies hiring, new products being introduced, and companies expanding.  Armed with a few good resources (Reuters, Yahoo & the NY Times primarily) I purchased the domain, set up a blog like this one here at WordPress, and re-broadcast my blog at the above address.

Niche the topic!  I looked for positive stories from our economy and simply pasted links to them with a short editorial (usually no more than a few sentences) that highlighted the topic.  This is called news “scraping” and is completely legal as long as you provide a link to the publisher’s page and don’t copy/paste the article on your site.  In fact, they enjoy the benefit of increased traffic to their site when someone clicks over to read the entire story.

I built categories for different segments of the news and made sure I tagged each entry appropriately, using “positive economic news” copy and tags as often as I could.  Within a few months when searching for positive economic news using any major search engine my site was slowly but steadily creeping up the page rankings, and since about January ’09 if you search for “positive economic news” OR several other combinations of these terms, my little blog has a #1 worldwide ranking for these terms.  Yes, my blog beats out NYT, Money, WSJ, Economist and all the others because I focused on one thing, and built a great library of entries related to…positive economic news.

I could go on for days about the personal benefits I’ve had since the blog reached this ranking but a few of the highlights included being interviewed by Smart Money magazine and, my blog, through the readers raised enough money to send 13 under privileged kids on their 8th grade field trip to Washington DC, that otherwise would not have been able to go, and the local press made a great story of it!

I have also had several customers and prospects link to the site so they can help spread the positive news to their customers and prospects.  Like I said, the benefits go on, but these are certainly a few of the highlights of my efforts.  In addition, I’ve heard from hundreds of folks thanking me for my efforts, some saying that because of my blog they were able to remain calm, knowing that in the end we’d be ok and their retirement accounts would come back…low and behold, our markets have returned…Not that I’m a financial genius or the like, but history has showed us, even through the depression, that we come back.

Blog communities like WordPress, Blogger and others are powerful communities that are highly indexed by search engines like Google and Yahoo.  The reason is simple, it’s usually more up-to-date and current that most traditional websites.  And that is a major component of search engine algorithms.

So as you can see, blogs can gain a lot of attention and hold a lot of power for you, your brand and your company.  Remember a few of these tips:

  1. Keep the content focused – You can have multiple people making entries, but be sure they’re all focusing on the same topic. For most of my customers I recommend a blog about safety (forklift and/or workplace), service “how to’s” and “don’t do’s”, Industry specialists targeting a narrow facet of materials handling…
  2. Scrape valuable content.  Look for related stories, summarize, and provide links to the content on your blog.
  3. Be sure the topic you’re targeting gets used in your entries.  If you’re talking forklift safety in Kentucky, be sure you’re using those words regularly, but don’t overdo it.
  4. Tag – Use tags so the content can be easily identified by web robots scouring the blogosphere.
  5. Use RSS to allow people to subscribe to your page. When you update, they’re automatically notified.
  6. Get a twitter account and tweet out your latest post.

It takes time, but as you can see, if you narrow your target and be patient, you too can have a blog garnering a lot of attention.  And attention is the first stage to awareness, which is the first step to conversion to sales.

Good selling!

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Using Direct Mail To Boost Online Traffic

It’s nice to get an echo every now and then and this week Marketing Profs provided a loud and clear support for using direct mail to boost your online traffic.

Direct mail costs more to send however I’ve always submitted you can not be a “one trick pony” meaning you must use alternating media to create awareness.  Not everyone will be reached using email campaigns, SEO, social media etc… And direct mail is a great alternative to build brand identity to those outside the “e-stream.”

In addition, with belt buckles tightening there is less competition for attention with direct mail, meaning your piece is more likely to get through to the decision maker.  The article gives some good tips and strategy for direct mail, so I’ll let them speak to it.

I will say I like post cards and “quick hit” types of direct mail.  You have only a few seconds to get attention before the piece either gets deep sixed or placed on the desk for further investigation.  So be sure the front has your brand, and/or an offer and a good argument for listening on the front.  Then point to a good reason to turn the card over and continue on the back.

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It All Started With An Add On Craigslist

Some time ago I posted my experience with Downtown Ford in Louisville, and how their superior customer service and downright friendly atmosphere has made me a customer for life, barring a turn for the worst.  Well I’m here to continue the saga that again, started with me finding one of their used vehicles on Craigslist.

The Mustang that I purchased there last year was nearly totalled (no fault of my wife) and Downtown Ford worked like a friend to see us through the process and delivered a car back to us that you literally couldn’t tell had a scratch on it previously. Considering the accident did $15,000 damage, that’s quite a feat.  Now the saga continues

Same car, same wife, this time though…..her bad.  Fender bender, not nearly as bad as the first.  So when Allstate asked where I was taking the car for repair there wasn’t a doubt in my mind where the Mustang was going for repair.  One call to Fran in shop at Downtown Ford and she said she’d have a rental waiting for me, and when I arrived guess what?  I was in and out in about 10 minutes!  Now not that I’m a hurry up type of guy, but that’s pretty damned impressive!

So here’s the deal…many of us market our businesses and try to create separation from our competition by saying things like “superior customer service” but as I’ve said many times, in several posts, marketing goes far beyond the advertising materials and sales people to include everyone in your company that has contact with the customer. What is your company’s plan to ensure that every employee, every day, understands that each experience with each customer needs to be like it’s the first one, and treat that customer like you want to keep them for life, because as I can attest, there are many people that when they find a vendor that they feel treats them fairly, is expedient in their dealings and knows what they’re doing, there’s no reason to go anywhere else.

To summarize, from a FREE ad Downtown Ford placed on Craigslist they’ve generated a customer that not only sings their praises here and other places, but has generated some $60,000 in revenue.  Never underestimate the media available to your business and never underestimate the abilities of your employees…cultivate it, nurture it, and demand it, and it will pay off…

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