There's a lot of talk about a company and its “brand” these days, and lots of money being spent trying to do what people call “branding.”

One recent article pointed out that all marketing, especially advertising, works to enhance or modify brand image. But, what is “brand” in the case of a distributor who carries many “brands”? Is the manufacturer's brand what drives sales, or does the distributor, in fact, have a brand to build?

While quality manufacturer brands help bring business to distributors, the distributor's own brand is probably more important. Unless distributors realize that, and then learn about the true meaning of making manufacturer brands work to support their own brands, there's trouble ahead.

A brand is intangible, just like you are. Who are you? Are you your work? Are you what you eat? Are you what you do? Are you the love you feel for your family?

Just as the definition of “you” includes all of these things, brand is everything around your company. The idea of branding started in the American West, when a rancher branded his cattle with his mark (brand image). Along with being a means of finding cattle that strayed from the herd, that mark was assurance to people who bought his cattle of a specific degree of quality. Some buyers paid more money for specific brands of cattle. So while all cattle ranchers sold cattle, some ranchers obtained a premium for their beef, and it was the brand that identified one head of cattle from another.

The “Lazy Y” might bring a better price per head than the “Circle W.” All the buyer knew is that it wasn't just beef anymore if he bought the Lazy Y — it was confidence in the quality of the beef, assured delivery, and the commitment of the rancher himself. While you could argue about how “complex” the issue of brand is, what the buyer was really buying was the brand — not the beef.

Why brand is everything

Distributors are no different than ranchers when it comes to managing their brands. While you may sell a variety of different manufacturers (beef), it's your name on the door that contractors buy. Your name is their assurance that the products you carry offer quality and reliability, and as much as a manufacturer does to support that in your marketplace, the bulk of brand building lies in your hands. Fortunately or unfortunately, no matter what a manufacturer does to enhance or harm his brand, it's distributors that determine its eventual success. (What would Shell Oil be without gasoline stations, or Kellogg Cereal without food stores?)

If you take apart the entire organization of Coca-Cola Co. and left only its brand name, management could rebuild the company within five years because they have such a powerful “brand.” However, if you remove that brand name, the company would probably die within five years. This is because over the course of the years, “Coca-Cola” has come to stand for everything about the company — the way the soft drink tastes, the way it's delivered, the way it shows up on the retail shelf. It has become something more than caramel water, and the mark placed on the soda contents is the consumers' assurance that what's inside is quality. But consumers buy the product from “distributors” (actually, a dealer distributor network).

That's why when something goes wrong with a product, brands get shaken up. Remember the Tylenol scare many years ago? America could have lost a major brand. Instead, proactive handling of the crisis helped Tylenol overcome the huge negative implications of someone changing the contents of their product.

Are you aware of your brand? If you take away your inventory, computer equipment and personnel and just left your company name, would you be able to rebuild within five years into what you have today? Or, if you removed your name, would your business die within five years? Can customers tell the difference between you and your competition?

A brand is the emotional source of an organization — its very soul. People are guided and inspired by it, and that makes defining it extremely difficult, if not impossible. The only rule in figuring out brand in relationship to your distributorship is this: Beware of concise definitions. There are none because brands, like people, are complex.

A brand generates energy. In your distributorship, it's all of your company's actions — answering the phones, fulfilling orders, advertising, customer service calls, operations practices and employee interactions. Your brand is all that you do and do not do. You help define your brand by “opting out” of specific behaviors. When you decide to do or not do something a specific way, you send a message. That message contributes to the formulation of your brand in customers' minds.

Who are you? Think for a moment about who you are, and how people perceive you as a person. You have a certain image (a wild, crazy guy, perhaps, or a no-nonsense workaholic). Your personality is your brand; people who know you count on you to act in a certain way and to do certain things.

Just as you either know a person or you don't, either you know a brand, or you don't. Everything you think you know about a brand was created through your five senses, and you create what you want people to know about your brand through those same senses. People define themselves through their actions; your company creates its brand reputation through its actions.

Those judgments are made about companies because of behaviors or behavior patterns over time. You truly become what you do or don't do. Customers who know you expect certain behaviors from you, and that becomes your “brand.” Others you don't do business with are unfamiliar with your “brand.” They must learn about you. Therein lies the power of your brand: The more people understand what to expect from your business, the easier it is to do business.

Expectation of a behavior is really what branding is all about. When you deliver what is expected, you contribute to building a “good” brand; when you do not, you contribute to building a “bad” brand. Brands can be good or bad, and they change all the time.

A brand isn't a logo or a letterhead; those are representations of something more than themselves. Take the word “Marlboro.” It conjures up a vision of a cowboy instead of a cigarette — it's a representation of something other than the product. A brand is all of the communications around your company, and more. It's behavior around how you conduct business, and behavior, as you know, is difficult to pin down. But pin it down you must if you are to have a good brand.

Your markets are changing almost daily. To compete successfully, you must create a brand that is recognized, trusted and means quality to your contractor customers. Your customers remain loyal to you not because you carry this or that manufacturer's brands. They buy from you because you behave the way they want, expect and count on. It's the company they buy — not the product. Customers come to you not only for products and services you provide, but for you. With every transaction you make, you create a brand image. You either reinforce your idea of who you are, or you harm it.

To compete successfully, distributors must maintain and reinforce their brands. You must brand yourself each day, and decide who you are and what you want to offer.


The author is president of Accountability Information Management Inc., Palatine, Ill. He can be reached at (847) 358-8558.

THREE STEPS TOWARD SUCCESSFUL BRANDING

Here are three strategies you can use to enhance your brand:

Use project photos

Your customers want to know one thing: Will they be satisfied when doing business with you? Persuade them with photographs. Ask a satisfied end user to take a picture of a building you supplied. Take the photo yourself, if you must. If you can, take another one with you and your customer in front of the building. Then post the photo in your distributorship where others can see. Photos get people talking and help portray happy customers — both those who know you and those who walk through the front door for the first time.

See branding opportunities everywhere

People get into habits easily. Habits are the enemy of innovation, and you must do all you can to challenge your patterns.

Let's look at an example of how one entrepreneur could have done a better job of branding his company. Leaving early in the morning from an airport one day, the lines through security were enormous. There was a coffee shop outside the security area, and the owner sat there watching the endlessly long line move inch-by-inch. It took people 40 to 60 minutes to get through the line to the security screeners. The coffee owner was very disappointed because no one wanted to lose his or her place in line to get coffee.

But he watched potential customer-after-customer move inch-by-inch and missed a golden opportunity to re-position himself in the minds of his customers: Bring the coffee to them. I would wager that people would have paid more for the service of having coffee brought to them while they waited in line. Instead, he sat there, holding his head in his hand, blaming security for his misfortune. There are opportunities for branding yourself everywhere if you only look for them.

Educate your customers

Much of the quality you build into every transaction is hidden from your customers. Your job is to reveal it. I once walked into a non-descript rug store in my town to buy a rug. A man in a suit came up to me, and I told him I was in the market for a throw rug for the front door. He asked me how big a rug I needed and what kind of rug I would like. My ignorance of rugs came immediately through, and he proceeded to give me an education about the rugs he sold. For the next 20 minutes, I felt like I was some guy who came into spend a million dollars on rugs. He had workers come out and spread out rugs I wasn't possibly going to buy. When I said, “You don't have to do that,” he replied, “It's my pleasure, don't worry.”

He knelt down and invited me to kneel and feel the quality of this one as opposed to that one. He weaved stories of where these rugs were made, and how they were made. When he was through, he walked away and let me talk in private with my wife. We bought a much larger rug than we had intended. His education paid off dividends. Your customers need education, too. Do they know the quality of the products you sell? Can you help them with understanding local codes? Whatever you do to train them will pay dividends in the long run.