By Bridget McCrea
Concerned about a business slowdown? Why now is the perfect time for electrical distributors to step up to the plate and brand themselves for success right now and into the New Year.
In the first segment of this 2-part series we laid down the groundwork for creating a great brand and emphasized the importance of maintaining this focus in an uncertain economy. Referring to the 2015 tED article 6 Ways to Claim More Market Share in 2015, we also discussed why establishing, honing, and “oozing” an independent brand isn’t always easy for companies that tend to get overshadowed by their suppliers’ own, substantial branding efforts.
In this article, we’ll delve more deeply into the value of brand building in both good and challenging economic times and provide tips on how to kick off (or continue) a solid branding campaign that endures.
Bigger Than Any Marketing Effort
When economic times get tough, marketing is usually one of the first business expenses to fall under the knife. And while marketing and branding aren’t synonymous, the two tend to get equal treatment when sales decline. Unfortunately, this kneejerk reaction to tough economic times often leaves organizations playing “catch up” not only during the tough times, but also once business picks up again.
“General marketing suffers from a stigma as being viewed as only an expense,” says John Dinsmore, assistant professor of marketing at Wright State University’s Raj Soin College of Business in Dayton, Oh. “When people get nervous and when the economic climate gets more challenging, marketing is usually the first thing to get cut.”
And while slicing and dicing marketing budgets may seem like a logical move for a company that wants to reduce expenses and hunker down to ride out the storm, this move can also make it more difficult to compete for the business that you already have, says Dinsmore. “Regardless of the current economic climate,” he says, “your company brand is always going to be what sets it apart in the marketplace.”
For distributors, simply understanding the difference between “brand” and “marketing” is a good step in the right direction. “Marketing may contribute to a brand, but the brand is bigger than any particular marketing effort. The brand is what remains after the marketing has swept through the room,” writes Tronvig Group’s James Heaton in The Difference Between Marketing and Branding. “It’s what sticks in your mind associated with a product, service, or organization—whether or not, at that particular moment, you bought or did not buy.”
The brand is also ultimately what determines whether someone will become a loyal customer…or not. “The marketing may convince you to buy a particular Toyota, and maybe it’s the first foreign car you ever owned,” Heaton points out, “but it is the brand that will determine if you will only buy Toyotas for the rest of your life.”
Creating a Brand that Endures
Becoming a “Toyota” in a competitive business environment—particularly one where customers are tightening up their own purse strings—isn’t always easy, but with the right level of effort, energy, and consistency across the entire organization, it is completely doable.
John Sonnhalter, founder of Sonnhalter, a business-to-business marketing firm in Cleveland, knows the difficulties that independent distributors face in their quest to brand themselves effectively. Still, he says the effort is well worth the time spent, and that it can start with one simple step: establishing a value proposition. In other words, look carefully at what your company does differently in relation to its competitors, and then “really hammer that point (or those points) home,” says Sonnhalter.
In its simplest terms, a value proposition is a positioning statement that explains what benefit you provide and whom, and how you do that uniquely well, according to Forbes’ 4 Steps To Building A Compelling Value Proposition. This statement describes your target buyer, the problem you solve, and why you’re distinctly better than the alternatives.
Now, establishing a value proposition may sound simple enough in theory, but many small to midsized firms either overlook or choose to ignore this step in their quest to sign up as many customers as possible and build their bottom lines. “If you walked into any distributorship and asked five employees—whether they’re working in the warehouse, inside sales, or administration—what their company stands for,” Sonnhalter explains, “you’ll probably get five different answers. That’s not good, and it means that no one is one the same plane when it comes to their company’s value proposition.”
It’s a Step-by-Step Process
When developing a value proposition that supports and aligns with their company’s overall brand, Sonnhalter says distributorships should focus on themselves versus their larger, well-financed competitors (i.e., Grainger and Graybar). “In many cases, distributors are their worst enemies because they don’t think they add value—but they really do,” he says.
“They’re worried about going up against the big boys and they’re not focused on all of the value that they deliver,” Sonnhalter continues, “including being local, possessing decades of expertise, and effectively troubleshooting customer problems.”
To avoid this trap and benefit from good brand building even during times when business isn’t so good, Sonnhalter says distributors need to ask themselves exactly what makes customers come to them versus the “ABC electrical distributor” across town. What do you do differently? Is your customer service better? Do you have more flexible and/or extended hours? Do you offer on-demand delivery to contractor sites? Do you have an app that allows contractors to quickly reorder materials from their mobile phones and a will call that preps the orders for quick pickup?
“Take a hard look at your firm and what’s kept it in business all of these years,” says Sonnhalter, “and then come up with a few value propositions that your entire organization can hammer home whenever they interact with new, existing, and past customers.”
Keep Your Face in Front of Customers
Ultimately, Dinsmore says effective brand building should start at the top of the organization (i.e., managers, owners, leaders) and then work its way right down through every department and individual employee. It should be embedded in every transaction, every job, every phone call, every meeting, and all other interactions that employees have with customers, business partners, and even one another.
“There’s almost no function or interaction that can be taken for granted,” says Dinsmore. The overarching goal should be to promote consistency throughout your entire organization, he notes, and to ensure that your value propositions are effectively communicated and “lived out” by everyone on a daily basis. The distributor that ignores this step—or, that takes its eye off the ball because of poor economic indicators or a slight sales drop—may find itself running to play catch-up.
“Hunkering down isn’t a good strategy. The big boys aren’t doing it; they’re still out there selling stuff and signing up new customers,” Sonnhalter warns. “Electrical distributors have to continue letting contractors and other customers know that they’re there to serve them, and especially if the market starts to soften. They need to keep their faces out there in front of customers, and ensure that all of those buyers are associating specific, value propositions with those faces.”
McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.
Tagged with brand, branding, business, marketing, strategy, tED