Direct Selling: Personality Included
Brand is king in the realm of securing customers and creating loyalty, which can save your bottom line in this down economy. Brand goes far beyond logos and taglines—it lies within your customer’s perception of your product or service. Whether you are aware of it or managing it, every point of contact with the customer defines and reinforces your brand—from the way you answer the phones, to the appearance and manner of your sales force, to the cover of your catalog and the landing page of your Web site.
Your brand personality is how customers perceive you, for better or worse. It is just as important for B-to-B companies to manage that perception as it is for direct-to-consumer companies. In fact, it’s critical. A differentiated brand helps you stand out in an environment where often you are selling the same products and services as your competitors.
Over the years, many B-to-B marketers have gotten away with selling on great product and service alone, without truly managing the brand experience. How well does your company manage its brand? Do your customers’ perceptions match the personality you want them to see? How well do you manage these perceptions? Before you answer these questions, consider the following, and then grade yourself.
1. Remember you are selling to people, not businesses. In fact, instead of B-to-B, you should think of it as B-to-P (people). The invoice may be paid by a business account or company credit card, but a person makes the decision to buy from you. And while he isn’t buying for himself, he has motivations to consider. Who is he, how does he work and who does he answer to? One common mistake is not knowing who the individual is. Develop a profile of that person, and market directly to him. Use photography and benefit-oriented copy that answers the question, “What’s in it for me?” A company that sells tools for the human resources director should learn to speak directly to that position by telling him how the product offering makes the end user’s job easier.
2. Are you really any different? What do you own that no one else does? Trying to differentiate on a “cost-of-entry” benefit like service or 24-hour shipping is a very common (and costly) mistake. The customer expects it rather than viewing it as an added benefit, and your competitor easily could claim it as well. You must find the benefit to the customer that only you provide. Your “one thing” must be relevant to your customer as well as unique to your company. This calls for a deep understanding of who the competition is and what matters to “your people.”
3. Do you and your customers speak the same language? Use their words, not your own. Avoid sounding clinical or becoming too feature-oriented, and instead work on building a rapport. You may call it a “Part-12B,” but if your customers call it a speakerphone, you should refer to it as such. Pay attention to what customers say on the phone, on message boards, in testimonials and to your sales force. If your Web site has a search function, find out what the most commonly searched keywords are. Use your findings to develop a vocabulary, and use it in your communications on paper, on the phone and in person where possible. Remember, your customers are telling you what’s important and meaningful to them—you just have to listen.
4. What is the emotional takeaway that your customer receives when doing business with your brand? This is referred to as your “higher order benefit.” Do you make life simpler like Staples does, because “that was easy?” Staples sells the same products as OfficeMax and Office Depot, but it has carved a standout niche that’s important to its customers. The Staples brand reinforces the “easy” benefit by putting a user’s most frequently ordered products right on the landing page (after login). Nextel has translated its “push to talk” technology into a benefit of more efficient and productive employees, which is certainly pertinent to its target audience of small business owners.
5. Consider every point of contact an opportunity to reinforce your brand message. Make sure that your one-of-a-kind positioning carries through your direct mail, e-mails, confirmation letters or faxes. Take a look at the touchpoints that aren’t as obvious, like the appearance and staging of your box shipment and your hold music. In the best case scenario, the combination of your product photography, copy voice and design are so consistent that if your logo or masthead were obscured, someone familiar with your company could still recognize you as the sender.
6. Look for a way to deliver your message that is both special and relevant to the individual placing an order. Does it make sense to have a consistent spokesperson or cartoon delivering the message, making your brand not just a commodity, but a persona?
New Pig is a B-to-B company that sells industrial products, primarily slip-resistant floor mats, to factories. Its product is a commodity, certainly not an exciting or unique one. However, New Pig made its brand persona special and recognizable through a cartoon “spokespig” that appears throughout the Web site and catalog (which is titled “Pigalog”).
Holiday Inn Express courts business travelers in a clever and striking way though its “Stay Smart” campaign. Its smile-inducing commercials nearly always end with the line, “No, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night!” In truth, nearly all hotels that market to the business traveler offer the same thing: comfortable rooms, free breakfast and reasonable rates. But Holiday Inn Express found a way to deliver that message in a memorable and appealing way.
Defining and refining your brand is not optional; it’s a necessity. B-to-B companies that do not maintain the brand experience will not survive this new era of economics. Your brand should be constantly re-evaluated to make sure the message is consistent and suitable to your audience. Don’t just review it at the yearly planning meeting and forget it for the rest of the year. Always remember customers are individuals with real lives, dealing with daily challenges in the workforce. A well-rounded brand message should be targeted to the individual and communicated across all channels; otherwise you are leaving it up to the customer to decide your brand—without input from you.