Branding: Is the hype worth the buzz?

Branding is the business buzz word. In fact, for some firms it has taken precedence over strategic planning as being the anchor point of how to make decisions, plan and act. But why all the attention to something many think of simply as a logo? And why should a roofing company invest time and money branding itself?

A lesson or two

The best way to begin to understand branding might be to define the term "brand." Interestingly, it isn't defined universally.

In Kellogg on Branding, Tim Calkins, clinical associate professor of marketing and co-academic director of the branding program at Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, defines a brand as "the psycho-cultural associations linked to a name, mark or symbol associated with a product or service."

Recently, I heard someone say: "Paris Hilton is desperately trying to change her brand." From Calkins' perspective, Hilton is a product, and anyone who knows of her certainly has made some kind of mental association with her—whether good or bad. And that's the first lesson: A brand can be positive, negative or anywhere in between.

Another lesson is consumers can have completely different associations linked to the same product, and each association can be a valid interpretation of the brand.

For example, you might associate Hilton with glamour, beauty and sophistication, and I might associate her with being spoiled, reckless or a bad influence. Remember: A brand is any association a consumer links to a name, mark or symbol connected to a product or service.

A third—and important—lesson is you can shape your company's brand if you know which attributes you want associated with the brand and how the brand currently is perceived and establish a plan for bridging gaps that exist between the two.

By understanding how a brand works, you can begin to define your company's brand to strengthen its position in the marketplace.

Gathering information

So can a brand be good and bad?

Every business has a cadre of satisfied and unsatisfied customers (though the former should significantly outnumber the latter). Think about two customers your business has served; consider one who was pleased with the work you performed and one who couldn't wait until you were off his property forever.

Based on these customers' interactions with your company, their perceptions of your brand likely would be completely divergent. The challenge is to try to identify these perceptions in your market and manage their variance to ensure a consistent experience among all your current, past and, importantly, potential customers. Keep in mind, capturing and analyzing data in your market will take time.

Putting together a survey for customer feedback and lost business and then implementing a process to organize the information you obtain is a relatively easy first step. The challenge is to administer the surveys in a way that gives you usable information.

It is difficult to obtain information from those in your market who you consider potential customers, but the information can shed light on what it is you need to do to stand out as the roofing company to hire. There are many marketing consulting firms that can help you understand how best to perform this kind of research. Consider firms that understand the difference between statistically valid data and anecdotal data. Both are important types of information, but they have different uses when it comes time to make decisions about your company's future advertising and promotional efforts.

Establish a vision

Once you have done the legwork required to understand how your company is perceived in the marketplace, what do you do with that information?

First, identify how you want your company to be seen by others. This is where strategic planning and branding overlap. Typically, a strategic plan begins with a vision statement. This usually describes where or what you want your business to be. A vision statement is not a logo, tag line or product; it is meant to provide guidance as to where your company is going.

Your brand is the associations consumers make about your company and can be viewed as a litmus test as to how well your company is doing.

For example, assume your vision is to be the slate roofing company of choice for homeowners in Anytown, USA. If, upon doing some research, you discover residential owners in Anytown view your company as sloppy because your trucks are battered and your employees look unkempt, you're not likely to attract high-end customers. The associations made by people about your trucks and employees likely would run counter to the perceptions they have about a company that installs a prestigious residential product such as slate.

Performing research in this situation would be valuable because it would uncover the negative perceptions, allowing you to clean up your company's trucks and employees easily. You could implement a plan to have your fleet turned over and uniforms for everyone in 18 months, for example. This can help solidify your vision and prepare you to properly brand your company.

Determining how you want to be seen and how you are being seen is vital to understanding how to create customer advantage for your company. (Other key marketing facets, including competition, the market and price, need to be addressed, as well, but are outside the scope of this article.)

Strong and weak brands

Once you establish your vision and brand, you need to build your brand's strength.

A weak brand is one that results in confusion or disagreement within market segments regarding what the brand is. A strong brand is one that is homogeneous in consumers' minds; when they think of the company, their associations are similar across the board. You might assume having strong brand recognition translates to success. However, this is not necessarily the case.

For example, Enron Creditors Recovery Corp., formerly Enron Corp., is universally considered a bad company. This wasn't always the case; there was a time when the company's brand invoked a promising future and a solid energy investment. Following a fraud scandal and the company's 2001 bankruptcy, its positive image was ruined. Regardless, the Enron brand still is strong because the associations made about it are universal.

Assuming you're not dealing with an Enron-level reputation, the question then becomes: How well are you leveraging your company's brand to help you sell your services? If you're not aware of your brand, you need to pay closer attention. Not having a grasp on your company's brand means you aren't doing all you can to strengthen your company's customer advantage.

Customer advantage occurs when your customers recognize the value your company provides, are willing to pay you for it and consider you the best in your field. So if your brand builds customer advantage, it can have tremendous value—or not, depending on the case. (See "Brand and perception" on page 38 for more information.)

A good question to ask is: How am I different from my competitors? The marketing term for this is "differentiation." Once you've identified how you want to differentiate your company, you need to exploit the differences throughout your business so everyone is aware of them.

Unfortunately, many roofing contractors believe the only way to compete is by price. These contractors often are not clearly differentiating their companies from others in the market. Unless you are the low-cost provider, price is not what you want to be competing against.

However, if you position your company as the low-cost provider, the products and services you sell should reflect that market position. For example, your approach could be geared toward bulk purchasing, efficient/fast installation and no-frills service. If your company is not set up this way and you try to compete with the low-cost provider, you'll likely only waste time and money.

Maintain consistency

Once you have chosen your position, designing your brand becomes about looking at every aspect of what you do so the experiences of all your customers tie back to that brand.

For example, a low-cost provider wouldn't use Mercedes-Benz trucks even if it were possible to get them for the same price as Chevy trucks because this would create confusion about the company's brand. If you're the low-cost provider, you would want to associate yourself with practical, hard-working vehicles instead of luxury vehicles.

It's important you realize everything you do reflects on your company's brand. It's no easy task to manage a brand, but it's easier when you've clearly identified what you want your company to be and consistently maintain that identity throughout every purchase, decision and job.

"My company—and other roofing contracting companies—is branded, and the brand can change with every touch-point," says Reid Ribble, president of The Ribble Group, Kaukauna, Wis. "The brand we try to develop and, as consistently as we can, enforce, is one of a fair-priced, high-quality, service-oriented company. I am sure this is not too different from many other service providers. What frustrates me is my loss of control of the brand because I am only one small part of it.

"Every employee affects the brand with everything they do at or away from work," Ribble continues. "Each time one of us interacts with customers, friends or just those we meet on the street, we leave an impression. We shape our brand. My hope is the impressions my employees and I leave are positive ones."

Maintaining consistency of your company's brand means making sure everyone in your company is aware of the company's identity. Consider how, in my earlier example, employees' unkempt appearance spoke to the community about the company. How these employees approach customers at job sites and how they work and interact also would affect their company's brand in a major way. And the company's receptionist would affect the brand, as well. Everyone needs to know, feel and believe in the company's brand to build customer advantage.

So, how do you know if you're leveraging your brand to its fullest potential? At best, you probably have to guess. However, measure what you can. Ask your customers about their experiences, and talk to your employees about their perceptions. Follow up in any way you can to see what is working, and try something new if there are gaps between how your company's brand currently is perceived and the way you want it to be perceived.

A symbol

Although your company's brand isn't the same as its logo, it is a symbol—or a collection of symbols—that represents consumers' attitudes and beliefs about your company. These symbols can be people, icons or names. If these symbols provide a set of associations many consumers share, your brand is strong—hopefully in a positive way if the branding is done correctly.

If associations about your company are scattered or negative, understanding how you want your company to be identified and developing a plan to bridge these scattered associations to a common positive reputation is a step in the right direction.

The branding buzz merits the attention of every roofing professional. Instead of wringing your hands about whether you should have lowered your price to get a job or fretting because you did get a job and wondering how you'll make any money, you could spend your energy selling your company's value and reputation. After all, your reputation is what counts when it comes to whether someone hires you. And your reputation is your brand!

Thomas R. Shanahan, CAE, is NRCA's associate executive director of education and risk management.

Brand and perception

The following was excerpted with permission from Kellogg on Branding's introduction, "The Challenge of Branding," by Tim Calkins.

Brands have a remarkable ability to impact the way people view products. Consumers rarely just see a product or service; they see the product together with the brand. As a result, how they perceive the product is shaped by the brand.

Perceptions, of course, matter most—how people perceive something matters far more than the absolute truth. The question generally isn't which product or service is best; the question is which product or service people think is best. Is Dom Perignon the best champagne in the world? Does Tiffany sell the finest diamonds in the world? Perhaps so, perhaps not; however, many people think so, and perceptions matter most.

The presence of a well-known brand will dramatically affecthow people view a product or service. If people see a premium brand name on a product, they will likely view the item as high quality, exclusive, and expensive. If people see a discount name on a product, they will probably perceive the item to be low quality and cheap.

Brands function like prisms [see Figure]; how people regard a branded product is shaped both by the actual product, such as specific features and attributes, and by the brand. The brand can elevate or diminish the product.

To demonstrate the power of a brand to shape expectations, I conducted a simple study with MBA students. I first asked a group of students what they would expect to pay for a pair of good-quality, 18-karat-gold earrings with two 0.3-carat diamonds. I asked a second group of students how much they would pay for the same earrings, only this time I added the words "From Tiffany." I asked a third group the same question, but his time changed "From Tiffany" to "From Wal-Mart."

The results were striking. The average price for the unbranded earrings was $550. With Tiffany branding, the average price increased to $873, a jump of almost 60 percent. This increase was solely due to the addition of the Tiffany brand. With the Wal-Mart branding, the price expectation fell to just $81, a decline of 85 percent from the unbranded earrings and a decline of 91 percent for the Tiffany-branded earrings.

The study highlights the power of the brand to shape perception. "Good quality," for example, means something entirely different when it comes from Tiffany rather than from Wal-Mart. In addition, the experience of wearing earrings from Tiffany is different from the experience of wearing earrings from Wal-Mart. The distinction between the brands is not just conspicuous consumption; you can't tell a Tiffany earring from a Wal-Mart earring from a distance.



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