The next person who tells me they want to “brand” their business may actually get a hot iron emailed to them. Somebody out there is spreading the ugly rumor that spending gobs of money on branding is worthwhile for contractors. It’s not.
First, branding isn’t bought. It’s earned over a long time, with regular installments of market credibility. It’s actually rented. The public, and their perception, are the brand lords, if you will. They can raise the rent, kick you out, or hail you as the greatest.
Second, it’s a moving target. Even the DMA (Direct Marketing Association) website has nearly 30 definitions of branding, so investing in it is fairly dicey.
Your manufacturer is into branding and “protection of the brand” because they’ve earned it over many years and millions of dollars. Sometimes that protection is well placed; sometimes not.
Every now and then, I’ll speak with a distributor about doing a seminar, and they’ll want to see if the manufacturer might co-op the fee, which is fine. But when I get a call to “make sure that my material doesn’t conflict with the brand”, I feel like they’re referring to some mote-dwelling, ill-tempered monster that feeds on people who might dare forget to curtsy in its presence. Those calls are usually fairly short.
I’m not disrespectful, but there are two issues at stake here. Am I to come speak to a group of business owners who need marketing help to keep their phones ringing at some fiscally sane level…or am I speaking to protect an inanimate, ghostly perception? Sorry, I market to people, for people who have mortgages and payrolls.
Moreover, I also “get it” about the brand. It deserves respect.
American Standard’s name conveys something, Kohler stands for something. In addition, those things, dear readers, are what the brand “is.” If quality slips, or competition beats them up, it is said to be “erosion of the brand.” Wall Street and Main Street both take notes. Cadillac would be an example of one who “had it,” then lost “it,” and is now steadily regaining “it.”
My point is, as a small business, you don’t need to spend money to “brand” yourself. You need to spend money to get phone calls (Direct Response). Then you need to make sure that customer never leaves you (Retention). In addition, to fill in the gaps between those two, fill it with credibility (Publicity marketing) and professionalism (Image advertising).
You also want to pepper in highly repetitious TOMA (Top of Mind Awareness) ads, which are the nearest thing to a branding ad I’ll ever recommend. You want to be known and recognized, away from the pack of pretenders who are copying everyone else.
Within your TOMA campaign, you’d be wise to create a USP (unique selling proposition) with a tagline that gives you a competitive advantage. Recently I interviewed Ron Smith (multi-million dollar contractor and author), who told me his early business was built around a USP that rocketed him past competitors. In every ad, he ran for three years, he proclaimed, “Longer hours at regular service rates.” This differentiation was enough to point hundreds of thousands of dialing fingers toward him. Once his competitors caught on and copied (part of his plan), he changed again.
As you’d imagine, having competitors chase him instantly earned his company the marketplace “brand” of “Leader and innovator.” This further distanced his company from the crowd.
Once you earn legions of customers, and have exposed yourself repeatedly to your market through ads, publicity, trucks, vans, outdoor signage, and the cumulative reputation among your public, then you too have a brand without spending millions.
Yet too many contractors go through their careers not really knowing ‘why’ customers call them instead of others. They just sort of figure it was “this or that,” and I can assure you it’s not random. Discerning and promoting the “choice commonality” can catapult your business forward. Funny thing is, if you don’t know what your “brand” is, your customers do. So merely ask, “What’s the main reason you chose us today?” and you’ll hear the promotional keys to unlocking it for thousands of others.
The worst thing you can be in your market is unknown. People pay more for known than “unknown” does. People would rather have known than unknown in their home. People who have “seen your name” or have “heard of you” also often equate this presence with “quality,” without knowing a thing about your skill. Nevertheless, people can’t call you at all if they don’t know of you.
There are several ways to become known without spending a dime on “branding.” The key is to be the local expert. This can be done by connecting with the local media by sending press kits and media releases. If you’re quoted as an expert in the news, your credibility instantly sky rockets. Every year the media looks for an expert to talk about contracting scams, and air-related health concerns. If you’re the expert they turn to, you will be the known expert in your area.
Don’t limit yourself to traditional media either. You can send your releases to local blogs or even monitor community pages on social sites like Facebook and Twitter. Watch for conversations related to your business. If you’re there when the questions are being asked, you’re probably going to be the one who gets the call.
You can also show off your expertise by participating in speaking engagements. One approach is to extend your expertise to the classroom. Four ways to focus this: 1) To the public (through colleges or continuing education classes), 2) The local technical school (hopefully attracting top talent in the process), 3) Home Shows (inviting the public and the media to attend an informative session) and 4) Open Houses for the same reasons as above, and well, to show off.
These could be a workshop or demonstration on a “home improvement” or “do-it-yourself” topic, such as “Selecting Energy Efficient Appliances” or “How to Save 31%, or More on Your Energy Bill.” One helpful tip for getting an idea of response is to ask people to pre-register – even though you can still accept walk-ins.
An Open House will let prospects and media see day-to-day operations, and reinforce your service mission. It’s also a good idea to give them something they can take home with them – a paperweight or refrigerator magnet, discount coupon or whatever. Just remember, it’s not a time for selling – it’s a time for welcoming. Once they feel welcome, buying follows.
You can even address your community as an expert at chamber events or city meetings, both will post agendas before meetings. Stay in touch with what’s going on so you can step up when there’s a topic in your wheelhouse.
Final bit of advice: If someone tells you, you need to spend money “branding” your company, please run away, or perhaps just ask him or her to define it.