Sales are down. Traffic in the showroom has waned. We need to market ourselves better. We need to brand ourselves.
These are comments I hear from showrooms around the country. Unfortunately, branding is one of the most misunderstood concepts in marketing today. Many people, including savvy marketing professionals, associate brand with advertising, marketing, public relations, packaging and logos. All of those activities help to formulate a brand, but by no means are they a brand on their own.
According to Duane Knapp, CEO of Brand Strategy and a seminar leader at the 2008 DPHA Annual Conference, brand is what customers think about your showroom, your products or your agency. Faucets are tangible. They are made in factories, distributed through representative agencies and sold in showrooms. A faucet is not a brand.
Brands result from mental associations that reside in people’s heads. They’re created through ideas, feelings and impressions.
Knapp adds: “A brand represents a value proposition. Consumers choose one brand over another because of this intrinsic value.”
Because brands incorporate the customer’s viewpoint, Knapp says, showrooms that want to positively differentiate themselves must offer a “brand promise.” This should focus on answering three questions: What business is our brand in?
What differentiates our products and services from our competitors, and what is superior about the value we offer our customers?
Branding is the result of a culmination of events that provide a connection between what consumers want and what your products/services promise to deliver. One of the keys to creating effective brands is that the promise offered needs to be relevant, distinctive and easily understood. Think of FedEx: “When it absolutely positively needs to be there overnight.”
American Express: “Don’t leave home without it.” These are more than slogans; they are promises to consumers that differentiate their products and services from the competition.
Many branding authorities stress the need for differentiation, relevance and understanding. Your brand must set you apart from others in the marketplace. That distinction also has to have meaning to those you are looking to attract. It won’t matter if you are distinctive if you don’t have relevance and if the offering isn’t easily understood.
Identifying the message you want to convey requires an understanding of what you bring to the marketplace. You need to determine why customers care about what you offer and what makes it different from competitors. What are your points of differentiation?
Consider the following:
- How do you make emotional attachments with consumers?
- What do customers have in mind when they think of your competitors?
- What brands are most profitable to customers and why?
- What does your brand do that you never have thought of that is relevant to your target market?
- Can you use the same branding tactics as your competition?
The challenge for many businesses in the decorative plumbing and hardware industry is that product differentiation quickly becomes a point of parity. Remember when ceramic disk valves hit the market? They were distinctive. Now they cannot serve as a differentiator.
When Ken Rohl first introduced the pull-out kitchen faucet to the U.S. market, he was told it would never sell because of its higher cost. Rohl had the courage to believe and built one of the most successful businesses in our industry.
The key is knowing what consumers expect, and making the investment that allows you to meet and exceed those expectations.
Your message needs to be promoted and reinforced in the minds of your consumers. “Determine what you do that your competitors don’t,” Knapp says, “and hit that theme hard – again and again. Find the line, the phrase, the image that defines your company.”
Once you establish your brand, it is essential to live the brand every day, says Knapp. If the customer experience contradicts the messages that you are sending or what the brand stands for, the brand will be compromised.
“Brand equity is the totality of the consumer’s perceptions,” says Knapp. “This includes the quality of products and services, the company’s financial performance, customer loyalty and satisfaction. It’s about how consumers, employees and stakeholders feel about a brand.”
Customers can walk into any showroom in the country and find a dazzling array of products, many of which look and feel the same. According to Knapp, the differentiators are the intangible associations with quality that the products represent. Showrooms recognize that customers come to them to learn about products, to find products that are not readily available elsewhere and to talk about their projects with knowledgeable professionals. Otherwise, there is no compelling reason for customers to shop there.
Barry Goldberg from Union Hardware in Washington, DC understands the importance of differentiation. Goldberg tells his customers that a product found at a multi-branch retailer or a big box distributor and the identical product that is sold in his showroom are not one in the same. “It’s not what’s in the box,” he says, explaining that his firm makes emotional connections with its customers through its service and its approach to understanding customer needs.
At Sonia America, we brand our innovative designs by inviting our customers to become part of the design process.
Semiannually, we ask sales professionals from North American showrooms to visit our factory in Spain and evaluate our new products and prototypes in development. The response is overwhelming, especially when a showroom sales professional sees their idea integrated into a new product or mentioned in a catalog or promotional piece.
So, how do you determine what resonates with customers? A simple way is to ask your customers what they like about your products/services/showrooms and what attracts them to competitors. You likely will find that they won’t identify a feature or benefit. Often the responses will cite a series of attributes, such as, “They make it easy to order their products.”
Consider taking the journey that your customer takes. Imagine if you were building a new home and walked into your showroom. What would you expect? Where are the key touch points that make or break your brand? As an exercise, have your employees identify those touch points so you can help identify strengths, shortcomings and brand promises.