The Missing Ingredient in Branding

A Google search of “Branding” will bring you thousands of articles, blogs, websites and references on the topic. Any company looking for growth these days dedicates significant resources and personnel to Branding. In most retail companies, those who are responsible for Branding are the “best and brightest”. They are often the best educated, they have the most internal resources—and the rest of the company looks with envy at their work.
After all, the Brand Managers are given a difficult task: Logo development, Brand Strategy, Equity, Definition, Vision…..and a wide variety of other intangibles. In fact, the Brand itself is nothing more than a “collection of feelings and perceptions about quality, image, lifestyle and status”—David Dolak.
One of our clients, Mast General Store—a 9-store retail chain located in the Southeast US—has revived the old General Store concept and put it back on Main Street in tourist cities like Knoxville, Greenville, SC, Boone and Asheville, NC. Walking into one of their stores is like walking back into time. The floors creak; the woodstove crackles for those sitting in wooden rockers nearby. Eight-ounce coke bottles or Nehi Grape and Orange sodas  have to be opened in the bottle opener that’s in the front of the cooler they are sold from. One key element to their “brand experience” is the candy section. Here you will find candies that were prominent 40 years ago, but seem to have disappeared from the shelves of your local convenience store. In this section of a Mast Store, you’ll often see 2,3 and 4 generations of families going through these candies. The older family members recalling tastes from their childhood and the younger members being introduced to something “new”. Ultimately, families are drawn closer…..and an experience is created anew. The Mast Brand promises “traditions”…..and the experience for the customer is entirely emotional.
One way or the other, great Brands create an emotional experience. Whether it’s your coffee, your running shoes, your bike ride or your candy (at Mast). So, we are reminded that your Brand is your PROMISE to your customer.
Many retailers do a wonderful job of making promises. Ads show the product in use: the user is more fit, sexy, smart or happy. So here’s the equation that Branding is looking to create:
         1. Customer sees Brand depicted in Ad
         2. Customer is attracted to Brand and decides to pursue
         3. Customer finds product and buys it
         4. Customer uses product and enjoys
         5. Customer continues to purchase and use product
         6. Customer tells others, who do the same
What’s missing? It’s that time between the customer finding the product and deciding to purchase. It’s the SALE.
Retailers hire people who work on the sales floor—supposedly, they are experts in the product. Their job is to assist customers to make the right selection from the product line. Depending on your product, there may be quite a bit of education required before a purchase can be made: specialty electronics, bicycles, kayaks, footwear, fashion, or jewelry for example.
What happens when this buying experience is done poorly? The brand “experience” is affected—in fact, some customers will actually chose another brand BECAUSE the sales experience is poor.
Great brands take great pride in the actual buying experience, and work hard to create it perfectly. Nordstrom has certainly been highlighted for superior sales and customer service. The secret is, of course, consistency. Can every associate get it right everytime with every customer?
When companies do not invest in their front-line staff, they run the risk of alienating potential customers and doing significant damage to their brand. The brand message and experience is promised, but not delivered, if the customer is alienated, let down or disappointed by the buying experience. Remember, a Brand is a collection of feelings and emotions—and buying is often based on emotion. A poor interaction between a customer and your sales staff can mean the customer chooses NOT to buy and then never experiences your product—no matter HOW sexy, smart or sophisticated the ad.
What to do? Make sure you select the right people to interact with your customers. Invest in your “front line”. Train them well—not just on product knowledge (this makes up 80% of all retail training today)—but also train your staff to DELIVER your ideal Brand Experience, even during the sale.
Ken Blanchard addresses this issue in the May, 2008 issue of Inc. Magazine. He says,
“It’s interesting to me that the distribution of salaries at most companies gives top managers a huge premium for their supposedly great strategic thinking, while people who deal with customers and operations are paid much less on average. This is not to say that strategy isn’t important. Leadership is about taking your organization somewhere. But the how is as important as the where.
Invest in your Customer. Invest in the people that interact with them every day.

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