In a market dominated by baffling, meaningless logos and slogans in varying shades of blue, how should a channel business approach branding itself effectively? The Channel asked an expert and companies that have re-branded themselves whether they really will come once you’ve built your brand.
Do you remember the frenzied corporate activity at the turn of this century, as managers scrambled to create ‘brand temples’ in PowerPoint? The sound of tumbling masonry may only have been virtual as they discovered they had omitted among the supporting pillars one labelled ‘REVENUE’, but the underwhelming results helped to underscore the fact that businesses built during that era were often located on shaky ground. The public outside those walls couldn’t care less about mission statements, brand temples or flash new corporate identities. All they wanted was good service.
For the channel, the problem is of a different order. In New Zealand, IT companies are often small, family-owned businesses struggling to get ahead or to hold their market positions. The need to shift units is so pressing that a company’s brand is often treated as an inconsequential or optional gimmick. But small New Zealand channel partners have to differentiate themselves from the competition in the same way as multinational companies do.
Bruce Carley, Creative Director of Ident:IT, has helped to rebuild a number of IT brands. According to him, the branding IT resellers and partners need to engage in differs only slightly from that developed by other kinds of companies: “IT products and services are just like any other,” said Carley. “They need and deserve to be marketed on their strengths and the skills that the reseller can offer.”
As a starting point, here are The Channel’s tips to think about before refining your brand:
1. Your legal entity and your brand don’t have to be one and the same.
Hewlett-Packard is a company, not a brand; HP is a brand, not a company. Resellers, distributors and the media are often confused by the distinction.
Make sure you are clear about what it is you are marketing: your company or the products it sells. Marketer Seth Godin, author of The Purple Cow, says you can no longer rely on old-fashioned advertising-based techniques to win, but instead have to “cheat”: do business so your prospective customers only think about you when considering whatever niche you’re in. A corollary in a non-IT vein might be “Starbucks = coffee”… although, thankfully, not in New Zealand.
Carley agrees that companies have to continually look at new methods and opportunities. “Guerrilla marketing opens up huge opportunities to do fun, clever things that engage your audience in new ways and, equally importantly, inspire your staff. The best advertising and marketing is the kind where the audience doesn’t even realise they’re being marketed at.”
This is easier said than done, he acknowledged. But the important thing is to try something different; capture your audience’s imagination and endear your company to them. “Own their minds and you own that market,” Carley clarified.
Certain kinds of companies tend to do a better job of branding themselves than others. Businesses that have been around for a while have often accumulated the kind of “cultural memory” that allows them to assess how fluid and fickle the market can be. Such companies are better at branding because they know they have to place themselves above whatever product or service they happen to be selling today. “Newer businesses can also do a good job of branding if they have already taken the decision to position themselves as a marketing business,” said Carley. “By this I mean that, in the same way as any motivational consultant will say, ‘All staff are in sales,’ good management will know that their business is all about marketing what they do — the sales will follow.”
2. You can afford to be visually brave and playful.
Your logo is just a visual representation of your brand. Your brand name will appear in editorial and be used in non-visual advertising.
Your brand name is just the catch-all word or emblem for your brand. The brand covers the values you present to existing and prospective clients. The logo becomes your visual link with those values; something that should spark an “I want to do business with these guys” feeling among your customers. Good salespeople will tell you that their job is all about relationships, rather than about the product or service they sell. “A brand recognises, embodies and reinforces those relationships,” said Carley.
There’s nothing wrong, either, with being playful with your brand if it creates the desired effect. Online services company and systems integrator Provoke is a good example of a company that is creative about exposing its brand and carries over its provocative approach to customer offerings, which include what it calls “experience design”. The company’s logo features a spider, but each employee gets to choose the animal featured on his or her business card. The innovative approach to design and functionality showcased on Provoke’s website has no doubt influenced organisations such as Fly Buys and the Ministry of Transport, for which it has designed and built websites and intranets.
Your brand should shout what you do from the rooftops — better still, show customers what you do; if not necessarily how you do it.
3. Don’t incorporate ICT stereotypes in your logo.
Technology changes so fast that to include the latest gizmo in your logo is an invitation to embarrass yourself in the future.
Five years from now, the type of business you do is likely to have changed drastically. In the last 10 years IT has become so commoditised that many vendors have bypassed their resellers with direct sales models. The surviving IT businesses are primarily the ones that have shifted to a service-based model, adding value above and beyond the physical product.
Resellers with funds to reinvest should look at the industry and think about how they can grow their business with this change in mind. Moving to larger premises and hiring more staff won’t grow your business if your market is drying up as a result of technology change or shifts in vendor strategy. You need to offer a service that customers can’t find elsewhere. In the short term, this will lead to resellers relying more and more on fewer and fewer customers, but cementing these relationships will help you to expand your business. Carley cites services company Axon as an example of this kind of pragmatism.
4. Your brand is all you can really call your own.
Your brand is your differentiator. An instantly recognisable, well thought-out name and logo make your job easier because customers already have a level of trust and expectation.
You need to “live” your brand and make it synonymous with what you do, explained Carley — “Use it, thrash it, develop it. Don’t treat it as just another bit of PoS material or a vendor promo that doesn’t really matter and that will be gone next quarter. Remember that it’s what sets you apart from your competitors. Without it you’re nothing special.”
A brand is what a business does and is, therefore, synonymous with it. Your name and logo must form the basis of all marketing material from stationery, signage and mailers to websites and advertising. These cannot simply be tacked on to what you already have, nor should you resign yourself to them being supplied to you by a vendor. It must be noted, however, that some vendors will only stump up marketing development funds if you use the global campaign they have developed — and that may be completely inappropriate to your business. If your logo is simply tagged on to this collateral, it’s important for it to be instantly recognisable to your customers.
Broader pitfalls of tagging inappropriate images onto your brand have been described by blogger and author of Get Back In The Box, Douglas Rushkoff. US internet advertising for a brand of hamburger showed Paris Hilton washing a car in a bikini while eating a burger. “It should surprise no one,” commented Rushkoff, “that boys can be counted on to admire a half-naked Paris Hilton, whether or not they ever buy a burger.” Associating your IT brand with car racing imagery might be appropriate or complementary to what your company does if high speed is an indisputable feature of your product suite. Otherwise, you do so at your peril.
5. Don’t expect the media to treat your name as a logo.
Almost as counterproductive as dismissing your brand as “just the logo you stick on your Christmas gifts” is being overly pedantic about how it is used.
Many companies make the mistake of demanding that newspaper publishers and magazine editors reproduce their company’s name as if it were synonymous with their logo, including any ‘wacky’ capitalisation or punctuation marks they might have decided on. Or they are adamant that their product name should always be printed with ® or ™ next to it. Make no mistake: unless you are paying for it, editorial is not advertising. Some vendors are happy to see the first published use of their trademarked word appended with the appropriate symbol and for other instances to be treated as a normal word with their specified capitalisation, but ultimately it will come down to publishers’ style guides as to whether such wishes are respected. These guides have been designed to prevent the pages of the publication from descending into a chaotic mix of upper and lower case characters.
Carley doesn’t think companies are wrong to care about the way their brand is treated by the media; perhaps just a bit confused about the difference between editorial and advertising. “Where the company name and brand name are the same, this can become quite a problem. I could cite examples from all parts of the preciousness spectrum.”
In the case of internally produced marketing collateral, said Carley, where channel partners have been issued with a branding standards manual by a vendor that makes payment of its marketing development funds contingent on compliance, resellers have to comply with standards if they expect to be paid.
A further pitfall is that many vendors are strict on branding compliance for eligibility but contradict themselves in their documentation — and even on their own websites. If the guidelines are unclear, find documented, published examples to ensure you are at least following the trends.