Even now, after nearly 30 years, I remember the essence of the press advertisement for the American association of Advertising Agencies. Picture it: A mono photograph of a grey-haired senior executive sat behind his oversized desk in his Spartan office peering out on the reader. The headline, if I remember it nearly correctly, read: “I’ve not heard of your company, I don’t know what you make. I’ve never met you before and I didn’t ask you here today. Now what was it you wanted to sell me?”
You can sense the confidence drain away from the unfortunate sales representative on the receiving end of that withering opening address.
And, as the body copy probably went on to say, the rep’s discomfort could easily have been avoided. But not through enhanced training techniques, a slicker presentation or a more mesmerising sales patter. In fact none of the above would have been much help at all in this hypothetical situation. The one element the rep needed in his armoury was something you can’t teach or acquire overnight – a strong brand.
Fast forward from the 1980’s to the present and ironically the term ‘brand’ is both overused and abused. Corporate spokespeople use the term ‘brand’ when they mean ‘company’ or ‘product’ as though the terms are interchangeable. They are not.
A company with writing products that are highly innovative and technically at the cutting edge might well be perceived in branding terms as cold, remote and arrogant in the marketplace.
So let’s clear this up. Of all the definitions of a brand that are out there – and there are many to choose from – I’d suggest the most accessible is this: A brand is a promise consistently delivered. A brand is about a range of values and qualities that your target audience will associate with your company as soon as its name is mentioned. It’s an emotional and sometimes irrational link between you and your public. Without this link your product or service becomes a commodity that will be judged on rational criteria of which the highest profile is price.
Whether you’re trading in a recovery, depression or downright recessionary environment, a strong brand will help. None of this will be a revelation if you align yourself to the marketing fraternity that believes people buy brands, not products. Empirical evidence is there but common sense suggests a strong brand helps companies in pricing negotiations; it aids distribution and provides direction and focus for the company and its employees.
That leads to another key point which is that the best regarded brands have emanated from the very top of the company hierarchy . The CEO or MD should be at the forefront helping to create, nurture and drive a distinctive and engaging brand that resonates with its audiences. Leadership and support from the top is critical.
In the stationery and office products market, our consumer trade and target audiences are no less complex and discerning than those in other sectors. Consider for example the retailers, whether High St or catalogue based, on or offline. Their buyers need to satisfy the breadth of consumer demand with brands that represent the spectrum; price conscious, design-led, technically proficient, the old favourite and perhaps throw in a new on the block to test it out. Job done. Something for everyone.
Well, not exactly. Because upon us now and expressed in both ever-deepening consumer attitudes and consequent far-reaching legislation is the whole issue of sustainability. The more enlightened companies will already have responded to provide a genuinely greener product. And, I’ll wager that it’s the exact same companies that have better established more salient brands.
Back to our writing instrument and its features. Perhaps it is competitively priced, ergonomically designed, made of shatterproof plastic and first to incorporate a heart rate monitor in the barrel. Very impressive. But what is the green impact of manufacturing such a product? No, I’m not asking but there will be Procurement Directors, Facilities Managers, Office Managers, PAs and receptionists all over the place in both private and public sectors who will want to know. And business making or breaking decisions will ride on the answer.
Now back to our progressive CEOs and MDs; if they’ve embraced the concept of branding then satisfying the green agenda will be very much a work in progress. It’ll have to be if they want to turn their strong brand into a strong green brand.