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Brand: Building It, Keeping It

In the category of marketing intangibles, there is surely no concept more intangible than brand. Wikipedia says “in marketing, a brand is a set of feelings toward a producer”. Even so, brand is surely one of the most misunderstood tools in the marketers kitbag. For many, brand is what they say about themselves to the marketplace, as if repeatedly telling the market that you are one thing will make them believe that. You might as well repeat over and over again that a horse is a fish, hoping that people will believe you.

Brand is what people believe about your company or product. It may be good, or bad. Either is brand. It may be concrete or immeasurable. Again, either is brand. Most assuredly, however, it is not what you say about your product, but rather what people feel about your product.

Consequently, brand building is hard. It requires focused discipline on a core set of features, principles, or values, and the reinforcement of the same to your customers. Think of the Avis brand, as an example: “we try harder”. If your entire organization doesn’t eat, live and breathe “we try harder”, then it’s relatively easy destroy that brand in the minds of your customers.

I’ve had several opportunities over the last few months to witness both brand building and brand destruction “up close, and personal”.

A few weeks ago, we went through one of the spring rituals at our house — starting up the inground sprinkler. Last fall we had an “invisible fence” dog containment system installed, and the installer had cut the control wires for the sprinkler in the process. He recommended we have the sprinkler system company (Nutri-Lawn) repair it, because they would have the necessary equipment to locate the break, and he didn’t. He surmised it would be inexpensive, and told us he would cover the cost. Well, to make a long story short, the repair turned out to be expensive, and Nutri-Lawn didn’t give me an estimate. They just did the repair. I went to the Nutri-Lawn owner, who agreed that an estimate should have been given, and cut the price to a point where he still made some money on the repair, and the dog fence installer would be more comfortable paying the bill.

I’ll do business with Nutri-Lawn again. They were responsive, listened to my concerns, and addressed them. That’s the brand that they are building.

I had the exact opposite experience at Sears. Keep in mind that the Sears brand, for generations, has stood for dependable quality appliances, and excellent service. Certainly that was our conviction. When Janice and I got married we purchased a second hand Sears washer and dryer. When those two appliances finally bit the dust they were 25 years old. We were so happy with them that we bought a Sears refrigerator, and a new Sears washer and dryer for a rental property we have. We’ve bought Sears vacuum cleaners as well. And when the original washer and dryer died, we bought the top of the line front loading washer and dryer from Sears to replace them.

The only problem is that Sears isn’t living up to their brand anymore. Three years and a couple of months (just out of warranty) into owning the washer, the door gasket needed to be replaced. It was a $300 repair, and nobody at Sears was willing to acknowledge that it shouldn’t have broken down so quickly. Just recently, we had a vacuum cleaner repaired at the local shop in Barrhaven. The repairman told us he couldn’t replace the wheel that had gone missing because “Sears doesn’t give us access to all their parts anymore. They want you to bring the appliance to their repair shop”. And, in talking with many other friends recently, they’ve all recounted the same kinds of stories.

Like many of the people I spoke with, it’s unlikely I will ever buy a Sears product again, based on the experiences I’ve had recently with them.

It’s easy to see what Sears is doing. They’re trying to compete against the big box movers — the Future Shops of the world. But, in the mind of the customer (this one included) Future Shop owns the brand for low price, and Sears owns the brand for Service. Moreover, Sears hasn’t dropped their prices. But they have cut back on service, because their margins are under pressure from the cost cutters.

Sears is killing their brand. The brand that took them generations to build.

That’s a lesson for all marketers. Building brand requires that every employee live and breath that brand for the customer. Brand is hard to build, but it will keep customers coming back over and over again, as we did for many years. Betray the trust that brand implies, however, and your customers will leave.

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  • Jim Courtney June 18, 2006, 6:01 pm

    Brand is built around the long standing Tom Peters adage (from In Search of Excellence): "Perception is all there really is."