Why this branding thing is driving me crazy

Branding, schmanding. The next person who tells me they want to their plumbing business may actually get a hot iron e-mailed to them. Somebody out there is spreading the ugly rumor that spending gobs of money on branding is worthwhile for contractors. It's not. First of all, branding isn't bought. It's earned over a long period of time with regular installments of market credibility. It's actually

Branding, schmanding.

The next person who tells me they want to “brand” their plumbing business may actually get a hot iron e-mailed to them. Somebody out there is spreading the ugly rumor that spending gobs of money on branding is worthwhile for contractors. It's not.

First of all, branding isn't bought. It's earned over a long period of time with regular installments of market credibility. It's actually kind of rented. The public and their perception are the “brandlords,” if you will. They can raise the rent, kick you out or hail you as the greatest. It's pretty fickle stuff.

Secondly, it's a moving target. Even the Direct Marketing Association Website has nearly 30 definitions of branding, so investing in it is fairly dicey.

Your manufacturer is into branding and “protection of the brand” because they've earned it over many years and millions of dollars. Sometimes that protection is well placed and sometimes it's not.

Every now and then, I'll speak with a distributor about doing a seminar, and they'll want to see if the manufacturer might co-op the fee, which is fine. But when I get a call to “make sure that my material doesn't conflict with the brand,” I feel like they're referring to some moat-dwelling, ill-tempered monster that feeds on people who might dare forget to curtsy in its presence. Those calls are usually fairly short.

I'm not disrespectful, but there are two issues at stake here. Am I speaking to a group of business owner/plumbing dealers who need marketing help to keep their phones ringing at some fiscally sane level, or am I speaking to protect an inanimate ghostly perception? Sorry, I market to people, for people who have mortgages and payrolls.

And I also “get it” about the brand. It deserves respect.

American Standard's name conveys something, and Kohler stands for something. And those things, dear readers, are what the brand “is.” If quality slips or competition beats them up, it is said to be “erosion of the brand.” Wall Street and Main Street both take notes. Cadillac would be an example of one who “had it,” then lost “it” and is now steadily regaining “it.”

And if I use the word “it” in quotation marks one more time in this column, I deserve to be branded in some non-public place, which might start a new trend in body art.

My point is that, as a small business, you don't need to spend money to “brand” yourself, for crying out loud. You need to spend money to get phone calls (direct response). Then you need to make sure those customers never leave you (retention). And to fill in the gaps between those two, fill it with credibility (publicity marketing) and professionalism (image advertising).

You also want to pepper in highly repetitious TOMA, or top of mind awareness ads, which are the nearest thing to a branding ad I'll ever recommend. You want to be known and recognized, away from the pack of pretenders who are copying everyone else.

Within your TOMA campaign, you'd be wise to create a unique selling proposition, or USP, in a tagline that gives you a competitive advantage. I recently interviewed Ron Smith (multi-million dollar contractor and author) who told me his early business was built around a USP that rocketed him past competitors. In every ad he ran for three years, he proclaimed, “Longer hours at regular service rates.” This differentiation was enough to point hundreds of thousands of dialing fingers toward him. Once his competitors caught on and copied (part of his plan), he changed again.

As you'd imagine, having competitors chase him instantly earned his company the marketplace “brand” of “leader and innovator.” This further distanced his company from the crowd.

Once you earn legions of customers and have exposed yourself repeatedly to your market through ads, publicity, trucks, vans, outdoor signage and the cumulative reputation among your public, you too then have a brand. Yes, you can have a brand without millions spent or the silliness in pursuit of the largely ungraspable.

Yet too many plumbing professionals go through their careers not really knowing why customers call them instead of others. They just sort of figure it was “this or that,” and I can assure you it's not random. Discerning and promoting the “choice commonality” can catapult your business forward. The funny thing is that if you don't know what your “brand” is, your customers do. So merely ask, “What's the main reason you chose us today?” and you'll hear the promotional keys to unlocking it for thousands of others.

The worst thing you can be in your market is unknown. People pay more for known than “unknown.” People would rather have known than unknown in their home. People who have “seen your name” or have “heard of you” also often equate this presence with “quality” without knowing a thing about your skill. But people can't call you at all if they don't know of you.

Final bit of advice: If someone tells you that you need to spend money “branding” your company, please run away, or perhaps just ask them to define it.

Adams Hudson is president of Hudson Ink, a leading contractor marketing firm. You can get his newsletter “Contractor Sales & Marketing Insider” by faxing your letterhead with the request to 1-334-262-1115 or emailing to [email protected]. Also visit www.hudsonink.com or call 800/489-9099 for more.

Taco announces price increase

CRANSTON, R.I. — Taco Inc. has announced a price increase for its residential product lines, effective Feb. 18.

Residential products, including circulators, valves, air separators, electronic controls and hydronic accessories, will increase by 5-6%.

Taco manufactures residential and commercial products for use in hydronic systems worldwide. Additional information is available at www.taco-hvac.com.

TAGS: Marketing