People look like their dogs. I say this based on my non-scientific sample of fellow pet owners I have met while walking through Oz Park in Chicago with my own (handsome) dog, Kelsey. My informal assessment is supported by researchers at the University of California at San Diego. Dog owners, the researchers theorize, pick pooches that reflect the owner’s disposition–happy, moody, tough, etc.
What does this have to do with marketing? Well, marketers should foster the same type of match between their brands and channels as pet owners do between themselves and their dogs. If your company’s brand stands for “productivity,” that’s what your channel should deliver. If you promote your “inventiveness,” your channels should be similarly creative. If your company is known for its “high style,” your customers expect to see that cutting edge image when they meet your resellers.
While this might seem intuitive, I am amazed by how few companies take proactive steps to ensure that their channels reflect the brand image the manufacturer is trying to present. In our brand implementation work with clients, Frank Lynn & Associates uses a detailed checklist to review all of the potential “touch points” between customers and the brand. While advertising, Web sites, product literature, and other media clearly play a role, the channel is frequently the most influential brand communicator on the list.
One of our industrial clients is working hard to promote a brand image that stresses cost-cutting and efficiency (by promoting the use of its products in six-sigma manufacturing processes). The client has educated its salespeople, enlisted industry consultants, created an online knowledge base, etc. Unfortunately, most of the client’s distributors are primarily “order-takers.” The distributors’ salespeople do not know how, and are not motivated, to make a consultative, engineering sale. Having visited our client’s Web site, or hearing our client’s CEO speak, a customer would be significantly confused when they visit one of the distributors.
The situation reminds me of the (possibly apocryphal) meeting between Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe gushed, “Gosh what do you say, professor, shouldn’t we marry and have a little baby together? What a baby it would be–my looks and your intelligence!” Einstein then quipped, “Yes, but dear lady, it might be the other way around.”
Fearing such a result, our industrial client is taking steps to rectify the situation.
Before we get into the steps that any manufacturer can take to align brand and channel messages, we first need a sidebar on the issue of channel power. When I bring up the issue of brand/channel alignment, many clients complain they do not have the power to compel their channel partners to behave in a certain way. Sure, if you are John Deere, Lexus, Coca-Cola, or IBM you carry some clout in the channel relationship. But, even these companies cannot command adherence to a brand strategy. And, at the other extreme, manufacturers of tertiary products, those who might represent less than 1-2 percent of their partners’ business, sometimes feel powerless.
I do not believe the situation is as problematic as some companies might believe. We have developed a significant list of tactics that can help. While each tactic might not apply to your company, or a tertiary-product company, I am convinced there is something for everyone in our list.
Before pursuing any of these tactics, companies need to make sure they have a powerful brand message. Without going into much detail here, we tell clients to think about brands using an approach we call UCC–unique, compelling, and credible.
With such a brand position in place, companies can create a strong brand/channel alignment by adopting some combination of the following tactics:
1. Channel Selection. Perhaps the most powerful tactic to deploy is making brand alignment one of the criteria you use to select channel partners in the first place. If, however, you are already stuck with channel partners that do not exactly fit the brand message, then add even a few new partners that do fit, and promote them as a model. Competitiveness and guilt are wonderful motivators to the existing partners.
2. Company-Owned Channels. While we do not generally advocate that manufacturers open up their own dealerships or distributors (especially in competition with existing channel partners), this tactic is sometimes necessary. When IBM launched the first PC, they opened up IBM Product Centers, in no small part to demonstrate to new, independent dealers what a retail facility should look like. Sony, Nike, Viacom, and other companies have opened up their own dealerships for similar reasons. Some of our clients have even opened up company-owned channels, on a temporary basis, to get across their brand message–then turned around and sold the business to an independent dealer who understood the value of the brand.
3. Activity-Based Compensation. You may already know that Frank Lynn & Associates strongly advocates activity- or functional-based compensation, in general. You can tie some portion of the channel’s discount/rebate to performing activities that relate to brand alignment, e.g., training salespeople, using your promotional materials, or any of the other tactics in this list.
4. Store-within-a-Store If you sell through a retail channel, consider the store-within-a-store concept to bring a bit of your brand directly into the retailer. Perfume companies pay their own reps to work behind the counters at department stores. HP and Microsoft teamed up to create unique display areas within retailers, where customers could gain hands-on experience with products in a variety of applications. Industrial products manufacturer, Parker Hannifin, has established several hundred ParkerStores at its distributors. Kodak has placed thousands of its photo kiosks in retail locations.
5. Point-of-Sale. If a store-within-store or even a kiosk seems a bit overwhelming, do not underestimate the power of basic point-of-sale materials. These may be small displays that surround your product, stand-alone racks, or simply hand-out materials. Regardless, they bring your message directly to the customer. They can also serve as training (see below) for channel salespeople. Make sure to coordinate with channel partners since each has its own perspective of what fits (and what does not).
6. Channel Training. Partners may not reflect your brand message due to a lack of employee skills. Or, perhaps your message never filtered down to the individual sales or technical people that “touch” the customer. You can roll out a separate course just on branding and marketing your product, or you can combine it with product training. If you are on a budget, try webinars or CD/DVDs.
7. Champions. If training does not get you far enough, consider building channel champions. These are channel employees that, for whatever reason, are, or could be, boosters of your brand. Maybe, they have had a good experience using or selling your brand. Maybe they are just really into your technology or style. Maybe they have a good relationship with your channel account manager. Whatever the reason, find these people and treat them right. Their enthusiasm for your brand can be infectious. This strategy works particularly well for manufacturers of tertiary brands. Maybe you cannot get the attention of your partner’s CEO, but the category manager or individual sales rep might care.
8. Marketing and Sales Tools. Aligning manufacturers and channel brands requires repetition. You need to communicate your brand position to and through the channel on a frequent basis. One means of accomplishing this is by providing channel partners with tools that they can use over and over. (Proposal boilerplate, partner portal with product, ordering, technical information, sales checklist, product configurator, planogram, or FAQs on your website) While these tools are not conventional brand media, each of these tools can slowly, but surely, shape the way your channel partners act and communicate with customers.
9. Account Plans. Partners often do not fully appreciate the strategic thinking behind your brand message. If so, I can guarantee that they do not appreciate the benefit of the various tactics I have described above. To help partners grasp your brand strategy, the importance of your tactical plans, and the financial impact on their business, you need to instigate an annual planning process with your partners. The plan, preferably developed by the channel’s principal or senior executive, should squarely address the issue of brand alignment. Channel principals/executives, especially in smaller firms, do not have anyone with whom they can discuss strategy. Your account manager becomes their business consultant. The plan should outline how you and the partner will achieve joint sales and profit targets. As such, it should cover all the activities that relate to brand alignment – training, promotion, advertising, customer targets, employee training, etc.
In a world of increasing commoditization, manufacturers must create and reinforce brand messages that trumpet their differentiation. Channels are arguably the most important media for communicating with customers. However, customers simply do not want to buy from manufacturers and channels that are not in agreement about fundamental premises and promises. The good news is that you have a wide variety of tools and tactics to bring channels into alignment with your brand message.