Running a profitable paving and pavement maintenance business is as tough as ever. Competitive pressures, labor challenges, deflationary pricing pressures, and the ever-increasing cost of business operations puts a significant squeeze on the bottom line. There are two paths to higher profitability: Either become the low-cost seller or become a highly differentiated niche player. Avoid the temptation to cut your prices. Instead, learn how to brand your business as a niche player and thereby increase your margins.
Q: What the heck is "branding"?
A: Most people think of the Nike swoosh as a brand, but it's not. It's a logo and one element of your company's communication strategy. A brand is more profound. It's the sum of all the impressions and experiences of your customers – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
All companies have a brand. Whether purposefully created or happenstance, you have a brand, too. For example: How do your employees treat your customers? Are they following your specific philosophies and training, or are they doing as they please? Are your employees friendly? Do they look professional? These are all attributes of your particular brand. Secret No. 1: Your brand exists within the memories of your customers. Secret No. 2: Your employees are accountable for creating most of these memories.
Q: What makes an "effective" brand?
A: An effective brand requires three criteria: It must be unique, it must be desirable, and it must be consistently communicated through all the customer touch points.
Why unique? If your clients can compare apples-to-apples, it opens the door for price shoppers. Consumers are overloaded with information; giving then something unique helps them remember you and makes it easier to choose you. Digital music players are a case in point. All the choices seem the same except for Apple's iPod, which stands out as unique and thus has the highest market share.
Why desirable? Goes without saying, right? Actually this refers to finding a specific niche you can fill. For example, Coke and Pepsi were fighting the cola wars and 7-Up, the "un-cola," filled an overlooked niche.
What is the importance of "consistently communicated"? Since your brand gets defined in your customers' memories, their experiences need to be consistent over time in order to build up a clear reputation in the market place. It's the difference between a lot of loud noise and a choir in perfect harmony. For example, if you pick a company color, you want everything in your company to reflect that color in a consistent manner. This takes discipline and constant monitoring. Secret No. 3: Accomplishing all three criteria leads to successful branding. Identify a unique way to fill a specific need and execute it consistently across all customer touch points.
Q: How can you remove yourself from comparison?
A: As a child I remember going to a grocery store called Stew Leonard's. My father packed up his five kids and set out to buy enough food to last us a month. The store focused on fresh food and carried no canned goods. They claimed to sell more milk than any other store in the nation.
Entering the store, the bottling plant packaging the milk was clearly visible. Large automated puppets – made to look like vegetables and milk containers – sing songs to the kids as they walked down the aisles.
Stew has expanded to three very large superstores and has made it into Fortune's 100 best companies to work for. Stew followed the three branding criteria to a "T." He picked a unique niche: farm fresh goods. He is known for cow's milk and for everything fresh your family needs: meat, fish, bread, and even fresh coffee.
Secret No. 4: Having a specific niche does not mean your business has to be low volume. Stew targets the family experience. Children love the puppets and his petting zoo. And, by focusing on "the customer's always right, no matter what," the adults have an equally good shopping experience. Stew executes his brand consistently and extensively, through newspaper and radio advertising, store layout, highly trained personnel and ease of parking at these mammoth stores.
Q: How can you solve your client's problems with branding?
A: Ten years ago an existing client contacted our firm to work with her architect to design and build their entire front and backyard landscape and swimming pool. She asked us to take care of her permit issues. We normally did not take care of such things but we said yes because as a company, we always try to find a way to say yes to our customers. Secret 5: Find ways to say 'yes' to your clients and they will help you grow.
Subsequently, we figured out how to handle her permits, and now, 10 years later, permitting is part of our standard offerings. In contrast, most competitors tell their clients to get their own permits. We now solve this problem for our client. This makes us easy to do business with, gives us more control over the entire purchasing process, and makes our busy clients relieved and happy when they find out we do this.
Q: How can branding be executed at the grass roots level?
A:Once you have identified your brand's principles, it's time to put the new (or refined) brand in place. Think of your brand as a play and you are its producer. You develop the idea, finance it, and hire the managers and actors. But on opening night it's up to all the theatre employees and actors to perform. Make sure they understand what the story is and what their role is in the play.
It's important not to micro-manage this process – your employees will have some wonderful ideas to improve the execution of the play. Be prepared to get feedback from each and every employee on how their role and the client experience can be improved.
When I ran this meeting at my company my employees told me it was the best meeting they ever had. They each got to better understand what we were trying to achieve as an organization, what each other's role was, and how their personal role fit into the big picture. It was the only time I ever heard my employees ask for a repeat meeting. Make sure you document what is required of each person's part so the play is consistently executed each day. Consistency is the key to building long-term brand equity.
In order to lead an organization that constantly evolves, you have to do the same as a leader. Evolving and changing your brand by 10 percent a year is an essential technique for all companies who want to stay successful. If you are doing something unique and successful, you will be copied. Grocery Entrepreneur Stew Leonard's has done an excellent job of this by listening to his client's suggestions. His clients asked for take-out food. His clients love his breads and now he sells birthday cakes. Stew's is constantly changing.
Q: How can branding be executed through a communication strategy?
A: At the same time as you are meeting with your employees on their roles, make sure you are putting in place a communication strategy. This deals with your company colors, uniforms, service offerings and makeup, letterhead and billing documents, advertising and marketing strategies.
Are you ready to get started but confused about exactly where to begin? Try writing down what your brand stands for, what makes you unique in the marketplace, and what your clients appreciate most about you. Then ask your employees and clients the same questions.
Once you know where you stand, then decide where you want to go. This can take a few days of thought. I recommend a weekend on the beach in Mexico. List out all the customer touch points and what experiences you want the customer to get from each of those points. Then share this information with your staff in group meetings.
Okay, it's easier said than done and it will take more time and iterations, but you get the picture. Start now and dare to be different!!
Jeffrey Scott is a branding expert and professional speaker, as well as a successful contractor. Contact him at JeffreyScott@charter.net or on his cell 203/943-3991.