Shawn Cordner 04/17/18
It’s Channel Partners time in Las Vegas again and I got lucky enough to be asked to do a presentation on The Transformational Power of a Compelling Brand. Honestly, not my best delivery, but I think the content was right on point for partners struggling with how to stay relevant in an industry that’s changed so fast it’s barely recognizable if you weren’t paying attention.
If you couldn’t attend but are considering a branding or rebranding project, read on. If you were there and just wanted the deck, here you go.
Slide 1 – Forget the Branches, get to the Root.
This is a quote from Henry David Thoreau and of course the original refers to “evil” and not “branding”, but I thought poignantly illustrated how I feel that partners in the channel approach their brands.
Slide 2 – Change is Happening Now
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that our industry has undergone lot of change over the past several years. New technology has exploded on the scene and it has undermined the legacy technology that we sell and the the business models that partners used to sell it. With new technology and evolving business models, the decades-old lines of competition have been redrawn. Where a telecom agent in the past wouldn’t expect to face competition from someone selling servers, today MSPs have added many traditional telecom services to their portfolios. And vice versa. Competition is coming from many new angles. And, customers are driving a lot of change. They are more educated than ever, and have applications more complex than ever, and there are even new line of business buyers in the mix. Partners have had to redefine who they are, what they do, and the value they offer. It’s a scary time for many and an existential crisis for some.
Slide 3 – Bring it Back to the Beginning
You may have risen to this challenge but the question is, do your customers and the market know you for who you were or who you are now? That’s what brings us back to the quote earlier. A lot of what I see from partners in terms of their marketing is that they do a lot of tactical things that they read about online or learned about in some marketing kit they bought, but have never gone back and taken a strategic look at their brand and what it conveys. They never get to the root of the issue when it comes to their brand. Well, here’s the root of the issue.
Slide 4 – The Root of the Issue
I’ve been in the channel almost 19 years and had the good fortune to have worked with many, many partners of all different shapes and sizes, and business models. And the two things that they all have in common are:
a) that they have many things in common with their competition, and one or two things that make them really, really special.
and b) that they do a good job of promoting the things they do that are common with their competitors, but not a very good job explaining what they do that is special in their marketing.
On the bright side, partners understand more and more the important role that marketing, and specifically branding, can play in their business and ability to successfully enter new markets and new opportunities driven by new technology and they are endeavoring to update their branding. That’s progress, but our goal today is to impart you with enough information that when you embark on your branding project you get it right and build a brand that will set you apart and endure change over time.
Slide 5 – What Makes You Different? Are You Sure About That?
Because right now, differentiation isn’t happening in the channel. A key part of the problem is that many partners have built their brand around the features and benefits of the products and technologies that they sell or the vendors they represent.
That means two things.
Chances are, you and most of the competition in your market have aligned your brand with the same vendors and the same technologies, and you all look alike to a customer. Here’s a hard reality. Odds are, the things that you think make you different are the same things that your competitors think makes them different, and you most likely have all built your brands on the same “differentiators”.
And that as they enter new lines of business or as technology evolves or new technologies come to market, they will always need to make adjustments. That’s why we’re finding ourselves in this position where so many partners need to rebrand to deal with the evolving industry.
Don’t believe me?
Slide 6 – The Data Tells the Story
Our client AVANT recently spearheaded the Cloud Channel Survey in which they surveyed a statistically significant sample of representative partners and asked them about their business. In this question, survey participants were asked to select the differentiators of their business. They could select all that applied. In these results, we can see just how much overlap there is.
Almost everyone thinks that their pre-sales consulting, or their broad portfolio, or “WHITE GLOVE SERVICE” are what makes them different. In fact, a large percentage of partners, no matter what type they are, share any given differentiator in common with, at minimum, nearly half of their competitors.
I would argue that only one of these options could possibly have been a their true differentiator, and it’s the second least frequently selected. That’s “Unique IP”.
Maybe it’s your process, or your specialization, or your technology, or your approach, but there’s something that you do differently and better than everyone else and that’s the foundation on which your brand should be built.
Slide 7 – Common Mistakes
But that’s not what’s happening, as you can see from the chart. In fact, I recently explained all of this to someone influential in the channel who later told me that he was dubious at first, but that after doing some primary research of his own, agreed.
Another common mistake we see is partners that think they can approach their marketing, whether in house or through an agency, with the same cookie-cutter formula of strategies, tactics, marketing mix and design. So now, you have a brand that looks like all of the others, using the same messaging and positioning as most of their competition in the same marketing channels with an execution that looks and feels the same as everyone else.
And, that usually leads to a stiff and emotionless execution that focuses so much on specs and savings, and technical jargon.
It’s no wonder that most buyers today have been overwhelmed by the white noise in the market.
Slide 8 – How to Build a Better Brand?
So how can partners establish a brand that will endure changes and establish their value proposition that can differentiate them from the many other competitors that offer similar solutions? First we should define what exactly is a brand.
Slide 9 – What is a Brand? Part 1
Your brand is a philosophy deeply rooted in your business’s strategy and culture. It’s the difference between you and your competitors that makes a difference to your customers. It’s even more than that, it’s the essence of the value that you deliver to your customers. And it’s the spirit in which you do it. It’s the signal through the noise that you send to the marketplace.
Slide 10 – What is a brand? Part 2
Over the years I’ve had a lot of partners come to me looking for help with their brand, but overwhelmingly what they mean is they want a new logo, or website or social media management.
Branding isn’t transactional, it’s your philosophy getting executed consistently across your marketing mix and the customer user experience. You can’t just check boxes. You have to clearly, concisely, and consistently communicate your value in ways that will authentically resonate with your target audience.
Slide 11 – Let’s Get Tactical
Ok, that’s your brand at the 30,000 ft level. If you can view your brand through that lens and take that strategic approach in your branding project, you’ll come out of the process with a much better outcome. Let’s talk about the tactical side of your brand. These are the elements of your brand that underlie the way your brand is presented to the market.
Slide 12 – Brand Promise
The essence of your business, the spark that makes you, you… that’s your brand promise. It’s the foundation that your brand should be built on. The rest of your brand’s attributes should cascade from your brand promise. The decisions you make in your marketing and even in your operations should all reinforce your brand promise, because in an ideal world your brand promise is also the first thought and feeling that your customer has when you come to mind. BMW’s brand promise is to be the ultimate driving machine. Everything they do from their philosophy, to their design, to their engineering is in the pursuit of delivering on that promise on that promise.
Slide 13 – Brand Values
Your brand values are the code of ethics that should drive all of the decisions and interactions that impact customers. Your brand value is the substrate on which your brand promise is delivered. Intentionally designing a set of core values for your organization is critical to getting everyone working toward the shared vision that is your brand promise. It’s how you establish a culture that is primed and ready to deliver your brand promise all day, every day. For example, online shoe retailer Zappos built a brand on the promise that they would deliver unparalleled support to their online shoppers. They established a framework that their customer service associates use to guide their decision making and customer interaction with the stated goal of making customer satisfaction of paramount importance, and then they empowered their reps to do what it takes to deliver. It’s a simple thing, what will it take to make this customer happy? Is it within my power to give it to them? Then do it.
Slide 14 – Brand Voice
Your brand’s voice is the personification of its promise, values, and culture expressed through your marketing mix. It’s how you communicate those things to the market. At its most tactical level, it’s a writing style including the tone, the specific words you use, the way you structure sentences, and the attitude that you says things with. A good exercise for establishing and writing though your brand’s voice is to think: if my brand were character on a tv show, what would they say about this? How would they say this? Or to reverse the process, is this content within the expected behavior for this character, or would it be out of character? This litmus test should be applied to everything you write to keep your brand’s voice consistent.
One thing that I want to bring up here. I want to encourage you to use your brand voice to create an emotional connection with your addressable market through your brand voice. One of my biggest pet peeves in this industry is how emotionless the brands are. Everything seems so dry and buttoned up. In B2C marketing you see brands creating emotional connections through their brand’s voice but in B2B it’s far less common and in our industry it’s virtually unheard of. Sure, you are selling to businesses. But behind that business is a person making the decision. That person has feelings and emotions, and desires and fear, and these are incredibly powerful in guiding decisions. Economists don’t have a great track record for making accurate predictions because their models are built on the idea that people make decisions rationally, when in fact they don’t. They make decisions emotionally.
I recently was working on a campaign for a client and we were writing content. After interviewing some of their partners I found that these partners actually LOVED selling this product. They used words filled with emotion to describe their experience. So I proposed a headline in the content that says “Why our partners love selling our product”. The feedback came in to change it to “why our partners prefer our product”. Why step down? Love is a powerful word and from what I learned from their partners, it was truly how they felt. If you were describing your favorite dish at a restaurant to someone and wanted them to try it to, what would you say? I prefer the seared scallops or I love the seared scallops? Why are we so afraid of feelings?
Slide 15 – Brand Perception and the Perception Gap
Brand perception is how the market sees your brand. I often find when doing customer interviews that there’s a gap between what the business stakeholder think their brand represents and what their customers think. It’s not always that it’s a worse perception but that its different means that you are missing out on key insights that may resonate with your target audience and trigger more opportunities.
Earlier when we talked about your brand values I mentioned how having them well-defined helps you develop a culture that will deliver on your brand promise day in and day out. When you don’t have well-defined brand values, or you fail to get everyone to buy into them, you end up with a culture that grows organically and often a rift develops between how things get done and how they are intended to get done. You may not even realize it being so deep in your business. Understanding your brand perception and the gap between how customers see you and how you present yourself in the market is an important sanity check for any brand.
Slide 16 – Brand Product Strategy
This refers to the intentional alignment of your solution and vendor portfolios with your brand. There’s a popular phrase by Marshall McLuhan that the advertising industry has been using for many years, “The medium is the message.” A simplistic explanation of that is that the medium in which a message is conveyed makes a statement about the message and often is in fact sending its own message. The vendors and products you select can often be a reflection of your brand’s promise and culture and should certainly be used substantiation. Your carefully curated portfolio of Security vendors says something about your brand.
This seems a little contradictory because I said before that partners can’t differentiate themselves by identifying their broad portfolio as a key value proposition. That’s true. But if your brand promise is to keep your customers worry-free about the safety of their data and compliance with a more complex regulatory environment around user data security and privacy, your carefully curated portfolio of best-in-class security vendors isn’t your differentiator but it substantiates your brand promise.
Slide 17 – Where to go from Here
So we talked about what a brand really is, and gave you a new way to think about it. And then we defined the elements that make up your brand and talked about how they start with an insight into what makes your company different and then build on each other.
The question now is how do you reveal the key insight that is your unique selling proposition that makes you stand out, and what do you do with it from there? Here’s how to put it into action.
Slide 18 – Discovery and Research – Finding Key Insights
This is a critical step that often gets short changed. Since everything starts with the key insight that your brand promise is built on, if you don’t get this step right then everything else you you do is built on a shaky foundation. You’ll want to leave your biases at the door when performing your discovery and research, so we don’t allow for a brand perception gap.
It’s always good to perform interviews, run surveys, and build case studies. This helps you see your brand through the market’s eyes and should help you align your brand better.
Depression-era Flour Sack Dresses are an interesting example. Flour and seed sacks of the time were made out of cotton and during the depression, women would repurpose them and make dresses out of them. A clever manufacturer learned from their customers that they were using them in this way and started printing patterns on their sacks. This eventually became a key decision point on purchasing brands of flour and seed. Because they understood their buyers, they uncovered a key insight and then developed a product strategy that would solve a problem for their customers and helped them build a stronger brand and connection with their customers.
Anyway, use what you learn from these interviews to develop your personas and target segments. These are the groups of customers that make up your addressable market. Each one represents a different group of customers that can uniquely benefit from your brand promise that share a specific set attributes or have a common set of needs. It’s a little more than just a profile, it’s also a set of circumstances and tendencies.
You’ll want to then perform market and competitive research for each of those customer segments or personas. Map out the buyer’s journey, which is how they go from need to awareness of a solution, to research, to evaluation, to purchase. Find out what the competition does and how they position their brand, product and services. From talking to the customers, have you found any conditions in those markets that make your differentiators stand out that align with gaps in what the competition is doing?
Focus groups are a great way to help form and vet your ideas throughout this process by getting feedback directly from a representative sampling of your target market segments.
Slide 19 – Brand Strategy
The discovery process should yield your key insights, now the strategy step is where you will turn those insights into the rest of the elements of your brand. The rest of the branding process is deciding on how you will execute your brand elements across your marketing mix. When developing your strategy keep in mind these tips:
- You must differentiate yourself and your value proposition. Now that we’ve found your differentiation and built your brand around it, be sure that shines through in the execution.
- When talking about your unique selling proposition in your marketing, be sure to relate it directly to the needs of your customers. You want to show that you understand your customers’ challenges and can solve them in a unique way.
- Demonstrate that your brand can create the kind of outcome that they are looking for and don’t be afraid to use emotive language and design. There are a lot of emotional triggers tied to the outcomes of buying decisions. People’s jobs could be on the line when they make these decisions. You want to make them feel as though you are the right choice. Actually, you want to make them feel like you’re the only choice that can deliver exactly what they need.
- Being authentic in your marketing is incredibly important these days. If you followed this process, then you’ll have no trouble here because what you say and do in your marketing will be firmly rooted in your identity.
Slide 20 – Naming and Tagline
Whether you’ve formed a new business to capitalize on the changing marketplace or you’re pivoting an existing business to stay relevant, your name and tagline are both the first and most frequently exposed part of your brand. That makes it the most important way to convey your your brand promise. If you build your brand on who you are as a business, and not on the technology or vendors you sell or any of the other transactional things we said to avoid, then your name and tagline will remain relevant through a changing industry.
Slide 21 – Visual Identity
This is what most people think of when they are talking about branding. This is the look and feel associated with your brand, including your color palette, logo, font, icon library, branded image treatments, illustration style, and how these things get executed in different media. There should be a strategy behind it that ties to the elements of your brand and every design should fit within that strategy. It should evoke the feelings that surround your brand promise, the culture of your organization, and the personality of your brand.
Slide 22 – Messaging and Positioning
Your messaging and your positioning are how you communicate where you fit in the market and into your customers’ operations. It’s born from your brand promise and values, told through your brand’s voice, and delivered within the parameters of your visual identity. Everyone in the company should know the key message points of the brand and they should be consistently present in every customer engagement. For example, after a sales rep leaves a customer appointment, that customer should be able to go to your corporate website, or your social media page, and they should find messaging that reinforces and substantiates what your sales rep just told them.
Slide 23 – Branding Guidelines
Your visual identity should be executed with consistency. It should account for new interactive media requirements, like how does your brand get executed in responsive website design or in an app. The way to ensure your visual identity and messaging is consistent and correct is by establishing a brand style guide, acceptable use policy (and a plan to monitor and enforce it) and message map. The message map is what ties your messaging to your brand elements and ensures that the key message points get executed consistently and at the right moment in the customer’s buyer journey. What I like to do for the message map is to make a simple table. The first column is the claim, “we’ll help you sleep better knowing that your user data is secure and compliant”. Then you have another column for substantiation or proof points: “curated portfolio of best-in-class vendors, AI-based tools, record of success, industry awards”.
Lastly, internal campaigns, where you market to your internal employees and stakeholders to reinforce your brand elements, and messaging.
Slide 24 – Approach Your Branding Project the Right Way
The change in the industry has happened fast and shows no signs of slowing down. We may be caught up in our own version of Moore’s law where we see consistently exponentially accelerating change. Building a brand that captures who you are now and who you will be in the future is not only the best thing to do, but it’s also the most cost effective, because it will require less frequent updating. It also saves you the opportunity cost of not getting a seat at the table on deals for technology that’s at the beginning of the adoption curve. So, in those terms it makes sense that approaching your branding project thoroughly and following best practices would be a smart investment. If you agree, here’s what you need to know before you move forward.
Slide 25 – How to Set a Budget
First step is to determine a budget. This is critical. It’s usually one of the first questions I ask and the answers I get are usually:
1. I don’t have one
2. I’d rather not tell you
The issue with 1) is that usually the customer just hasn’t had a lot of experience with marketing but knows that they need a change, and so I’m catching them at the beginning of their journey. Nobody reading this should talk to an agency about branding and have this excuse.
The issue with 2) is that they are falling back on their negotiation training and don’t want to be the first one to throw out a number. In order to save everyone some time and effort, the best way to engage with an agency is to be transparent about your budget. If a prospective client gives me their budget number, I can immediately start to develop an SOW that will meet their budget and their in-house capabilities, yet still help them achieve their goals. Any good agency wants to treat you like a partner and partners need to be transparent with each other.
Now, if you take one thing away from this presentation, it should be that there’s a lot more to your brand than your logo. If you choose to work with an agency on this project, you should go into it knowing about what it will cost. What I’ve laid out is the ideal way to approach your branding project. But, I’m realistic enough to know that doing everything we talked about today may not be within the grasp of all businesses. It’s expensive because it’s time consuming, and doing it yourself may prove challenging if you don’t have internal resources that understand the branding process. If you’ve built a lifestyle business and aren’t looking for high growth then maybe you can take a shortcut or two. But if your goal is growth then you should consider making the investment.
You can expect to pay between $15,000 and $65,000. That’s actually not that much. I couldn’t find the average spend on marketing as a percent of revenue for our industry specifically, but similar industries spend between 12 and 14% and the average overall is bit over 11%. Even if you are a small company, think about your ARPU, how many deals do you need to sell to make back $15,000. Now, think how many deals you may be losing by not getting a seat at the table because your brand doesn’t reflect what your addressable market needs to hear. I know you do these cost justification calculations with your customers all the time, let’s eat our own dog food.
Slide 26 – How to Interview an Agency
But yeah, it’s still a lot of money so if you’re going to invest in branding you should choose the right partner.
- Ask what their philosophy about branding is. It should sound something like the beginning of the presentation. This will weed out the agencies that are just checking boxes.
- Ask about their process. It should cover the steps we discussed earlier.
- Ask if they have worked with companies like yours. You’ll want an agency that knows the industry and market intimately and gets your business, because it’s expedient and they will really recognize the true insights about your business that make you special.
- Ask for work samples, make sure their work is well executed. Ask them to justify the decisions they made and to walk you through the engagement that yielded the work.
- Be sure to get a clearly defined SOW. You don’t want to incur unforeseen expenses halfway through the project.
Slide 27 – How to Facilitate Your Branding Project
You have a big role in this process and you have certain responsibilities that should be carried out dutifully in order for the project to be on time and on budget, and with the best outcome possible.
It’s important to know what you want. You should talk internally before engaging to decide what you expect from the process, what deliverables you want, what budget you have, and have examples of brands that you look to for inspiration and aspiration.
Your agency partner will have a process and will give you deadlines to keep that process moving, do your best to follow and deliver.
Give your agency one single point of contact for the project that is responsible for communication between organizations and to have the important job of aggregating feedback internally and communicating revisions or approvals back.
One of the things that happens that tends to derail projects and cause delays, confusion, and budget overruns is that feedback comes back in drips and changes are made to “final” files. The best way to handle feedback and revision cycles is to do them in waves. It may not seem like a big deal to sneak a change in outside of the revision cycle, but it really can be because it disrupts the workflow of the designers, developers, and writers, and it can often cause ripple effects.
Tom Geismer was the creative director of the team that did the Chase logo which is an iconic logo design in our industry because it was one of the first examples in the trend to use more abstract shapes and imagery. I listened to a podcast with him the other day and they asked him what to tell a client before starting a pitch, and he said “there’s no such thing as love at first sight.” The story goes that the Chase logo was flatly derided by the CEO of Chase at the pitch, but that by the next time he saw the CEO he was wearing a Chase logo pin on his lapel and cufflinks on his shirt. You may not fall in love right away, let the work sink in and open dialogue with your agency partner about it. Resist the urge to borrow a little from one concept and a little from another concept and add both to a third concept. Your agency partner should be a trusted advisor like you are in your business. Trust in the professionals you hired.
Slide 28 – Can You Measure ROI?
It can be difficult, but yes. If you had good marketing analytics and sales opportunity tracking before your branding project, then you can measure the impact that changing your brand will have. But also consider the cost justification we discussed earlier. How many more deals could you win, or how many deals are you missing out on now by not even being considered?
Slide 29 – Final Takeaways
This was probably like drinking from a fire hose. The big takeaways I think are
- Branding is something that needs to be tailored. Process is good, but a cookie-cutter approach is not.
- A brand is a philosophy, think about it in the larger sense and not just the visual identity.
- The goal is to find what really makes you special and communicate that consistently across your marketing mix.
- It’s going to be hard to do this on your own. Make the investment, find a great agency partner, and be an active participant in the process.
Slide 30 – Go from BLAND to BRAND!
Great branding moves your ideal customer beyond seeing you as just a practical solution, and into believing yours is the only offering that can meet their needs. It is when your customers understand your brand that your sales funnel starts and your churn ends. If you’re a partner, master agent, or service provider that’s ready to get serious about building or refreshing your brand to better reflect your rightful position in the telecom and IT services space, we’re the agency you need.
We’re the best, not the cheapest. But, we do have a special offer for Channel Partners attendees. Get up to $4950 off your band strategy development. Get started today!