Grand-slam brand equity: Put your marketing under a microscope to create big-league recognition

Oct. 1, 2005

Marketing is like parenting. Everyone who does it thinks they're an expert -- and takes offense when told otherwise. Most of us think our own sensibilities float right in the middle of the mainstream.

To paraphrase a truism from the legal profession, businesspeople who do their own marketing have a fool for a client. Don't get me wrong; leaders should help market the company's image, message and offerings. But hire pros with solid track records to do the heavy lifting.

Increasing market share is an ongoing battle. If you don't have the market share you think you deserve (who does?) -- and if sales and customer service are not hitting their marks -- then put your marketing under a microscope. It will close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Marketing is the only way to pull potential customers toward you. From there, it's like a relay team. You have the opportunity to pass them to sales and, after the purchase, to customer service. Five steps create big-league recognition and market share:

1) Differentiate. Most differentiation decisions focus on where you want to land on the price-quality-service continuum. One isn't necessarily better than the others, but a choice has to be made. The low-price, bag-your-own-groceries niche has been staked out by the likes of Wal-Mart, Southwest Airlines, Home Depot and Motel 6. Plant your flag in the middle of the spectrum and value-conscious customers will pay a little more to get a little more -- think Banana Republic, Applebee's, Holiday Inn, Crate & Barrel. Customers of premium-positioned companies -- Mercedes, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Ritz-Carlton -- will shell out top dollar for top-quality products and white-glove service.

A hybrid position is "low-price, nicer experience." Look at Target Corp., Best Buy, IKEA, JetBlue and Kohl's. Early on at Tires Plus, this was how we differentiated ourselves to compete with the big boys. Some competitors could match our prices. But nobody else was offering upscale stores with clean-cut sales consultants in dress shirts and ties, cappuccino machines, framed art, VCR movies, and children's play areas.

Beyond price, quality and service? Look at sub-categories to create a "nested niche" -- a niche within a niche. FedEx is synonymous with "overnight shipping." But the company knew the only way it could maintain market share was by creating sub-niches -- various pricing and delivery options, extended hours and convenient drop-off locations. Enterprise Rent-A-Car has become the largest car rental company in North America, thanks to its differentiator -- "We'll pick you up." Geek Squad, a Best Buy-owned "computer support task force," filled a neglected niche by offering personalized repair, security and technical support to both business folks and "civilians."


2) Put your identity on the couch. Each and every exposure to a strong brand -- a succinct, powerful name; a memorable tag line; a bold logo (think Nike swoosh) -- cements your market position and produces free advertising. The name Tires Plus told people exactly what we did. Our tag line -- "Warehouse Prices. World-Class Service." -- told them exactly what to expect. Any time people heard either, our brand message sank deeper into their consciousness. To be sure, a lot of Fortune 500 companies have nondescript names. But odds are it took one heckuva big marketing budget to educate the public. If your name doesn't describe what you do, your tag line better. Bottom line: If, after hearing your name and tag line, people on the street still can't say what your company does -- and why it does it better than anyone else -- it may be time for a change.

3) Tie your offering to your point of differentiation. Good companies never stop trying to make their offering more appealing. But that doesn't mean they stray from their differentiating factors. Ryanair, the Dublin, Ireland-based no-frills airline that raised the low-airfare bar, continues to find ways to drive prices even lower. Freebies? Forget about it. Weary passengers "rent" pillows and blankets. They even pay extra for air-sickness bags. Instead of installing seat-back TVs, Ryanair will be renting handheld mini-entertainment centers.

Continually scrutinize your offering. Studying your competitors' offerings provides perspective on how to optimize your strengths and neutralize theirs. To the extent you can, shed your passion for your industry and look at your products and services through your customers' eyes. Ask yourself, "If I was happy doing business with one of my competitors, what would it take to get me to switch? Price? Speed? Service? Warranty? All of the above?" I liked that customers would come to our stores armed with detailed competitive analyses. It gave us opportunities to gain further insight into our guests' needs and desires.

4) Promote, promote, promote. One thought bounced around my brain as I walked into our brand-new Burnsville, Minn., store: Where the heck are all the people? It was years ago, when we were still the new kid on the block. But we had great people, competitive prices, better hours, and a perfect location. We just had to get our message out -- I knew there'd be no stopping us if we got people in the door. But we were caught in a budget bind. Our advertising and public relations resources were slim. Yet, if we didn't juice up our promotional wattage, we couldn't bring in enough revenue to cover costs. I started to appreciate the old marketing line, "Cutting back on advertising to save money is like stopping a watch to save time." The only way to drive revenues up was to achieve top-of-mind awareness in the marketplace. That called for a promotional blitz.

Not long afterward, we had an opportunity to plaster our logo on the largest sign at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, home to the Minnesota Twins and Vikings. The package also included 60 seconds of big-screen ad time for our tire mascot races at all Twins games. My executive team thought I was crazy to commit $1 million over 10 years, particularly since the cost equaled our annual profits. They said we couldn't afford it. "Guys," I said, "we can't afford not to." I pointed out that the contract would give us the exposure and credibility our young company needed. I swung the bat and didn't look back. It was a grand slam.


Some advertising and PR promotion pointers:

* Clarify your objective. Imagine sitting down with all your customers at once. What would you tell them? Something about your company (an image ad)? Something about a specific offer (a direct response ad)? The former is good when you aren't well known; the latter is good when you are. Helping your customers get to know you is as crucial as getting to know your customers. People want to know and like you before they'll part with their money. If you're focusing on your image but the offer is also important, include both by way of an offer "tag" -- a five-second spot within a 30-second image ad.

* Preach to the choir. Aim a big chunk of your ad budget at current customers. Retention campaign response rates are typically 10 times that of bring-in-new-customer efforts. Moreover, attracting a new customer (according to one of my industry's trade organizations) costs six times more than bringing back an existing customer. Plus, repeat customers are 38% more profitable. * Track the metrics. Three of the most important measurements for TV and radio ads are:

A. Reach -- the percentage of your target market you're reaching.

B. Frequency -- the number of times your targets see or hear your message in a given period. The term "three-plus reach" -- often referred to as "effective reach" -- refers to the percentage of your audience that will see or hear your spot at least three times. Generally, it takes three or more exposures to a message to prompt an individual to act on it.

C. Cost per point -- the cost to reach 1% of your target market. Calculate it by dividing your total cost by your reach.

Reach and frequency numbers will vary according to your offer and objectives. For instance, are you trying to drive traffic to your stores, or focusing on branding? Are you launching a new product, or advancing a long-term campaign? Is your message time sensitive? How are you divvying up your promotion budget? How competitive is your industry?

* Promote early and often. Breaking into a new area? Launching a new service? Open up the floodgates and saturate the market. Upfront expenses can be amortized over time and offset by extra revenue from both the initial campaign and its carryover effect. For first-year markets, we upped our advertising and PR budget from 4% to 8% of sales -- that included our over-the-top grand openings. We scaled back to 6% in the second year before settling back to 4% in year three.


* Communicate internally. You have to create internal excitement before you generate buzz out there in the real world. The more you involve employees, the better. When a promotion's set, brief your sales team and support staff on every last detail -- what, why, where, when -- through meetings and e-mail blasts. You don't want anyone to drop the ball when it's thrown their way.

* Find the right media mix. Do you know who your customers are and where they're located? Until you do, you're wasting your money. You gotta know whether to rifle (narrow market) or shotgun (broad market). Ad agencies and PR firms hike up the quality of your promotions; just make sure their loyalty is to you and not the media they purchase.

* Spread the virus. My son Trent was in a trendy Greenwich Village cigar bar in the mid-1990s when the woman next to him started talking up her Hennessy martini. "Hey, Paul," she finally said to the bartender, "would you please bring us another Hennessy martini?" Loudly, she laid on every one of the brand's syllables, and patrons took notice of the mysterious call. Before long, the drink was on everyone's lips. Mission accomplished: The curvy, charismatic brunette worked for Hennessy's ad agency. Call it building buzz, or "viral marketing" -- it gives your grassroots branding effort a heaping dose of fertilizer. These days it's commonplace, from new restaurants that tell callers there's a month-long wait for a table, to lounge owners who pay models to drink and dance on their bars. Pretty soon, everyone's talking about that drink, that restaurant, that bar. The buzz seems organic but it's every bit as natural as Astroturf.

* Build an online colossus. Your digital presence has to be more than "brochureware." It's often your Web site that introduces your company to prospects. Every aspect should reflect your brand -- the look, the feel, the text, the forms. Best bet: Install a professional Web designer on your team of external partners.

5) A word to the wise -- merchandise. The first Brunswick billiard table was built in a small Cincinnati wood shop in 1845. One hundred fifty-five years later, the company's selling channel seemed just as antiquated. Most Brunswick tables were sold in mom-and-pop dealerships that cared little about the prestige of the brand. Many stores commingled brands and stacked tables on top of one another like cheap chairs. No surprise then that merchandising master Sandy Stein was summoned to Brunswick's headquarters in Bristol, Wis. His assignment? Create a customer experience that would yield higher perceived brand value, create excitement, and separate Brunswick from all the commoditized, low-end tables.

The solution? Sandy, founder of Minneapolis-based Stein Trending Branding Design, came up with the Brunswick Pavilion, a store-within-a-store concept that the company rolled out nationally. In a typical store, a dozen or more tables are positioned for optimal viewing, a processional-like entrance features history panels extolling the company's heritage, and backlit floor-to-ceiling fabric scrims display photos of additional table styles in various home environments. The result? A brand appreciation that transcends price and, more importantly, appeals to the "female factor." "The Brunswick Pavilion concept," said Sandy, "makes an emotional connection to women, typically the gatekeepers on large purchases. The showroom spurs the reaction, 'That's the way I want our room to look.'"


More merchandising tips:

* Provide a feel-good experience. Whether in-store or online, comfort is important. Emotions and feelings often drive purchases. Our store personnel were trained to treat guests like gold. And our stores appealed to all of our customers' senses -- sight (beautiful showroom, ability to watch cars being worked on), sound (upbeat music), smell (pleasing scents to offset the not-so-pleasant rubber smell), taste (great coffee and, in select stores, cappuccino), and touch (handshake greeting when entering and hands-on product displays).

* Make shopping intuitive. Presentation is everything. Target Corp. knows this. Its well-organized, visually appealing displays prompt customers to understand their options -- good, better, best -- and move smoothly from one category to the next. An intuitive shopping experience through merchandising clarity is a huge differentiator.

* Anticipate questions. At Tires Plus, guests browsed displays that laid out our products and services alongside features, benefits and prices. These quick-glance visual answers to frequently asked questions (put them online, too) empower customers to move further along in the sales process without feeling any hard-sell pressure from salespeople.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company's chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.Thanks to Gegax's warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team's relentless focus on customer service, the company's turnover rate ranked among the industry's lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. Gegax was named Modern Tire Dealer's Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998, and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.

He founded Gegax Management Systems ( in 2000 to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance.

His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is already a national bestseller. It can be ordered on the home page. He can be reached at [email protected] or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).

About the Author

Bob Ulrich

Bob Ulrich was named Modern Tire Dealer editor in August 2000 and retired in January 2020. He joined the magazine in 1985 as assistant editor, and had been responsible for gathering statistical information for MTD's "Facts Issue" since 1993. He won numerous awards for editorial and feature writing, including five gold medals from the International Automotive Media Association. Bob earned a B.A. in English literature from Ohio Northern University and has a law degree from the University of Akron.