Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Fast Track to Brand Destruction
Make it all about you and your customers will walk

By Jim Walton
CEO, Brand Acceleration, Inc.
Indianapolis and Charlotte

Early in my career, I worked as the advertising manager for a global manufacturer of agricultural machinery. It was a great period in my life and I thoroughly enjoyed working with the farmers and ranchers who feed the world. As part of my job, I attended numerous trade shows and conventions where I observed the business style of companies such as John Deere, Pioneer and Monsanto. Most are masters who passionately live and protect their long-earned brand positions. There were others though, which amazed the industry with their arrogance and stupidity. One in particular, which I will not name, stands out in my memory.

We are…
Founded in the 1950’s, this company was the dream of a man with a unique idea, a passion for customer service and a huge heart. Like the proverbial “better mousetrap,” his product was a piece of tillage equipment which did a much better job of turning soil than most competitive products. That wasn’t the whole story, though. This man was a brilliant marketer and cheerleader. His sales and customer service team, calling on farm machinery dealers, was trained not only on the features and benefits of the product; they were also taught his artful style of growing relationships.

Dealers and farmers were not just customers to him, they were friends who were honored and cherished. The product price, a bit higher than competitors, was never an issue. Quality, customer service and the company’s stellar brand image made it the product to own.

The company team, including sales people, engineers, factory workers and customer service folks, was taught that “we” included everyone who touched the product, including the dealers and customers. The message was that “We’re all in this together.” The company’s advertising and brochures were brilliantly conceived. Not only did they effectively tell the product story, they almost always included images of the farmer, dealer and company representative, strongly supporting the service and support message.

Over the years, the company grew and its brand was the envy of the tillage equipment industry.

I am…
In the late 1970’s, something changed. On one fateful day, the founder and owner suffered a fatal heart attack while working at his desk. Although his leadership had been skillfully conceived and executed, he had made one very serious mistake. He thought he would live forever and failed to develop a transition plan that would protect his company and legacy. As a result, the company was suddenly under the control of his young inexperienced son, a thirty-something playboy who loved to party and enjoy his father’s financial success. His personal reputation was as a spoiled and arrogant brat.

In an attempt to shore up industry confidence, Junior (he really was a Junior) hit the road, attending every trade show and conference in order to reassure farmers and dealers that all was well because he was in charge. However, his flamboyant lifestyle and big ego did not play well. He was nothing like his father and he quickly showed that he loved to be the center of attention rather than directing attention to the entire team and their loyal customers.

In a poorly-conceived move, he directed their ad agency to produce a series of magazine ads featuring his photo. His goal was to transfer his father’s personal brand to himself and to show customers that the family was still at the helm. In his photo, he was dressed in a three-piece suit and groomed to the hilt. He looked nothing like his customers who were people of the soil; hard-working and modest. Customers immediately began making comparisons. “He’s sure not like his Dad.” The agency had warned him that this was a bad move. They suggested that reassurance would come from ads that showed a continuation of the values and customer service they had come to expect.

Like this agency, the Brand Acceleration team works alongside our clients, carefully considering how each move will affect their brand. The key is to not only consider what our client has to offer but to carefully craft a message that reflects the desires of the audience. Like the ads featuring Junior, if the message is not believable, the brand will be harmed. In these days of iPads, social media and clever web sites, it’s very easy to lose sight of audience expectations, focusing instead on the beautiful package rather than the all-important content.

Over the course of three years, Junior made a series of desperate errors, from poor product direction and downgrades in quality to several deadly financial moves. At the end of it all, he eventually sold the struggling company to a large conglomerate which was on a spree, buying up weakened companies like his. Junior still managed to walkway a millionaire but his father’s dream was over. The factory was shut down and the production of products was moved to another state. Over two hundred people lost their jobs and the small community was severely harmed for several years to come.

What’s the point?
What Junior was never taught was that even though his family’s name was on the letterhead, it was not the family that made it great. It was his father’s overwhelming passion for conveying a vision of excellence through his team and to the customers. That was the fuel that grew it from a dream to a raging success.

It’s not about you!
Through good times and bad, company owners and managers must remember that their success is not about them. Their only chance for long-term success and survival is through a gut-wrenching, agonizing, passionate focus on the one thing that makes a company great, customers!

Brand Acceleration is a full-service advertising, brand management and public relations firm operating from Indianapolis, Indiana and Charlotte, North Carolina. The agency’s focus is on economic development, architecture/engineering/construction and real estate.

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