"Marketing is too important to leave to the marketing department," Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard once said.
The same could be said about branding, veteran technology marketer Bob Apollo wrote in a 2011 column for CustomerThink. He said that was because "what your prospects think of you has got very little to do with the messages your marketing department broadcasts, and everything to do with your prospects' and customers' experiences of your organization, your offerings, the people that represent you, and the feedback they get from others."
Some of the most iconic brands in the world belong to manufacturers -- Ford, Harley-Davidson, Coca-Cola -- but in the very concrete world of manufactured products, brands and branding can often seem ephemeral at best. That may be especially true, experts observe, for manufacturers who operate in the business-to-business space. Branding may not even be on the radar for manufacturers who see marketing itself as an afterthought, said one marketing veteran.
"Whether it is in the consumer marketplace or the B2B marketplace, the company brand matters. People want to buy from companies that make a difference, take a stand, are working towards something more than just profitability."
— Jay Gould, chief operating officer, Interface
"In some cases, the person in the marketing position is focused on lead generation and things like collateral development, events and the website. They are probably very short-staffed and have a small budget," he observed. "There is no head space or budget for branding."
Other reasons for giving branding short-shrift range from inexperience with marketing to a reliance on channel partners to a belief by management that their primary concern is product quality and production.
Engineers and manufacturers tend to focus on producing great products, points out Barry Labov, CEO of Labov Marketing Communications and the son of an engineer.
"They might improve a product, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process, but their customers may have no idea all that was done," says Labov. "Ask them why they did it and they say, 'It was the right thing to do.'"
But manufacturers who take the approach that they can simply produce a superior product and let it speak for itself put their business at considerable risk, says Labov.
"Many of them are losing business to companies that are making claims about the superiority of their product that they can't back or that are positioning themselves as a newer, better approach or a higher quality product," he warns. "They are losing to any company that has a lick of marketing prowess."
Brand's Role in a Changing Environment
While states and cities compete every day to attract manufacturing businesses, it is also true that the industry is heavily scrutinized and regulated in the U.S. for everything from truck traffic to labor issues to environmental and safety concerns. That means attention to a company's identity and standing in the community serves purposes well beyond simply selling products to customers.
Branding is "honing and clarifying a unique and authentic identity for a company," says Bob Knott, an executive vice president/senior managing director with MWW Corporate Communications. That identity, he adds, should be communicated to not only your customers but your investors, business partners and governmental leaders.
"The strength of a company's brand -- that they are seen not just as being surpassingly good at what they manufacture but that they manufacture in a responsible way and they treat their employees well -- contributes significantly to a company's license to operate," says Knott.
With U.S. manufacturers often facing a price disadvantage compared to low-cost Asian producers, they have increasingly turned to product areas where specialization, high quality and quick delivery are critical factors for success. MWW's Knott says branding provides an important tool in fighting against "the commodity death spiral" and articulating the value of your products.
Digital technologies also are a key change prompting manufacturers to reassess their branding efforts. Mike Stutman, senior vice president of strategy at digital agency Primacy, says industrial manufacturers may be only a few years away from seeing the kinds of disruption that industries such as retail and travel saw about five to seven years ago and that is now sweeping through healthcare, higher education and financial services. Part of that relates to generational changes in who will be purchasing industrial products.
"You are starting to see younger people in management positions who are digital natives. You are going to have more buyers who prefer digital relationships to the historical relationships that have characterized manufacturing up to now," says Stutman.
Lincoln Electric (IW 500/301), a global manufacturer of welding products ranging from robotic welding systems and plasma cutters to welding helmets, takes both a high-tech and high-touch approach to branding. The strategy serves a customer list that runs the gamut from hobbyists and owner/operators to industrial giants.
Steve Sumner, director of global marketing for the $2.8 billion firm headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, said the brand experience needs to be fulfilled through all aspects of a customer's contacts with the company. That means everything from the act of purchasing a product to the processing of an invoice. Because multiple people at a business can be involved in the purchase of a Lincoln Electric product, Sumner said he stresses a "holistic" view of the branding experience. Focus only on the sales process and neglect other aspects of the customer's contact with the company, he says, and you risk future sales and growth.
To support this philosophy, Lincoln Electric puts its sales representatives through a 10-month training program. "We want to make sure that when that Lincoln guy walks in the door, the customer knows that something great is going to happen in my company today. We are going to become a better company because the Lincoln guy is here," says Sumner. "A significant chunk of the value, and therefore our brand, is embodied in our people," he adds.
Lincoln Electric also extends the personal touch through its customer experience program. The company has facilities for visitors to its headquarters that allow them not just to learn about products but to interact with a variety of Lincoln employees. Sumner says the company often hears comments that result from these visits about how Lincoln has so many people that are passionate about the products.
Lincoln Electric has invested in social media, Sumner notes, because the company wants to represent its brand to end users of its welding products. "We want to have a relationship with the person who actually uses the product," he says. Social media helps build a community of users who are informed about the company's products and can influence buying decisions, he explains. That can be particularly important in the B2B world, where sales channels may involve distributors that operate between the manufacturer and its ultimate customers. Over the last three years, Lincoln has gone from less than 50,000 followers on Facebook to more than 700,000.
Lincoln Electric also uses social media to reach out to influencers such as welding engineers. "They are never going to be the person who actually uses the product, but they are the person who makes a recommendation inside their company," he says. Having them interact routinely with Lincoln builds their confidence in the brand and the likelihood they will recommend Lincoln products.
Creating the Branded Company
Jay Gould, the chief operating officer of Interface, the modular carpet manufacturer known for its sustainability practices, says brand was a major factor in his joining the company after serving as CEO of American Standard.
"The founder of Interface, Ray Anderson, had a bold vision for what he wanted to create and wrapped the entire company around it. Yes, it was about making great carpet tile but he wanted to change the world – what we say now, 'Design a better world,'" Gould explains.
Gould says there is a "consumerization of B2B" going on in which buyers want more involvement in how companies operate and develop their products. Companies such as Interface that build their brand on strong principles benefit in particular from this movement, Gould asserts.
"Whether it is in the consumer marketplace or the B2B marketplace, the company brand matters. People want to buy from companies that make a difference, take a stand, are working towards something more than just profitability," says Gould.
Gould says the goal for a manufacturer is "creating value, not volume." When Gould was chief innovation officer at Coca-Cola more than a decade ago, he said the company was shifting from a viewpoint that it was a collection of brands to greater emphasis on the Coca-Cola brand as a whole. He said any business leader should understand that "the proposition they are taking to the market is more than any one product. Yes, we are selling one product at a time, but what we are really trying to do is drive toward loyalty and avoid the commoditization of business." And Gould says that even in the durable goods business, where buying cycles may last years, it is still important to develop customer loyalty.
"A brand is a container for a customer's complete experience with the product and company." -- Sergio Zyman, author, The End of Advertising As We Know It
"A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer's decision to choose one product or service over another." -- Seth Godin, author, Linchpin
That brand value and the passion it inspires can be particularly valuable in a world where there is intense competition for talent.
"It made a dramatic difference in our ability to attract millennials. They care about purpose. They come to work for more than a paycheck. They want to make a difference in the world," he observed. "Interface has a 20-year track record of doing that."
That's not to say that having a higher purpose relieves companies of a very fundamental obligation -- making money. "Brands are about making money on a sustaining basis," says Gould, adding, "Purpose and profits aren't in conflict."
Upping Your Game
Companies that want to elevate their branding efforts need to start, says Interface's Gould, by making branding a senior leadership concern, developing a clear strategy for how the company goes to market and involving the marketing department in those strategic conversations.
At American Standard, Gould recalled, the company had both retail and wholesale marketplaces and branding decisions were often made at the product manager level. Gould worked to clarify the company's branding message and establish a framework about how to talk about the brand. Rather than have each product manager communicate a brand identity, he said, American Standard had "one voice as we went to market. We had one person responsible for the brand across all channels."
Any marketing program should be centered around your customers' success and how your product or service has helped to enable that success, says Heidi Melin, the chief marketing officer for Plex Systems, a cloud-based ERP provider that works with more than 400 manufacturing firms. "That to me is an opportunity to use our customer's voice to tell our story. After all, it's a great reflection of what we are able to do if our customers are successful."
"In B2B, reference selling is extremely important," notes Melin. "Having the ability to develop relationships with customers so they are willing to talk on our behalf is really important. The same holds true for many of our customers that sell into OEMs or have extremely complicated reseller and channel relationships."
Since the brand is about the company, every employee has to understand and reflect the brand, Melin asserts. She says it is important to bring together marketing and internal communications so that all employees understand the foundation for the brand and can represent it externally.
Of course, the chief case for improving branding in manufacturing may not reside in any one company, but as it applies to the entire industry. Manufacturing over the past few decades has gone from a respected leader of the U.S. economy to a sector frequently viewed as dead or dying and unfit for ambitious young people. As U.S. manufacturers and other leaders attempt to reverse that perception, they'll be looking to establish a much more positive brand for this $2 trillion industry.