Sales & Marketing -- Forget Features, Sell the Brand

Product benefits are losing importance in the overall selling equation.

In today's marketplace, your brand is the overall promise that you are manufacturing to customer demands. Managing the brand is making sure that the promise is being delivered. Unique product features and the benefits that these features create for customers just don't mean that much anymore, according to Josh Gordon, author of Selling 2.0: Motivating Customers in the New Economy (2000, Berkley Publishing Group). The same computer-assisted advances in design and manufacturing that allow manufacturers to bring new products and new features to market in a fraction of the time it took in the past allow competitors to duplicate those products and features just as quickly. In the past, manufacturers might have had a cushion of time that could be measured in years before a competitor could offer the same advance in a product or feature. Today that cushion is a matter of months. So how can a manufacturer maintain competitive advantage if it can't rely on unique product features? The answer: Sell your brand. "The overall promise that you make to the customer in terms of quality, price, and delivery and the value you deliver to the customer over time has more meaning for the customer than any product feature," says Gordon. That's where salespeople play a part. "Most companies today differentiate more in how they interface with customers than in terms of product offerings," says Gordon. EMC Corp. in Hopkinton, Mass., for example, is a company that takes its brand message right down to the field-sales level. Offering a line of file-server and data-storage equipment and services, EMC doesn't build its sales message on product differentiation. Instead its sales force is trained to hammer home the firm's marketing message: "No matter what business you're in, your IT infrastructure must be rock solid. Because if your information is unavailable, you're out of business." Instead of pushing equipment, EMC salespeople focus on the service elements of the company's brand message -- 24/7 information security and premium service for a premium price. The brand message and the sales message are the same: "As the world's storage leader, we know how to keep information safe." Nike is another good example of selling the brand. Nike makes sure its salespeople know all about the company's media initiatives so that they can show customers company ads and articles about the company. "They may not know what every TV spot will look like," says Tim Joyce, vice president, global sales, Nike Inc., Beaverton, Oreg., "but they will know what it's going to be about and where it's going to air." Nike also spends time with its sales force reiterating what the Nike brand means and what it represents within the context of the season's ad campaign. "We ask, 'What is the brand going to stand for this season?'" says Joyce. "First we lay that down and the products follow underneath," continues Joyce. "We equip our staff by giving them planning tools so they can sit down with a customer and come up with an integrated marketing plan that charts the product flows for [that customer]." In effect, Nike is selling the economic benefits that accrue to its brand by selling the "pull-through" economic impact from the brand's visibility to their customer's customers. EMC, on the other hand, is working on both an economic and emotional appeal. The economic appeal is in the protection against the potential loss if a customer's data system goes down. EMC salespeople can put a dollar value, for instance, on the cost of an airline ticket office's data access being down for a day. At the same time, says Gordon, it is selling an emotional benefit -- the reassurance and security of working with a brand that is associated with exceptional service. In fact, says Gordon, most customers recognize that "a company that has invested time to build a brand has a lot to lose by delivering shoddy products or services, and companies that invest the years it takes to build a brand are typically long-term players." That's a pretty strong sales message. William Keenan Jr. is editorial director for Alexander Communications Group, New York, editor of Sales Rep's Advisor newsletter, and the former editor of Selling magazine.

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