Sales & Marketing -- What's Your Story?

Your branding message creates a context for your products.

Many companies equate branding with the complicated and expensive process used by large companies to sell consumer products ranging from breakfast cereals to automobiles. But as many smaller manufacturers have been able to demonstrate, branding doesn't have to be complicated. "Branding is storytelling," says Dylan O'Brien, a creative director with Adrienne Weiss Corp., Chicago, a branding consultant. "It's a matter of putting together the words and images to create a perception by which customers can experience your business. It's about creating a story out of the big idea that's at the heart of every business -- a message that emanates from what you do." And it involves putting all of the marketing and sales tools you have at hand to work in a coordinated way to tell your story. For some companies a simple shift in perspective can make a big difference. Bissell Corp., Grand Rapids, Mich., is an example of how storytelling has helped change a company's image. From a manufacturer of vacuums and rug shampooers, Bissell has repositioned itself as "the authority on clean." It has adopted the company-wide motto "We mean clean," which is emblazoned on all of the company's advertising, literature, and packaging. It offers cleaning advice and tips -- and not just product-related information -- on its Web site and on packaging. The story narrative even involves Bissell's corporate culture. At the end of every marketing and sales meeting, participants pound the table and chant: "We mean clean!" Creating a culture to provide a context for a company's product offerings is, in fact, part of the storytelling approach, and creates an umbrella or "mother brand" that includes and supports individual product offerings, so a company doesn't have to reinvent the wheel every time it introduces a new product. "If you tell your story well you will become a club that customers want to be part of," O'Brien says. That conditions customers' response to individual products that are under the umbrella. A company's branding story should come out of its experience and mission and be aimed at engaging the customer. It doesn't necessarily have to be a part or an extension of a company's internal culture -- Bissell's table pounding might be a little extreme for most companies -- but it should be one that management can support. That's true whether the story involves "innovations for a healthy lifestyle," such as the one Salton Inc., Mount Prospect, Ill., has created to embrace its line of houseware products, or is an environmentally conscious "quality of life" story like that supporting a line of unbleached cotton sheets and linens from West Point-Pepperell, a division of WestPoint Stevens Inc., West Point, Ga. The story not only helps the company and its products stand out but gives customers a convenient explanation for why they should buy the product rather than another. Ideally, the corporate culture and the product culture that you're trying to create though your story should align tightly. That was the case with La Griffe Jeans Pty. Ltd., Montreal, a denim manufacturer with a strong social conscience that created the "Peace by Piece World Denim" line of denim jeans and clothing. Its story, which appears on the tags of every piece of its clothing, reads: "Everything Changes Peace by Piece . . . by rivet, by thread, by button, by contract, by treaty, by handshake, by understanding. Change the world. Change your clothes. Make a Peace by Piece." "At the same time that the manufacturer was telling the story about the quality and unique attributes of the product, it was also creating a culture that reflected the manufacturer -- and resonated with its target audience," says Sharon Box, Adrienne Weiss Corp.'s executive creative director who works in the branding firm's Los Angeles office. The company, a unit of Keystone Industries Ltd., Quebec, donates a portion of its profits to the United Nations and ties this, too, into its story, including pack-aging and point-of-sale elements. 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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