The underlying truth about marketing

A large number of IT pros working in the consulting space believe a thorough understanding of technology is all it takes to make a consulting firm succeed. MarketSpeak columnist Wes Burgiss knows that it also takes a smart branding strategy.

How do I market my business? Is marketing smart? Do I even need it? Should I advertise in the newspaper or on the radio? Will my potential customers hear my message and respond?

Before you can understand the answers to those questions, you need to know how and why marketing works.

Branding is everything
People buy brands, not products. True or false?

When my wife asks me to go to the store and get some chicken soup, is there any doubt that I won’t come back with Campbell’s? Will I even take the time to look at the other kinds of soups?

The simple truth is that we all buy brand, not product. But why? To understand this, we must first look at how human beings function.

Since the advent of communication, there has been social interaction. The complexity of our social interaction has led us to where we are today as a people. We went from cave dwellers to city dwellers, moving through the industrial revolution to where we are now, at the forefront of the IT revolution. All of this is predicated on our ability to communicate. So how does this relate to marketing?

We have a funny way of categorizing things in our brains. When you meet someone, as you try and communicate, you scan your brain for previous experiences that may pertain to the present situation. You are trying to relate. If you had a bad experience with an overweight, freckle-faced, redheaded, one-legged male in the past, you’ll probably be somewhat apprehensive the next time you encounter the same “type” of individual. It’s been part of our survival pattern. We naturally categorize and, unfortunately, stereotype to some degree. Each new encounter is being compared with a past experience quietly in the background of our brains. It’s part of our learning process, and it happens automatically. So what does this have to do with marketing?

Think of “brand” as the personality of a product or service. It’s the tangible link that our brains are looking for as we try and relate to a product or service. If you are in a store and you come across a new product you have never seen or used before, quietly in the background your brain is desperately trying to relate. The color of the box, the name, the way the words are written—all of these things supply your brain with the necessary information to make the connection with some experience in the past. Think about Coke and Pepsi. They offer carbonated sugar water with brown food coloring and caffeine. Sounds nasty. Add lots of branding, an advertising message that reinforces the brand, and bingo! Not only do sales take off, but people would rather drink that product than water. Go figure.

Controlling your brand identity
So how does all of this relate to you and your efforts to increase your business? Think about your customer and how he/she views your business. Think of your business as a living, breathing thing with a personality. Know that when someone is exposed to your business for the first time, they are looking for that tangible link. Just as you have a brand, so does your business. You might as well control it. Here are some important rules to follow:
  • Know who you are. Don’t attempt to be something you are not. If someone tells a joke and everyone laughs, you may try to tell that same joke later. If nobody laughs, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t be a joke teller. Your business is no different.
  • Know your market. This means you must have an understanding of the needs of the market in which you do business. With the high demand for IT services today, this should not be a problem. So far, so good.
  • Know your competition. Know who they are, what they offer, and how they offer it. It would even help to know how potential customers perceive them.

Differentiate your company from the competition. If all soup cans in the grocery looked the same, how would you know which one to buy? If your business is located in a large market, specialize in an area that you are comfortable with and know it better than anyone else does. Communicate the fact that you are the best of the best in that particular area and the business will come. If you are from a smaller community, you may have to broaden your skill set, but you can still do that with distinction.

Communicate all of these rules in the tone and manner that best suit your business and the people you are trying to reach. This is where your personality comes through. This is the brand part. Nike sells sporting goods, and their positioning line is “Just do it.” That’s an in-your-face kind of line that talks well to Nike’s potential customer base and reflects the personality of their company.

Establishing trust through branding
I was fortunate enough in my career to do marketing for KFC. The team there was comprised of PepsiCo marketing gurus. We went through an exercise once that flushed out brand personality. It went like this: If Pepsi were a car, what kind of car would it be? That will cause a little thinking, but the answer is clear. Pepsi promotes to the new generation—the younger, more hip kids. They know that if they establish their brand at an early age, they will have the younger consumers for life. What kind of car is hip and young? A Porsche, maybe a Miata, or even a new Volkswagen bug. So if you were doing a TV commercial for Pepsi and it had a car in it, what would that car most likely be? If Pepsi were a sport, what kind of sport would it be? Probably extreme sports. So if Pepsi were going to promote their brand through sports sponsorships, would they do it with lawn bowling? I don’t think so. If Pepsi were an animal, what kind of animal would it be? This exercise can go on and on, but when you are done, your brand image is consistently clear, distinct, and relative to the service you are offering.

So why do people buy brand and not product? They want to associate with something they know and trust. If you give them a sense of who you are, you offer them the ability to make that choice. The rest of your marketing efforts will fall right in line. All good marketing efforts are built on the back of a good, solid brand identity. Start with that. Know how people think and relate to things. Every time you promote your business, whether it’s with a business card or a television campaign, build it off a consistent image. People will come to know who you are and what you are and will identify with your brand.

Wes Burgiss has been involved in marketing for 22 years. He founded his own ad agency, Creative Alliance, in 1987. He sold the agency in 1996 after growing it to the largest in the region. Currently, Burgiss is senior vice president of marketing for Confluent Networks, an application service provider based in Louisville, KY. He also is director of marketing for Bellarmine College, the region’s premier private university with colleges specializing in education, business, health sciences, and arts and sciences. Bellarmine is currently developing a center for e-business and e-commerce education that will be located in Louisville’s newly planned technological region, e-Main USA.

Are you struggling with the branding issue for your IT consulting business? How are you addressing marketing needs? Tell us about your experiences by posting a comment below. If you have an article idea you’d like to share, or a question or comment for Wes Burgiss, send us a note.

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