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Get on The Brand Wagon

What your business means to customers begins and ends with branding. You’re in the cleaning business. If you have a plant, a store or a truck, you’ve already branded your business, whether you know it or not.
Branding is how the public views your business and — directly or indirectly — you. You can mold that image, or you can let it take its own course. Either way, you will develop a brand. If you deliver a poorly pressed shirt, you may lose a customer. Manage your brand poorly, and you could lose your business.
Everyone knows what a cow looks like. Those who know more about cows can recognize the differences between a calf, a cow and a steer. Beyond that, you might know the different breeds, temperaments and more. But it doesn’t matter how much you know about cattle, if you get hundreds of them together, they start to look alike.
It’s the same for businesses. Drive down a busy street. You’ll probably pass 100 businesses, and they’ll all look the same. You may recognize the different types in passing, but what makes one restaurant different from another? In a crowded city mile, you might pass four or five drycleaners. What would get you to stop in one over another?
If there are 50 cows in a pen and they are all of the same breed, how do you know who owns them? It’s easy: You tell by the brand.
Six months ago, I drove by a drycleaning plant that displayed only one sign: “Cleaners.” I drove by again last month and saw an empty storefront. It might have been a coincidence or any number of factors that caused the plant to close, but I’ll bet it was a lack of first-time customers.
Every other plant in the area is an outlet of a local chain or a single-store competitor, and every one immediately tells me more about their brand and business. It doesn’t necessarily matter what you call the business — what does it stand for? People like to associate a name with most things — how else can they identify and relate their experiences to someone else?
Joe’s Cleaners might be known for its quality, Quality Cleaners for its discount prices, and Speedy’s for its slow service. For better or worse, those are their brands — whatever the public perceives them to be. A brand is not what you are, it’s what the market thinks you are. What does your brand mean?
A brand is usually whatever combination of the four Ps (Product, Place, Promotion and Price) that your operation delivers. In drycleaning, they are more commonly known as Quality,  Convenience, Advertising/Marketing and Pricing. The fifth P — not found in any textbook — is Perception.
Perception is what makes people pay more money for Sean John jeans than they would for Levi’s. The Product is the same (jeans) and the Place is the same (in the same stores, side by side). But the Promotion and Price are different for Sean John.
Sean John jeans cost more because they carry the signature of rapper/entrepreneur P. Diddy/Sean John Combs. These jeans offer an opportunity to share in his lifestyle. He is managing his brand. Levi’s, on the other hand, is an established brand that’s known more for reliability than hip-hop glitz.
Is your operation actively delivering what you promise on a consistent basis? Do customers understand that what you do is somehow unique? “I get them in with price and keep them with quality” is no longer enough. Every cleaner thinks they deliver good quality and defines “quality” differently. Is that definition the same for customers?
Now, take a look at the “Place” component of your brand: How convenient is your store? Do people like to visit, or do they worry for their safety because the parking lot is so dark and your staffers so menacing?
I would guess that only a third of drycleaners have clean, dust-free counter areas with no visible stacks of boxes. If a cleaner isn’t clean, what does it do to the brand? If your target market is people who like dingy spaces and sour service, congratulations! Your brand is right on target. If not, there is a disconnect between what you think you are and what your customers think of you.
My brother goes to a cleaner because he travels on the same side of the street on his way to work. He would rather go somewhere else; he is not loyal and knows it. The cleaner’s brand is meaningless — my brother doesn’t know the name on the store or anyone there, and he started going there more than three years ago.
A well-managed brand gives people a reason to purchase beyond convenience. What is a well-managed brand? Any brand that delivers consistency in the four Ps. Advertise something you’re not or can’t deliver consistently, and not only are you wasting money, you’re building negative brand awareness. People perceive a bait-and-switch.
The best way to build a brand is to know who you are. Low prices can’t convey high quality. High prices won’t allow shortcuts or lower quality in production.
Operators who have been successful even in the recent downturn are those who have stayed true to their brands. They have continued to be market leaders and continued to add market share. If you’re consistent about who you are, you can even run a sale every now and then.
Operators who are feeling the pain have lost sight of their identities; their brands started doing things inconsistent with their histories. The lure of a short-term increase in cashflow may have led them astray, but what will be the cost next month?
What works for one cleaner doesn’t work for every cleaner. Just because another plant launched a successful promotion and made money doesn’t mean you’ll experience the same success if the promotion is contrary to your established brand. Your brand is your business.
 

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