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Branding in the Next Millennium

How you distinguish your business from the competition

Fifty years ago, we knew it simply as a referral;  Mrs. Brown's dress shop always had the best selection for women wearing a certain size.  Or, Joe's service station did the best job of giving your car or truck a tune up that would last for a long time.

By the 1960's marketing took a turn towards identification of products and quality.  Some of these efforts, such as Craftsman tools from Sears, continue to hold their place in the market today.  Others, like the Izod sports shirts for men, are not the dominant product anymore as the Ralph Laurens and Tommy Hilfigers have muscled their way into becoming a prominent label.

Today, you can see a 40 year old who has never ridden a motorcycle wearing a t-shirt with the Harley Davidson logo, wanting to own a Harley, or an executive telling an assistant to Fedex a package across the country.  In the Christian retailing industry, an individual makes another visit to a Berean Christian Store to buy a gift for his mother, a devout Catholic; while another person makes another trip to Sam's club for the latest Max Lacado book.  Each of these four, in their own time and their own way, have demonstrated a response to branding.

What is branding?  Why and how is it successful for the supplier, independent retailer and the chain retailer?  From a perspective of definition, branding could include your business becoming the answer to a customers problems and needs, as compared to just being a place where they shop.

According to D. Wendal Attig, "America's Corporate Positioning Coach", branding means "your business making its' name synonymous with an idea or concept.  The idea or concept actually becomes bigger, and more important than the name."

In a Christian retailing application, branding is "every single thing our company does; our buildings, graphics, employee training, advertising and website", according to Dan Miles, president and CEO of Berean Christian Stores.

Looking to our four examples, why did these people make their choices?  Ask someone with a dream to drive a motorcycle cross country, and they are likely to mention Harley Davidson, a motorcycle manufacturer that almost ceased to exist several years ago.  Sure, there are other brands of motorcycles, but people want to ride a Harley.  There is a feeling of free spirit and individuality associated with a Harley, and with their branding statement of, "Live to Ride, Ride to Live".

The executive did not ask the assistant to overnight the package; she said, "Fedex it".  Why? Because it "absolutely, positively has to be there overnight".  You have heard the slogan during advertising by Fedex.  And most readers of business books will remember Tom Peters extolling the virtues of using Fedex by way of his personal experiences.

The two customers purchasing Christian gifts and books were individuals interviewed for this story.  The gift was bought for the Catholic mother because the staff at Berean had been very pleasant to the shopper; not only the first time, but each of the subsequent visits.  By deciding to continue to shop with Berean, the customer is making a statement that Berean does not give him any unpleasant surprises.

The second shopper, buying the book at Sam's Club, does so each time because he says, "The two Christian stores near my home are notorious for charging full price for everything they sell.  I know Sam's Club will have the best selling books, and an inexpensive price."  What about the thousands of items a Christian store will have that cannot be found in Sam's?  "Then", says our shopper, "I will go to my nearby Christian store, and get what I need".

Through his shopping experiences with two stores, our second shopper has branded Christian stores with the distinction of having many items, but at higher prices.

Our two shoppers, and the market research conducted by CBA and America's Research Group, Ltd. provide us with the necessary information for observing examples of what a Christian store, independent or chain, can do to establish a branding position for themselves.

Our first shopper reported shopping in several of the parish gift shops as well as other Christian stores, and found the reception to be "less than what I expected".  When the Berean staff repeatedly "acted more like Christians", Berean had accomplished for this customer what their president, Dan Miles, hoped would happen.  While thrilled with this event, Miles explained his business is not fulfilling all of their goals of branding.  To this end, Berean is currently utilizing two specialty companies to assist them in better establishing their identity, image, and branding, both eternally and internally, as well as through their personnel and merchandise.

Some of Berean's efforts demonstrate their usage of the information in the CBA report which showed 53% of the selection perception of a business comes from the external appearance of the business.  Being able to hire multiple specialists may well serve a chain like Berean or Family Christian stores, but what can the independent business do?

One of the options for independents is to join a group like Parable Christian stores or Munce Marketing Group.  While each offers direct mail, another strong suggestion in the CBA survey, research by the two groups leads to different directions.

Ron Vasques of Munce Marketing Group reports their research indicates more than 80% of independents do not want group identification.  Direct mail efforts by Munce, and their retailers, will not have group identification that materials from groups like Parable will have.

Parable looks to create an image of a national name, much in the way True Value has done in the hardware industry.  Shop in any number of the 5,000 affiliated True Value stores, and you will find many similarities: private label products, an image to their employees as being a nationally know name, and the impression to the customer of the buying power of a chain store.  Jim Seybert, the vice president of marketing for Parable explains, "branding allows customers to feel comfortable about a purchase decision without the need to sample the product or service each time".

This branding, done properly by a member of the Parable group, will allow another Parable member to benefit when the customer moves or shops in another trade area and decides to look for a Christian store.  The customer will likely seek out a Parable store.

Looking at our last customer who made a point to shop at Sam's, there is strong evidence to support his action.  Less than half of the response to the CBA survey showed Christian stores as being better than other stores in regards to price.

And over 60% of frequent churchgoers rated price as the most important quality of the "ideal" Christian store. There are several actions a Christian store can take to drive this customer to their business.  From this same group, over 80% listed selection and customer service as important features in this "ideal" Christian store.  The answer in this positioning is to examine the number of stock keeping units (sku's) a Christian bookstore would have.  While the number would be in excess of 15,000 in many stores, there are less than 100 items which can also be found in a secular competitor.

To eliminate this "negative branding", a visit to the competition to check for items and prices will provide the necessary information for repositioning your price on these items.  While an independent or chain may express concern over having little or no margin on these items, surely this option is better than having consumers incorrectly anticipate your margins on all the items available for sale.  If a Christian store is the only business in town selling a study Bible, then there is no way for a consumer to make a price comparison.

While there are 21 recommendations in the list from CBA, there is one more we would like to uplift.  Only 22% of frequent churchgoers recalled a pastor or minister suggesting a particular book, information which dovetails with almost 50% of the same group saying they would buy what their pastor recommended.  The Christian bookstore industry can and needs to, individually and collectively, brand itself with ministers and church staff, also individually and collectively, as the answer to the needs of Christians.

Using all of the categories of products:  books, Bibles, music, gifts and apparel, as the various means to fulfill customer's needs, all retailers -independents and chains - in the industry will see increases in their sales.

How could we accomplish such a monumental task?  As an example involving retailers and suppliers, book publishers could contact the ministers within the trade area of a participating store, telling the minister a copy of the newest Billy Graham book was available to them for only $2.00.  The only action required of the minister is to go to the store to pay the $2.00 to get the copy.  At this point, the owner or manager of the store has the opportunity to introduce themselves and their business.  An occasional visit to the church offices with another book or a short list of available products for the appropriate season of the church calendar can "cement the relationship and establish the business as THE store in the marketplace of the mind", according to branding specialist Attig.

This writer has seen firsthand a bookseller who has achieved the distinction of being branded.  The bookseller offers a tremendous selection, great prices on the most popular items, an attractive store, and a staff that is second to none.

Mention the name of the city, and people ask if that was the town where the bookstore/tourist attraction is located. The answer to the question about the location of this branded retailer is yes, and the answer is yes as to whether any independent or chain within the Christian retailing industry can be branded as the first place you go to for Christian products.

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This article is copyrighted by Tom Shay and Profits Plus Solutions, who can be reached at: PO Box 1577, St. Petersburg, Fl. 33731. Phone 727-464-2182. It may be printed for an individual to read, but not duplicated or distributed without expressed written consent of the copyright owner.

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