Category Archives: Positioning

This IT company needs focus

So this month the BrandingWire posse of pundits, of which I’m a member, blogs about branding a small IT firm serving B2B and non-profit organizations. It is a real company but prefers to remain anonymous.

After reading my blog be sure to visit the blogs of other BrandingWire pundits. Those links are located in the right column of this blog page, and listedagain at the end of this blog. Or you could click the image here to start at the BrandingWire home page where this month’s assignment is presented.


As I see it, this firm is having trouble defining who they are.

Their services, mostly provided through small, hourly contracts, range from 24-hour emergency problem-solving to installations, conversions and upgrades. They serve health care, non-profit, financial and retail clients.

Apparently most of their existing clients and their prospects are not used to paying for good IT services. They don’t perceive the value. As the company freely admits, they are looked upon as an “IT repair service” when their desire is to become a “business partner”.

Reading their goal of becoming a partner with their clients harkens me back to my days with IBM. That was – and still is – their modus operandi.

Building a sound business model

Now I’m getting away from the branding aspects of strategy for a moment because I believe branding needs to be based on a firm business foundation, and that the brand should then align with the business core. I would first want to develop the company structure and orientation.

Is it driven by technocrats or business/marketing people? IBM was driven by marketing and sales, particularly sales. Their sales force was trained and rewarded to be business consultants, working with client IT people and with executives within the company. They held seminars and workshops to promote (in my day) such leading edge technologies as time-sharing systems, linear programming and CAD/CAM. Sales people (called Account Managers) worked conceptually with top customer execs to develop long-range plans and systems based on ROI considerations. They wrote proposals much as a McKinsey consultant might, from a strategic platform.

Then each account had a Systems Engineer (or a crew of SE’s) to work hand in glove with client IT people to implement the systems and help with everyday problems and fixes. Also, Field Engineers were assigned to take care of hardware installation and maintenance on a contract basis.

Even in a small IT company, I believe you need evangelistic account people selling the concepts and benefits of particular system solutions. These folks need to be business oriented instead of technicians. They’ll do most of their work at executive, non-IT levels. The services themselves would then be carried out by top-notch technical people working within the customer environment with customer IT personnel to implement and then trouble-shoot as required. Now you have the basis for a partnership.

Characteristics of viable niches

You’ll need to identify a niche with three minimum characteristics:

1) It’s large enough to provide cash flow and profits for your company and your top three competitors.

2) The niche and its participants can be readily identified and approached.

3) Niche participants feel enough pain from the problems you promise to solve that they will listen and ultimately pay for a solution.

Three ways to differentiate a B2B business

If this structure is in place, you can now differentiate your service in one or more ways:

1) By industry you serve. This particular company was started serving non-profits but found they were not cash-rich. Perhaps they can specialize in retail for example. Find or educate an account rep in point-of-sale data capturing, sku tracking, trend reporting, etc.. Identify those retailers within a 100-mile radius and develop top-level relationships through seminars, association membership and regular information exchanges.

2) By application specialty. This needs to be a broad enough application to make it viable. It might be database development and mining which might appeal to marketing functions in retail, wholesale, fund-raising and medical research. Again, the spokes-evangelist must be hired and provided the technical backup to sell the concept as well as install and maintain such a system.

3) By the way you do business. Here you’re not focusing on a market niche, you’re just selling your approach to helping companies achieve their business goals through IT applications. This is harder to pull off for a smaller organization because their people probably don’t have the knowledge to meaningfully partner with prospect execs. But by focusing on, let’s say, three allied niches you might make it work.

Branding equals information dissemination

Now about branding this new, niched structure: For a service business, providing information – not just promotional literature and data sheets but knowledge prospects and customers can use to develop strategies and tactical plans – is the best way to brand the business. Becoming an expert and letting your market know it should be the main thrust. That means knowledgeable people first and informational materials second.

That doesn’t mean you ignore traditional branding elements. In addressing them, starting with a business name, I’d make sure it wasn’t too “techy”. It shouldn’t be Associated Systems Solutions, or as people will call it, ASS. Rather, the name should reflect the bigger picture. In fact, “Big Picture” might be a good name for this entity.

And of course the logo, tagline, graphic standards and trade dress will need to be compatible.

But of most importance is that the mission, vision, brand story, code of conduct and elevator pitch should be aligned and communicated to and through every single employee. In the service business, employees are really the key to your brand. They not only represent the brand, they are the brand in customer’s eyes.

Employees are the brand

This includes how they dress, how they interact with others, how they communicate enthusiasm and exhibit a helpful attitude. Oh, yes, make sure they’re competent.

It may take time to hire the right people, establish the contacts and get up to speed on the industries and applications required. You’ll need to prepare seminar curriculum and materials; join associations and standards committees; participate in industry trade shows, symposiums and conferences, and constantly publish white papers, technical briefs, trade articles and executive application descriptions.

But to become known as a specialist, the “go-to” company for (name your niche), is a lot easier, faster and less costly than to attempt to become all things to all people. Yes, I know you might have to pass up a piece of business to focus on your niche. But in the long run, the company’s reputation and position in the chosen niche will be a magnet for other niche participants. You can become the authority. You can command higher rates. You will enjoy being a big fish in a smaller pond.

All you need to do is find that viable niche, one that is not already dominated by a big fish competitor, and start to focus your business.

Read the other blogs about IT

Now: read what the other BrandingWire pundits have to say on this subject. Just click here to go to the BrandingWire web site. The individual blogs are listed and linked below”

Lewis Green

Kevin Dugan

Valeria Maltoni

Steve Woodruff

Drew McLellan

Patrick Schaber

Derrick Daye

Gavin Heaton

Becky Carroll

Olivier Blanchard


Matt Dickman

Chris Brown

Cam Beck

I hope you’ll enjoy the discussion and pick up an ideas or two in the process.

Martin Jelsema

Branding for referrals: two principles

Many, many businesses rely on a referral pipeline for growth and profit. You know if you’re one of them.

So can you develop a brand that helps you get referrals? Can your brand stimulate word-of-mouth “buzz” and generate referrals from qualified prospects?

I think so.

We’ve heard a lot about experiential marketing, permission marketing, word-of-mouth marketing and relationship marketing in the past ten years or so. Over that time, I’ve read and observed – always from the perspective of what it all means to branding and how branding can contribute to referrals.

There are a couple of ideas I’ve come to call the “principles of referral branding”. Though there are undoubtedly more, I think the following, if followed, will increase the number and quality of referral leads you can generate through branding.

First, I doff my hat to Scott Degraffenreid, a “social network analyst” and author of Embracing the N.U.D.E. Model – The Art and Science of Referral Marketing. That little book is based on his work in statistically analyzing major research on the behavior of referrals of prescription drugs by doctors and their patients. Through his analysis, he isolated four attributes of a product or service that helps generate referrals. Those attributes: Novelty, Utility, Dependability and Economy: the N.U.D.E. Model.

If you have a mixture of those four attributes people will refer your service or product to others.

Now why are those specific attributes important? Two reasons: Because unless they are present the product or service is not memorable, and because the referrer will only look good in the eyes of their associates if those characteristics are present.

Remember this: above all else, a referrer wants to look good in the eyes of those he or she refers a product to. That’s why people make referrals.

So the two principles I advance for branding for referrals are pretty simple:

One: Build your brand by incorporating and communicating the N.U.D.E. attributes.

Two: With every branding decision, ask yourself if it helps or hinders a person’s ability to look good while referring your product or service.

I’ll blog further about referral branding in the next couple of weeks, but for now, just remember the N.U.D.E. Model.

Martin Jelsema

BrandingWire Case Study: Opinions by the Dozen

As promised, here’s the initiation of a monthly series of blogs based on case studies that twelve of us – a posse of pundits – will be addressing through the vehicle called BrandingWire. Our first “problem” was contributed by Steve Woodruff at Sticky Figure. Here’s the company profile he’s presented us:

“Growing A Company from the Coffee Grounds Up”
“A small coffee company in America’s heartland has been in business for 8 years and is ready for real growth. To date, they are moderately successful, profitable, and carry no debt. They roast their own beans on-site and their retail sites are relaxed, and kind-of country-funky. The locals love them but no one outside the region knows they exist.

This is a family business and the owner is committed to doing whatever it takes to create a thriving business. Before they do, however, they have a few “challenges”. Their brand name may be inadequate to go national, their tagline, “Great coffee at great prices!” sucks, and they have no marketing/branding pieces that can carry their growth. Finally, their logo looks like a five-year old drew it. On the upside, they have lots of roasting capability and their coffee sources can deliver all the beans they will need. They also have money to invest in growth, without placing any burden on their operations.”
You can read my ruminations and recommendations below, and the other eleven perspectives by accessing BrandingWire. But since you’re here, please read mine first.:o)

My Concept of Branding

First I should define what I believe branding is. Before the more traditional tasks such as naming a company or creating a logo, branding is a strategic activity that defines the very business to be created. It involves assessing the market, paying attention to trends and positioning the company in relation to competitors. It is the junction where customer desire and company strengths cross. I call it the brand platform.

So I suggest exploring the very nature of the business.

At present, the owners of this company are deeply committed to competing in the “coffee shop” category head-to-head with Starbucks, the semi-successful Peabody Coffee and a few other “me-too” coffee shop chains and local imitators. If as stated, the owners are “committed to do whatever it takes to create a thriving business”, I’d ask them to think more broadly.

I’d want to explore creating a new product category in which there is no significant, organized competition. This is a matter of combining the coffee-making component with another, equally attractive service business opportunity.

How to Create a New Product Category

How would I go about that? First I would study trends. And I would study Starbucks and try to find those areas in which they are not strong.  I’d look at activities in which coffee drinking could be an accompaniment, much as beer is hooked to bowling. I’d then associate with those types of establishments and sell my brew from under their roofs or in co-owned facilities. This is being done in at least one market, bookselling.

Here’s an example of one direction I’d explore based upon my own, very narrow experience in Starbucks, and knowing about one significant trend in American life. I’d want to walk through the financials before exploring it much further than I have here.

Here’s the premise:

There are few places where small groups can meet regularly except in the back rooms of a handful of restaurants where participants are required to eat a meal. And those groups, either business or social, are becoming more popular what with the trend toward social networking. So I’d provide a place where leads groups, master-mind groups, MLM groups, sales networks, plus non-business groups like mother’s morning break groups, retired social groups and charity organizers could meet regularly for a room fee and the cost of refreshments.

I’d have up to five semi-private areas of different sizes, each of which equipped with conference table, whiteboards, sideboard for refreshments and coffee. These “pods” would offer some privacy. Plus the meetings would no longer dominate the entire seating area as they do when groups “invade” a Starbucks. There would also be a “public area” for one and two people seating, and a take-out function as well.

But instead of being known as a coffee house, I’d create a new category: meeting place. I’d call it something like “Rendezvous”

I’d serve great coffee and variations, but the thrust is a place to gather and to come back regularly to meet, even though you could meet with a friend there anytime, and occasionally just drop in for a cup.

The networking propensity of group members will provide word to spread about this meeting place so that when some one asks, “where can I gather with my cohorts?”, Rendezvous comes to mind.

Think Outside Your Existing Category

So, by thinking outside the traditional product category, by creating your own category in which you are the first to reside, by designing the business around a particular type of customer, by targeting niche activists, by combining business concepts, these coffee folks can compete effectively without competing directly with the Starbucks machine.

If the new model has legs, then I’d build a brand platform upon which the traditional branding elements can be created and integrated into a differentiated new business that just happens to sell great coffee.

Now go visit the BrandingWire and read what the other eleven members of the pundit posse have to say about growing coffee shops. (Their individual blogs can also be reached from the “Posse of Pundits” blogroll in the right column.

Martin Jelsema


Tension creates a branding dilemma

Last week, I expressed the need for a powerful brand to create a certain tension between novel and utilitarian.

This is really a concern when branding a new company, product or service. For the consumer to put a new product in context to their needs and desires, they must have some sort of understanding of the purpose of the brand. In other words, they must comprehend its utility.

For my own part, I’m still not clear just what Blackberry means to me. Nor do I know enough about Blue Tooth to know if it even applies to me. And what is a “Blue Ray”? Until I’ve actually experienced the technology and gotten past the strangeness of it can I begin to appreciate its benefits to me.

So do I begin by branding uniquely and then through my marketing efforts build some familiarity, or do I attempt to brand based on knowing my customer’s collective mind-set well enough to make the new product familiar right from the beginning?

To me the challenge is to brand with a novel name and icon structure that conveys benefit in a context in which customers can immediately identify. I want my cake and eat it too.

Most technologically driven companies won’t stand for that. They claim the product is so revolutionary that it’s no longer relevant to “the old paradigm”. So begins the long gestation period where market segments, usually one at a time, begin to “get it”.

There’s a bit of arrogance in this position.

And an expensive approach to market penetration.

So I say, yes, make sure the branding elements are unique, but place them and your “brand story” in the familiar arena of your prospects’ frame of reference.

Now that’s a difficult assignment. Sometimes, as in the case of Hewlett-Packard, it has to do with re-defining the product category as they did back in the 1970’s when they “invented” the “programmable calculator” and then evolved it into a “desktop computer”. They evolved, and their target engineering/scientific markets were accepting the transition. That base is the foundation to all that followed for H-P in the small computer and peripheral business.

So it can work. Just requires some work and a market’s view-point instead of a technologist’s.
Martin Jelsema


Naming tips – Number 14 in a series

The name can – and probably should – have more than one function. Of course, identity is number one. But aside from that, consider how the name can help your brand in the following ways:

Contribute mightily to the brand’s “personality”.

One of the techniques I use when getting input from a client is to have them define the personality they believe their offering should possess. I give them a list of personality “traits” and ask them to choose the three most appropriate. Name generation and evaluation can be guided by these attributes of “style” and “tone”.

Here are five of the 40-plus traits I suggest a brand could have:

    • Assertive

If you’d like the entire list, just click on the “Comments” button below and let me know you want it. And provide any feedback you think might help me serve you better.

Another possible function of a name is to help “position” the offering

Now positioning can never be achieved through a name only, and in fact, is often better served through other branding elements.) But it is possible to fashion name candidates that can help to position the entity…

    • in its industry/product category.
      in a specific market.
      with a specific type of buying influence.
      with a specific application.
      with a strategic differentiator.
      with its heritage/tradition.
      as a new market entrant.
      as a market/industry leader.
      as the premier provider of a specific attribute or characteristic.

Just describe the desired position (for example, “first-to-market with Internet-based solutions”) and ask name-generators to consider that position when exploring possibilities.

I’ll address some additional functions of the brand name next week.

How Can “Plus” Differentiate a Brand?

As I’ve admonished anyone who’ll listen, the key to building a successful brand is to differentiate your company or offering in such a way that you stand out from competitors, and that your differentiator will be hard to imitate.

So, what do you think of those companies whose name states their prime business and then goes on to dilute their primary focus? Is this good branding? Does it differentiate or just confuse? It’s like being in thier prime business is just not enough.

I’m thinking of companies like Bed, Bath & Beyond; Brakes Plus, and Containers & More.

Did they rationalize that “more” differentiates them? Or were they afraid they’d miss customers if they really niched, so they “hedged their bets” with a name expansion?

Jack Trout, author with Steve Rivkin of Differentiate or Die, states that “breadth of line” is a difficult way to differentiate. It costs lots of money, competitors with money can copy this strategy easily, it blurs what the brand represents.

For really big box chains, having lots of inventory may be a customer plus in and of itself, but most of those stores – Home Depot, Pep Boys, CompUSA – never claimed to narrowly focus in the first place. Their differentiation is a combination of breadth of line, lower prices and customer service. Within their retail categories – home improvement, automotive after market, and hi-tech electronics – they can and do focus.

I’d like to hear from you on this subject: Is adding a name expansion helpful in establishing a solid brand? Does it dilute the company’s primary differentiator, or does it enhance it?

Martin Jelsema

More on memes

Last week I blogged about memes as a means of branding. Memes are icons or phrases with universal meaning such as the red cross of the Red Cross organization.

I suggested that some marketing advisors embraced the idea of associating a product or service with an existing meme such as Prudential has done with the Rock of Gibraltar. I then stated that I’d be very careful in associating your brand – or incorporating a meme into your brand as Prudential has done – because the meme by its very definition is not unique.

I still hold to this premise. But I must expand my thoughts to say that a meme can be a really powerful brand element or association if you’ve created it. In other words, if you’ve established and promoted your brand through a unique graphic, audio or text element that has become a meme through your presentation of it, and through people’s acceptance of it, you’ve got a winner.

Another way to say it: you’re practicing viral marketing. (As an aside, is it a coincidence that viral and virile have the same root?)

So if you’ve created “where’s the beef?”, or a bald-headed, house-cleaning genie, or “you’ve got mail”, you may be gaining brand equity. (Just a warning, though, the toy bunny with a drum is most often associated with Duracell even though he belongs to Energizer Holdings.)

Still, finding a unique way to express the essence of your brand is vital, whether that icon or tagline ever becomes an authentic meme.

Martin Jelsema


Differentiation: Core of your Brand

I believe differentiation is critical for any successful  brand. It should be at the core of the company, product, service or event being branded.

Differentiation needs to be strategically implicit in the way you do business, and perceived as valuable and unique by target market members. And it must be clear – easily understand and easily communicated by gatekeepers to others. And most important, it needs to be believable.

Doug Hall (yes, the same Doug Hall who was coerced into being a “judge” on last summer’s American Inventor clone of American Idol), in his very wise and very readable book, Jump Start Your Business Brain, provides the three ingredients to a successful brand, although he didn’t mention “brand” per se. He just calls them the “three laws of Marketing Physics”. (His way of differentiating by creating a new paradigm). Those ingredients are:

•     An Overt Benefit (what’s in it for the consumer?)

•     A Real Reason to Believe (why should the consumer believe what you have to say?)

•     A Dramatic Difference (how novel is your delivery of the first two factors?)

Mr. Hall has isolated and documented these three factors through extensive research, and claims that if they are present at sufficient levels, there is an 84% overall probability of success.

Be that as it may, I’ve advised clients to utilize those three “laws” as a sound approach to differentiation. They do provide a solid foundation for a compelling brand.

I believe you will find that applying them to your branding process will be valuable.

In future blogs, I’ll be quoting others with world-wide reputations concerning differentiation. It’s pretty important.