B-to-B Cataloging: Cast a Powerful Net
Finding and retaining good employees tops the list of major concerns for catalogers. Often catalog companies are located in less populated areas, where finding qualified staff is a challenge. If you’re located in a larger city, you face the challenge of losing your trained staff to other companies.
Salary, benefits and work environment are important for employees. But an overlooked aspect of employee retention is brand. Brand not only helps attract and retain customers, but it’s also essential for attracting and retaining good employees.
A good gauge of whether customers will want to shop at your company is whether employees want to work there. In B-to-B, are your employees excited about your brand because they identify with it?
What is Brand?
If you define your catalog’s brand solely by consistent use of your logo, predetermined color palette and established fonts, you may be on the verge of a brand identity crisis. When was the last time you shopped a catalog because you thought the company’s logo was cool? When was the last time an employee said, “I’m sticking around because of the color palette?” Though consistent design treatment is a vital part of branding, it’s a mistake to think that branding stops there.
Brand is what sets you apart from your competition — competition for retaining both customers and employees. For B-to-B catalogers, defining brand can be a challenge, especially if you sell a commodity product. Though brand primarily can be about your product, it easily extends beyond your merchandise selection. Taking a brand inventory is a good exercise to help you identify key elements of what makes you unique. To simplify matters, begin your brand inventory in terms of product, price, service and customer base.
Start with your product selection. Does it make you special? Do you carry products that address similar benefits, such as convenience, ease of use, reliability or other business concerns? Is there a theme in your product mix that your merchandising staff uses to find new items to carry in your catalog? If so, you may have a good start on defining your brand.
The same applies to companies that design their own products. What is it about those products in terms of design, quality or niche in your market that identifies them with your company? It should be more than just a logo. You’ve made the decision to invest in product development and manufacturing start-up expenses. Why? What is it about your product that’s special when compared to the competition? Is it innovative? Do your customers come to you for new ideas, methods or techniques for their business needs? Put that concept into words to help define your brand.
One B-to-B company designed and sold maintenance equipment for large office and apartment buildings. Its product was expensive, but also the best on the market. Its sales staff had a level of confidence that was apparent. The company’s management consistently communicated and proved to its sales staff that its product was the best. It communicated the brand to staff. Since the sales employees were convinced of the products’ quality, they had no trouble communicating it to customers. The staff actually wanted to learn more about the products sold!
When to Extend Your Brand Image
On the other hand, if your branded product essentially is a knock off of your competition with a different label, you’ll need to extend your search beyond specific, brand-identifying products.
Then, B-to-B catalogers often turn to the “variety factor.” The line goes: “Our customers can get everything they need from us. We’re the one-stop shop.” Or even better: “We’re the true one-stop shop!”
Unless you’re a warehouse operation carrying virtually every product and part of your industry niche known to humanity, it likely will be a challenge to claim variety as your brand. Yes, customers can get everything they need through your catalog, but your competitors’ customers likely are filling all of their product needs at the competition. If variety of products is what you can own uniquely as yours, great. But chances are you’ll need to dig deeper.
Price is another fallback position for B-to-B commodity catalogers. If you’re considering positioning yourself as the “low-price leader” of your niche, beware. The low-price niche is one of the most difficult to hold. Somebody usually can trim a few pennies and meet or beat your price. If you’ve built your brand solely on low price, you’ll be in trouble.
What About Service?
Also, examine your full range of service — from your initial order taking, the product knowledge of your customer service staff, your fulfillment, your in-stock metrics, all the way to your backend of repairs and returns. Are you offering exemplary customer service? Can you claim it as part of your brand in your product niche?
One company freely admitted it was an “also-ran” in a crowded field of competitors. It struggled to identify anything that differentiated it from competitors. In the end, it settled on one thing — something that had been obvious to customers: This company had an almost 100 percent initial fill rate on its products. It virtually was never out of stock.
For inventory control and warehouse employees, this was a source of pride, and it was apparent when you spoke to them about it.
Successful branding does more than present a clear and consistent message to your customers. It communicates to your employees, too. Clear brand identification energizes a company. When the brand effectively is communicated internally, employees take on a focus and commitment to deliver on the company’s brand promise.
Your company becomes more than just a place where people want to shop. It becomes a place where people want to work.
* For how to pull it all together,click on “Who’s Buying? Who’s Working” under Related Content in the upper-right.
George Hague is senior marketing strategist at J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog consulting firm in Mission, Kan. You can reach him at (913) 236-8988 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A columnist for Retail Online Integration, George founded HAGUEdirect, a marketing agency. Previously he was a member of the Shawnee Mission, Kan.-based consulting and creative agency J. Schmid & Assoc. He has more than 10 years of experience in circulation, advertising, consulting and financial strategy in the catalog/retail industry. George's expertise includes circulation strategy, mailing execution, response analysis and financial planning. Before joining J. Schmid, George worked as catalog marketing director at Dynamic Resource Group, where he was responsible for marketing and merchandising for the Annie's Attic Needlecraft catalog, the Clotilde Sewing Notions catalog, the House of White Birches Quilter's catalog and three book clubs. George also worked on corporate acquisitions.