April 1, 2014, 11:55 AM

Brands matter online, even for distributors and manufacturers

Distributors can do a better job of managing the brands they carry, says the chief strategy officer at Insite Software.

I recently read the following quote about brands from Krista Triede, partner and chief brand officer at Made For Good:

“Brands are no longer seated on a podium, dictating to a faceless audience. They are now faced with some of the most educated, discerning and focused consumers who in many cases drive business concepts and demand real, two-way relationships. As a result, brands have to work harder than ever before to showcase authenticity and those who have none are finding it hard to survive. Brands have had to sharpen their storytelling and while the best will always innovate at all costs, they are now innovating disruptively.” (from Chief Strategy Officer, a publication of marketing and research firm Innovation Enterprise.)

I thought this was one of the most concise, profound and powerful statements I have read concerning brand management in the marketplace today, and I’ve been contemplating its impact on our e-commerce work with manufacturers and distributors.  Here are a few of my observations:

For distributors, who have not been brand-focused in the past for their own brand (even though they may have some focus on the brands of the products they distribute), it is more important than ever before to let the world know who they are and what they do. Almost every distributor I speak with today comments that “our customers aren’t aware of all of the products we carry.”  This is interesting when most, if not all, distributors are looking to expand their current product offerings. From an e-commerce perspective, relying on a multi-level hierarchy to represent hundreds of thousands of products on an e-commerce site that no buyer will navigate is simply not going to cut it!

In a recent seminar, Paul Miller from W.W. Grainger Inc.a provider of more than a million products for  maintenance, repair and operations that continues to expand its online offeringsindicated that Grainger has no plans to discontinue printing the Grainger catalog. While it could be debated that the catalog itself, at least six inches thick, is an expensive strategy and is becoming increasingly obsolete in a digital world, it definitely makes a brand statement about the Grainger product line and hence has value from a different dimension.

Another common comment from distributors is that “our customers are not aware of all of the services we provide.” This comment has branding written all over it, but the historical approach to brand awareness for a distributor was through a sales rep shaking the hand of a customer and telling the brand promise story. With the increase in millennial-aged buyers and their predisposition to having no interest in shaking the hand of your sales rep, most businesses are just becoming aware that there is a significant void in their go–to-market strategy. Their brand has indeed become “faceless” and they don’t see a way to tell their brand story.

For manufacturers, I love the word “storytelling” in the opening quote of this blog. As people, we love to hear stories and most brands have great stories to tell. With the social technologies available today just getting a foothold in the business world, there is wonderful opportunity to let people know how your products or your company impacts lives in an entirely new ways.

Manufacturers can start by looking at some of the early adopters of storytelling to get some great ideas.  A few of my favorites are “Jeep Life” at Jeep.com; stories in video and text about how Starbucks works in communities around the world, at Starbucks.com; and SubZero with “Friends of the Kitchen” at refrigeration and cooking products supplier Subzero-Wolf.com.

For manufacturers and distributors, using storytelling to communicate and reinforce the validity of their brand will be necessary for survival.

Insite Software is a provider of B2B e-commerce technology used by companies in the manufacturing, distribution and retail industries. Its technology also supports mobile commerce and integrates with enterprise business software systems including customer relationship management, content management, financial accounting and inventory management, payment gateways, and shipping services.

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