What Happens to Branding when the Going gets Hairy

brandingThere is a lot of really good stuff in print on the regularly revived marketing concept of “branding.” For those readers that immediately think of smoke rising off the back end of an indignant cow, we are talking about establishing a unique aura or culture around your place of business that distinguishes it from others – favorably, we hope. Hanging On Harry’s Boat Sales or Nearly Honest John’s Watercraft are not quite the brand images most of us seek.

Unfortunately, we sometimes get images we don’t seek or even suspect we are liable for. When I first opened the doors to Lockwood Marine in downtown Shellman Bluff, Georgia, during a boating recession, we were competing with some very small “mom and pops.” Some had really unique marketing methods. I remember that one priced outboard motors of any size by tossing the would-be customer a dealer price list and saying, “Add $200 to anything you see, and I’ll get it for you.” Boats were similarly marked up to get motor and repair business.

I was pretty green on selling boats and retailing in general, but I knew this path wouldn’t let me stay open long. I set up reasonable margins, refused to bargain, and smiled at my customers – expecting their business. They immediately tacked “nice folks, but high priced” and “won’t get their heart right” on to my brand. They stayed away in droves.

Dumb luck got me out of this branding mess. A marine distributor, L. S. Brown, located near the Atlanta plant for another family business, sold out to Attwood. Like all going businesses with inventories, Brown had a lot of open boxes, sample products, scratch and dent merchandise, etc. Atwood didn’t want anything but clean and complete inventory. I bargained with my checkbook and hauled six full pickup loads of stuff I acquired at literally pennies on the dollar to my poorly branded dealership. We sold it for nearly two years before it was exhausted. We priced it around three times cost, equating to about a third of list. We also gave some away with new boats.

We had a few ratty boat trade-ins that we should not have even allowed on the yard. They needed to go to the dump (where they weren’t welcome). We offered them at $5 each – bring your own trailer. We also established our “junque table” with low ball prices on things a little too good to throw away but too distressed to sell normally. The word went out again, “Them folks at Lockwood are giving their stuff away.” Traffic and profits picked up quickly. The yard got cleaner, too. I learned some valuable lessons about retail branding. I was also reminded of my dad’s long ago comment, “You can make more money buying than selling!”

The locals judged that I had finally “got my heart right,” even though my margins actually went up. My brand now included “place to get a good deal.”

A component of branding I have always aspired to in every business, retail or not, is being “A Place Where Business is Done as it Ought to be Done.” Folks like to buy from somebody who does things right. That’s easy and fun to create when times are good. In today’s “hairy” times when we are up to our necks in alligators, it’s hard to remember we came to drain the swamp. You can pick your own analogy. Alligators and swamps are pretty common where I am. You are likely experiencing some or all of the following:

  • Money is short for advertising and normal sales promotion.
  • Time is short, because you have let some good folks go you can no longer afford.
  • New boats in the fast moving sizes are scarce, because the floorplan market has turned ultra-frugal after years of helping manufacturers cram boats down your throat.
  • Even the small amount of funds necessary to maintain your facility in first class condition is hard to come by.

All of the above are parts of your brand that are melting away like summer ice cream. There are no pat answers to the problem. Here are a few of my suggestions gleaned from many years of business transactions (often involving trial and error).

  1. Read a book on gorilla marketing. (There’s a good one by that actual name.) This is the science of living large promotions when the wallet is small. The purchaser of my old dealership started a wonderful expedition club operation for owners of our leading brand. The members virtually took it away from him (including most of the expense). Most wouldn’t even consider another brand or dealership. That kind of loyalty gets you through hard times.
  2. Work longer hours personally if possible. Many of you have always done this, but probably you confine your longest hours to the “selling season.” Keep the pressure on year round as best you can with unique and seasonal promotions, including selling off hard stock that will bring in a little cash. What kind of promotion do you do for Christmas? There’s probably an empty mall storefront nearby that vexes the mall owner because of its depressing appearance. What kind of super deal would he give you for a couple of months at Christmas (providing he has no tenant) when he realizes how much better a few of your boats would look in the windows? He ought to pay you!
  3. Redouble your efforts reworking used boats on hand plus consignment sales. This inventory movement will help keep your techs busy and throw out cash.
  4. Get creative about facility maintenance.
    • Acceptable painting can be done by anyone on the payroll or even a volunteer – regardless of gender or age – beyond single digits.
    • Lawn mowing and the like are the same. When the maintenance man in my son’s business retired, he found some of his younger guys eager to get outside and mow. He had too many volunteers seeking job security and fresh air to even think of asking the ladies.
    • Rework those old fixtures and use them creatively. Buying new ones right now is not really practical.

I’m sure readers have hit some other pay dirt ideas. How about sharing?

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About John Underwood

John Underwood currently serves on the National Boating Safety Advisory Council for the US Coast Guard. He is past chairman of the Marine Retailers Association of America. He owned Lockwood Marine for 20 years. For more info, click Contributors on the main menu.

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