Signs of Excellence
 A Promise to Deliver

by Peter Cheales  

When Matisse, Picasso or Van Gogh completed a painting they were proud of, they signed it. Their signatures were the buyers’ guarantees of quality. When you manufacture a product or provide a service that you’re proud of, you sign it as a guarantee of excellence.

Your signature ‘ your brand name ‘ differentiates what you produce from the range of me-too rivals. It’s as much an asset in your business as your fixed investments. And, unlike fixed assets, it has soul.

According to the traditional view expounded by yesterday’s marketing pundits, branding is the ability to create a point of differentiation in the consumer’s mind on the basis of criteria other than price and functional performance.

But times have changed.

Although customer loyalty to a specific brand remains the key to that business’ growth and survival, fierce global competition and South Africa’s prolonged economic downturn have sent wake-up shocks through the local marketing community.

Spiralling interests rates, growing unemployment and the dwindling buying power of the rand have led to a fall-off in consumer spending. They have also led to the emergence of a tougher, more demanding breed of consumers. These phenomena have dealt often lethal blows to once powerful brand names. Think, for example, of the OK Bazaars. In addition, dwindling advertising budgets coupled in many cases to off-target advertising and the consumer’s obsession with value-for-money plus the rise of store brands have contributed to the decline of name brands.

According to supermarket owners I spoke to in and around Johannesburg, people increasingly shop around for the best prices, not for famous names. The power has shifted from manufacturers to retailers. Retailers have exploited their proximity to customers to dictate terms to their suppliers, their own-label goods pushing slow-moving name brands off shelves.
So what can you do to rekindle the flames of love between customers and your branded products or services?

  1. Be nice to the vendors.
  2. Use all forms of communication, including carefully targeted advertising, to embed the name of your brand in the customer psyche.
  3. Give the new breed of customers what they want.

Today’s consumers look for the right combination of quality, service, price, convenience and integrity. And what they want won’t change when the economic situation improves. Value and the quality of service delivery will remain the primary determinants of a brand until well into the next millennium.

People will continue to favour sensible brands that offer clear, rational benefits long after the current recession is but a bitter memory. Customers are no longer prepared to pay a premium for a name unless you can convince them that the premium is worth paying. They now demand the added value that comes mainly from the provision of excellent service.

Effective communication at every point of contact is vital to keep the love affair between your brand and the customer on the front burner. Advertising and public relations create the image, set the tone and position the product or service. Promotion delivers the call to action. The in-store experience influences the actual purchase. Post-purchase follow-up in the form of after-sales support and service binds the relationship.

There are three basic levels of brand loyalty.

  1. Non-loyal
  2. Passive
  3. Active

Non-loyal consumers, as habitual brand switchers, don’t show allegiance to any name. They attach little importance to the differences between brands. They’re always on the lookout for something new.

Most consumers are passively loyal. Price, out-of-stock situations, deteriorating quality or service, or recommendations from friends may sometimes prompt them to switch brands. They tend to stick with a brand out of chronic inertia rather any strong commitment to a specific product. Maintaining high levels of satisfaction is generally sufficient to keep them in your court .

The active loyalist is totally convinced of his chosen brand’s total superiority. His complete satisfaction usually helps him ward off any advances by the competition.

How do you keep them all in your fold?

Offer better value-for-money, and constantly improve service delivery levels rather than cut prices in an attempt to keep rivals at bay.

While the recession has made low prices important for some consumers, it is still far from an overriding consideration for most. They no longer necessarily equate higher prices with better quality, and they’re now more insistent on getting their pound of flesh.

Branded products, formerly sold on pure imagery, now need to work harder to improve performance and functionality. Manufacturers and service providers need to find new ways of communicating directly with consumers to emphasise unique loyalty programmes, added value as well as the superior quality of their after-sales support and services.

In essence, a brand name reflects a proposition. It promises hassle-free operation and performance, ease of use and a money-back guarantee. It puts the customer squarely on the throne without adding to the cost.