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There is a legendary story about Starbucks, its brand, and toilet paper.

From within the offices of Starbucks, a branding guru had summarized the Starbucks brand into an extremely concise brand statement: A great coffee experience.

This brand statement encompassed the Starbucks store design, bean selection, barista personalities… even its toilet paper.

It seems that some smart guru hired by Starbucks wanted to downgrade from two-ply to one-ply toilet paper in store restrooms. He calculated a significant cost savings based on deep analysis of the comparative cost of toilet paper, the number of Starbuck stores, how many rolls per year were needed… and so on.

But Starbucks didn't agree, and the stores kept the thicker two-ply paper to preserve their "great coffee experience."

Quite literally, Starbucks was worried about all branding touchpoints.

A Touchy Subject

Your brand, as perceived by the only legitimate judges—your customers—is the sum of all their interactions with your company. Every place a customer can interact with your company is a touchpoint, and that touchpoint affects how you are perceived.

A lousy experience with one touchpoint can negate all the brand equity you build in other touchpoints. When Microsoft releases a security patch that creates more openings for hackers, its brand is diminished.

That is why toilet paper matters.

Let's look at the high-tech market as an example. A customer, whether an IT or consumer electronics buyer, interacts with your brand both directly and indirectly, through promotions, sales, product use, technical support, up-sale opportunities and more.

All these factors contribute to a customer's impression of your brand. To create and manage your brand—in short, to make the market think and feel what you want them to—you must create your brand through all these touchpoints.

Sony consumer electronics is a depressingly good case. Sony is widely perceived as an inventive company with poor product quality and service. Innovation and product turnover drive Sony's corporate culture. But its brand never evolves past that barrier because Sony fails to carry any other brand initiative through touchpoints beyond the sale.

High-tech companies have a number of brand touchpoints and should evaluate how their desired brand is (or is not) being managed through those points of customer contact. You need to create you own list by determining every interaction that your customer has with your company and products. I'll get you started by listing the more common ones.

Promotions

Back before the Carly era, Hewlett-Packard was perceived as a great technology company that could not market its own wares. The standard industry joke was that if HP were to market sushi, it would advertise it as "cold, dead fish, low on intestinal parasites."

Promotions are where customers first encounter your brand. Like flirting in a bar, it is a process of attraction on superficial touchpoints.

Sadly, inexperienced marketing people create promotional images that do not match the product or company brands—or perhaps the company fails to live up to the image rightfully created by marketing. Regardless, this creates disappointment later in the customer relationship.

If your promotions reflect a brand image you want to develop, the rest of your company has to reinforce that image. Failure to do so will rapidly create a consensus in the market that your promotions are misleading and that you cannot be trusted.

In the IT market—where customer expenditures can be millions of dollars—mismatched promotions and delivery can be fatal. IT buyers want to build long-term relationships with vendors—and, as we all know, relationships are built on trust.

Violate that trust, and the customer has every reason to abandon the relationship.

Sales Engagement

Salespeople are the first human interactions customers have with your brand (this is under the broad assumption that sales people are human, something yet to be scientifically proven). This applies regardless of products category or channel.

For example, in the consumer electronics space, your salespeople may be working for Best Buy or Circuit City (and thus are not entirely within your control). Poorly coached salespersons can destroy your brand more quickly than a defective product because they prevent the sale from ever happening.

And it all comes down to behavior. Salespeople must project your brand, whatever you have decided that to be. If you are a low-cost provider, your sales team needs to be fast and efficient in helping a customer reach a buy decision. If your brand is based on great customer service, your salespeople need to listen first, then meet your customer's every need.

Regardless of your specific positioning, you must train and enculturate your sales teams to project your brand.

As an aside, let me note that I live in fear of salespeople with PowerPoint presentations. Most spend your customer's time explaining why their products are so great and why their company is wonderful, and almost no time listening and learning what their customers need and want.

After 30 slides of marketing effluvium, these self-absorbed sales types might actually ask a question, and might receive an answer if the customer is still awake.

Product Demos

For IT vendors, product demos are the very first interaction that customers have with your product. Your product must live up to the brand image that your advertising and sales people created. (Are you starting to see a layered effect in branding?)

Examine with a cold eye what your brand claims are and what the demo actually presents. If they are too different, then it is best to restrain product releases until everything is in harmony.

The two most common branding disasters with IT product demos are the "beta hack" and the "ease-of-use" lie:

  1. Beta hack demo: All too often, a vendor is tempted to rush products out before they are ready. Under the top-line-revenue gun, it releases what should be considered beta test versions as the final product. This can be fatal in all technology markets, but it is especially acute for IT vendors. IT departments require stability as well as functionality for all products. Deliver beta test code as a final product, and you immediately destroy a core brand element.

  2. Ease-of-use lie: The ability to easily use a product is a primary customer touchpoint. If your brand is built in part on an ease-of-use promise, you better deliver—because there is no way to mask poor usability.

Support

Technical support is the ultimate customer touchpoint. It creates (or breaks) human bonds and can often involve more hours of inter-company interaction than all other phases of the relationship. Support services are where customers build or lose trust with a vendor after having been beguiled by the advertising, charmed by the salesperson, and convinced by the product demo. (Did I mention that branding has a layered effect?)

Sadly, few technology companies educate their tech-support teams on the company brand and how to meet the expectations created through the promotion and sales process. Negative customer support images are greatly exaggerated by automated email response systems that incorrectly categorize a customer request and reply with unhelpful answers.

Training technical support staff in branding is not difficult and has amazing benefits.

Long ago, I managed a support group for a company that had a corporate motto of "we make happy customers." I indoctrinated the support team with war stories about the founder and how he went out of his way to make sure every customer knew how to get the most out of the product.

I also made it plainly obvious that I conducted random customer satisfaction calls from tech support logs (people never do what you tell them, but they do what you inspect).

My surveys indicated we had very happy customers, and not because the product was sexy (it drove pagers) or that it was easy to use (it didn't even have a GUI). They were happy because we helped them be successful with the product—we created happy customers.

Upsell and Ongoing Relationship

Sales people have jobs after the initial sale is complete. There are always opportunities to upsell customers and fatten revenues.

Likewise, there are always opportunities to destroy your brand after the sale. Upsell opportunities typically vanish in two ways: either the brand value was destroyed after the sale due to poor product design or support, or the sales person/system failed to correctly map the customer's situation and needs.

I once knew an IT software salesperson who was great at moving product and stunk at upselling. In every case, he failed to stay close to his accounts after the initial sale was closed. Thus, he never heard their complaints, concerns, suggestions, or understood where gaps existed between what he had sold and what they needed next.

When he did finally waltz back into the customer's offices, he would suffer a near endless barrage of verbal, and occasionally physical, insubordination from peeved clients.

The point is that to upsell, you have to have as good a grip on the customer's situation as you did at the initial sale. Often, with IT products, the salesperson correctly addresses the strategic desires of customers when making the initial sale.

But, just as often, the salesperson cannot grip the more tactical realities of the post-sale world, and thus the upsell opportunities available. This level of fumbling depletes the brand equity created through the rest of the process.

Touchy, Touchy, Touchy

Executives need to understand one point with crystal clarity: your brand is communicated with every customer interaction. From your promotions, to your documentation, to your technical support, right down to the cheerfulness of your receptionist—your brand is defined, projected, enforced or depleted.

Defining your brand is the easy part. Your ongoing job is to drive that brand through every part of your organization and any organization that works on your behalf, such as your channels.

In other words, if Starbucks worries about toilet paper, you should worry about all the plies in your organization.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Smith is the founder of Silicon Strategies Marketing (www.SiliconStrat.com), a marketing firm that specializes in strategic marketing and market development for technology companies. Guy has a background as a technologist for NASA, McDonnell Douglas, and Circuit City and remains active in technology, primarily within the Open Source community.