Does Branding Come at the Expense of Sales?

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The catalog industry has finally become brand-conscience. With a heritage embedded in the density of Montgomery Ward and a culture of measurement, catalogers are moving beyond numbers as the sole measure of success. Catalogers now pay more attention to the importance of "brand" and what it does for the industry.


This is great news. The catalog industry has been slow to incorporate general advertising and marketing principles. We have been so reliant upon (and successful with) the statistics we apply in our numbers-based business that anything else seemed unnecessary. However, as this industry matures, we look beyond the original boundaries of doing business. Competition and economic downturns further motivate the exploration of new strategies.


A focus on developing stronger brands would seem to be a natural evolution.


But are we really creating more strongly branded catalogs? Are they performing as well as they could? Are we giving up sales in the name of brand? Sometimes.


Sometimes catalogers create more strongly branded work. Williams-Sonoma, Crutchfield and J. Jill have built brand and performance. And they have certain strategies in common, which they follow unwaveringly:


· They have a defined and differentiated positioning statement around which all creative is built.


· They take creative chances and differentiate themselves from the competition.


· They dedicate a reasonable amount of space to support positioning.


· They use direct marketing principles as the basis of what they do.


So why aren't more catalogs more strongly branded? And for those that try, why aren't branding efforts more effective? And how can some branding efforts even undermine sales?


Brand is an important factor, and understanding how to build a desired brand image is critical for a company's growth and development. However, a problem exists when brand development undermines or works contrary to successful financial performance. Though this may sound like a no-brainer, the same people who would agree often are quick to cite underperforming books as great examples of branded direct marketing catalogs. Banana Republic, Abercrombie & Fitch and Martha by Mail are among the most frequently cited examples of catalogs that display a strong brand. Kenneth Cole, Ralph Lauren and Chico catalogs are also examples of pieces to emulate.


The problem is that these catalogs are not sufficient revenue producers on their own. They might be considered advertising pieces that build image or drive store traffic, but they are not accountable for a direct mail performance that would let them exist as stand-alone businesses. They are sexy and intriguing. But they are not developed with the same guidelines as direct marketing pieces.


Therefore, these questions arise: Do we understand what brand is, and can we develop it successfully in a catalog environment?


Many catalogers have a misconception that you cannot achieve a strong brand and sales performance simultaneously, that each effort cancels out the other. This is simply untrue. We just may be less familiar with the strategies of building brand in our industry.


There is a natural tendency to look at companies within other industries to understand what elements make up a strong brand image. Retailing, being one of the closest industries to direct marketing, is a natural place to look. Strong, dramatic imagery may be appealing and may drive traffic, but it does not generate phone calls. We need to develop the building blocks that are in sync with our own industry for the whole package to be successful.


Years ago I heard Shelly Lazarus of Ogilvy & Mather speak at an industry luncheon. It was the first time I heard someone at that level speak specifically about how brand and performance must work together for success and how it was the agency's responsibility to the client to make that happen. It confirmed something I believed and worked toward.


Many challenges exist to achieve branding and performance simultaneously:


Right- and left-brain differences. Creating image and driving sales are viewed as right- and left-brain activities; one involves design and the other statistics. Typically, people understand one area better than the other. It is hard for most people to understand or even accept the strategies involved in achieving both simultaneously.


Compromise is not a word that people like. Compromise feels like you are not getting everything. But compromise can get you more than what you would get if you did not compromise. For example, creative compromising on density (going for a higher density) might generate more sales and, therefore, more customers and a more widespread firsthand awareness of a brand. Compromising on merchandise selection might mean dropping products that generate a lot of sales in favor of strengthening the brand so in the long run the catalog has a more cohesive look, a unified message and a better ability to be dramatic within the positioning.


Do not mistake strong design for strong brand. Even when they are excellent designers (or writers), many creative people do not know what is involved in creating a defined, differentiated brand image. Drama and beauty do not necessarily build a brand or the personality you want your brand to reflect. Many catalogers do not understand how to select, develop or direct the creative strategies that build brand and performance.


Many creative people think brand and sales are inversely related. They may understand the creative they need to develop exciting design and love sourcing the talent associated with award-winning photography and fine design. But when they hear that they are responsible for performance objectives, they hook into the old standby strategies of increasing density and bolding up the type.


The subject of how to achieve brand and performance is extensive and is based on a clearly written and unique positioning statement. The best success comes with an uncanny understanding of the target customers and what motivates them to be responsive.


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