Remember to Brand on the Back End

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One of the most dramatic implications brought about by the Internet and the growth of direct-to-customer commerce is the effect on brands and the companies that provide fulfillment services for those brands. Today, fulfillment service companies are called on to help enhance the customer experience on behalf of brands.


There is more to fulfillment than just putting products in a box, affixing a label and shipping it to the customer. Back-end processes are an opportunity to extend the value of the brand. How the products are packaged, how they arrive at the destination, what information is included with the merchandise and how the package is identified are important factors to the brand management process.


Fulfillment and customer service include processes and operations with which many branded manufacturers are unfamiliar. An important factor to consider is that business-to-business distribution is very different from the now increasingly important direct-to-consumer distribution.


Extending the brand experience through the fulfillment process requires complete attention to detail. For example, when a customer orders from a specialty food company's catalog or Web site, a fulfillment company should check the weather and temperature at the destination, then, depending on the time of year, adjust the packaging to ensure that the product will arrive in perfect condition.


Before the specialty food item ships, inventory is stored in a climate -controlled environment. The product is cooled and brought to the correct temperature before shipment so that it arrives ready to eat.


Ultimately, protecting the brand experience means the customer gets what he wants, when and how he wants it.


One retailer of discounted high-fashion merchandise is aiming to enhance the experience of opening the package.


Thus, the merchandise is carefully placed into branded shopping bags, with complementary tissue paper; these are placed into custom-sized boxes that perfectly match the shopping bags. A little tissue to protect the bag, and the box is sealed. Just imagine what it feels like to open that box!


A leading retailer of apparel to young girls and teen-agers has many of its orders shipped in branded envelopes so colorful there is no doubt an excited young buyer will be able to spot the envelope as soon as it reaches the door.


Creating the "wow" experience is about understanding a company's brand and delivering on a customer's anticipated experience.


A leading online merchant has developed numerous customized and branded services. Order something from this merchant and you can check the status online, get e-mails about the order, even track the order on its Web site. When the package arrives, there will be no doubt which company sent the package to you --just look for the special labels and stickers on the box.


Often, when merchandise comes to the warehouse directly from a manufacturer, it must be completely repackaged for shipment to the customer.


This product preparation might be as simple as breaking down a box of six china mugs into individually wrapped items. It might mean putting a small piece of furniture into a custom box with Styrofoam inserts. Or, it could mean the use of "foam in place," which conforms to the product as it solidifies.


The value created by a brand is based on the product quality and consistency of the marketing presentation and how those factors meet or exceed the customers' expectations. The specific fulfillment practices and processes must be tailored to the brand.


Branding efforts via fulfillment should always recognize the importance of maintaining a quality experience through back-end practices and processes in order to maximize the consistency of the brand across bricks-and-mortar stores, catalog and Internet.


Here are some other options to consider in matching your fulfillment materials with your brand characteristics:


· Customized packing slips.


· Customized boxes, such as special sizes to better match your products or printing your brand logo on the exterior.


· Special packing materials.


· Special mailing labels.


· Special wrapping materials.


· Gift boxes, gift wrapping, personalized gift cards.


· Special storage to better preserve or protect the product while it is at the warehouse.


· Special packaging to better preserve or protect the product while it is in transit to the customer.


In addition, here are some process-oriented questions to consider when evaluating your fulfillment strategy.


· How important is your brand identity to your customers? Would they benefit from a better relationship with you through the buying process?


· Should your packaging change based on the destination?


· Should your packaging change based on time of year?


· Can you customize the package based on things you know about the customers? For example, should baby products be packaged in pink or blue tissue based on the gender of the child for whom they are intended?


· Is there some small accessory you can automatically include with selected products that is inexpensive, but which everyone wishes they remembered to get yet never do? This could be a display stand for a collectible pocket watch, or a branded hanger for an expensive jacket.


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