June 24, 2011

By Matt Michel

Last week I needed new casual shoes. I don't mind buying shoes, but I hate *shopping* for shoes. I hate *shopping* period. I went to the biggest shoe store in the area. The store didn't have the shoes I wanted. I went to another one. No joy again. So I went to another. And another. And another.

Wait-a-sec. I realized I was *shopping.* I was shopping for shoes because I wanted a particular brand and type. No other would do.


Brandwashing is like brainwashing, but it's oriented towards a brand. No one is brandwashed about every brand, product, service category, or store. You're only brandwashed by a few. When you're brandwashed, you'll go to extremes to find a desired brand. You'll pay more. You'll refuse substitutes.

Brandwashing is deeper than brand preference. I *prefer* New Balance running shoes because they're available in wide sizes (I've got big feet). While I prefer New Balance, I could change to a different brand of running shoe in a heartbeat, provided another brand came in wide sizes. If the athletic store I prefer dropped the New Balance brand, I'd simply buy a different brand (provided it came in wide sizes).

Ho hum, it's just running shoes. Well apparently there is a lot of difference between one shoe and another. "Runner's World" magazine carries lengthy articles on the difference between one running shoe and the next.

Just like you care deeply about product differences in your business that put laypeople to sleep, the people who work for shoe manufacturers are intense about obscure shoe features and benefits. They even persuade a few running shoe retail salespeople that certain features are critically important. Brand X may do something similar, but in a far inferior way.

The differences are important to some shoe buyers. If you run better than six minute miles in 5K races every week, slight performance differences probably matter a lot to you.

On the other hand, if you just want a shoe that fits, the shoe salesperson's blathering about carbon rubber versus blown rubber, flex grooves, split heels, and EVA is just so much noise. Personally, I just want to know whether they're wide and comfortable or not.

Arcane running shoe features matter to the people who sell them. They matter to running enthusiasts. Yet, I suspect most people don't care much one way or the other. That's probably the way it is with most product brands.

Product Brandwashing
It can be a challenge to brandwash consumers about a product. Three things are required:

1. You must use the product frequently.
The more frequent the product is used, the greater the potential for brandwashing. It's not impossible to brandwashed an infrequently used product, but it is much more difficult.

2. You must connect with the product emotionally.
When you are truly brandwashed, the product becomes part of your self-image. It's integrated into your self-identity. You cannot picture yourself with another brand. You cannot imagine driving anything other than a Ford truck, or wearing any brand of jeans besides Wranglers, or using anything but Titleist golf balls.

3. You must perceive a difference in the brand.
You must believe the brand holds a unique position. Apple Computer primarily makes computers, digital media players, and mobile phones. Lots of companies make those products, but to an Apple fanatic, nothing else comes remotely close. You may not perceive much of a difference in the phone or media player, but the fanatics do.

Running shoes only fit one out of three requirements for me. Yes, I use them frequently, but I don't connect to New Balance, Brooks, Nike, ASICS, or any other brand emotionally. I've worn all of them and could switch on a dime. I also don't perceive much difference between the brands. I'm sure there is some, but only an extreme running enthusiast or a shoe salesperson would care.

In fact, the only people likely to meet all three requirements for running shoes are extreme running enthusiasts and shoe salespeople. It's obvious how extreme running enthusiast would meet the requirements. It's not as obvious how salespeople meet the requirements.

In every company, sales professionals may not use their products frequently, but they should sell them frequently. For value added sales (as opposed to price driven, commodity sales), the salesperson must make an emotional connection with the product in order to offer it with sincerity. Finally, the salesperson will seek out differences and expound upon them to give buyers are reason to select the salesperson's product over another product.

Ironically, most consumers are unlikely to care much about the slight feature differences. Consumers purchase the product because they like the salesperson, trust the store, and buy the salesperson's enthusiasm. The salesperson could sell any product equally well, so long as he believed in it, so long as he was brandwashed.

This, in fact, explains a lot about channel marketing. The most important sale a manufacturer makes takes place in the channel. Manufacturers seek to brandwash downstream salespeople knowing that for most products the retail salespeople exert more influence on final brand selection than all of the manufacturer's marketing.

Service Brandwashing
Service brandwashing differs from product brandwashing. Introduce the human element and the equation changes. I like Starbucks coffee, for example, but will switch on a dime to another, comparable brand if Starbucks is more expensive when buying coffee in the grocery store. However, the Starbucks coffee shop is different. The coffee shop has me brandwashed.

For a service company to brandwash you, there are four requirements, slightly different than those for product brandwashing:

1. You must personally connect with the people at the company.
This is basic. Your front line service personnel can make big strides simply by smiling, looking people in the eye, being friendly, paying attention to the customer, and responding to their requests.

2. Your experience must resonate emotionally.
Many retailers design their stores to generate a shopping or dining experience. An example is the grocery store that seasons and grills flank steak in the store, handing out samples and adding sizzle and aroma to the shopping experience. Another example is the artificial tropic jungle and robotic animals at Rainforest Café, complete with faux storms and jungle sounds. These examples are structurally designed into the operation to engage the senses and build a memorable experience.

In-home service companies generally lack the ability to create structural experiences since the visit is temporary and every home is different. Still, a technician or plumber can wear shoe covers, use a pungent citric cleaner to wipe up, clean brass, steel, or chrome fixtures until they shine, and wax condensing units and furnaces.

By nature, home service companies have a trump card. Usually, the service provider is responding to a demand service call. At the start of the call, something is broken and the homeowner is under distress. Merely by showing empathy, reassuring the homeowner with confidence that the problem will be solved, and following through, the serviceperson can create a strong, positive emotional experience.

3. You must feel that you receive special treatment.
Companies everywhere are falling all over themselves to make customers feel special. Usually these are based on frequency of purchase (e.g., airline frequent flyer programs) or enrollment in a special club (e.g., bookstore's discount cards). Service companies have been using service agreements as a way to make customers feel special through discounted repair pricing, waived fees, priority response, and so on.

Special treatment does not need to come from a program. The best treatment comes from people. When I walk into the Bank of the West in Lewisville, everyone in the bank greets me by name as soon as I cross the threshold. That never happened at Bank of America. Heck, it seemed rare when the same person was working at B of A from one week to the next.

4. You must feel a sense of loss if you were unable to patronize the company again.
The sense of loss is hard to define and harder to create. Think of it this way. Would you miss a company if it closed its doors? Do you feel a little out of sorts thinking about the need to find a replacement?

Starbucks meets all four requirements with me. The baristas are invariably friendly when I walk in. They do their best to strike up a conversation with everyone in the store. They're joking around. They're having fun. They appear to like their jobs. The uniformity of performance across different Starbucks suggests that this is a combination of good training and good hiring. It works.

There's an atmosphere in a Starbucks that's attractive. Each café is slightly different, but all of them share an energy that comes from the customers. There's a buzz of activity in a Starbucks. Good music is usually playing. The interior design is attractive. The aromas of the coffee are especially enticing.

When I visit Starbucks, I usually bring a laptop. I'm there long enough to get a refill. About half the time, the refill is on the house. This simple gesture costs Starbucks 50 cents of profit and buys 50 dollars of loyalty.

I would certainly miss the Starbucks near my house if it closed. I would also miss the one on the way to the office. Even though it seems that Starbucks are located on every street corner, I want one on *my* street corner.

Other coffee shops, including those attempting to knock off Starbucks' formula and including the Starbucks located in Barnes & Noble bookstores, can't seem to match the intangibles. They can't replicate the atmosphere. This makes Starbucks unique and explains why so many people have been brandwashed by a ubiquitous, chain coffee shop.

An interesting aspect of service brandwashing is the lack of a frequency requirement. While a consumer who only patronizes a service company once is unlikely to become brandwashed, the experiential nature of service makes a lasting impression. As long as you keep in touch, customers who receive a positive service experience from your company are unlikely to try someone else.

Service Brandwashing Trumps Product Brandwashing
Service brandwashing is personal. It involves human connections in ways products simply cannot achieve. This is why some product companies are integrating downstream (e.g., Apple's stores). They're seeking human touchpoints. They're attempting to add service to the product for greater loyalty and higher margins. If your company is a service business, you're already there.

Look at your operation. How can you connect with your customers better? What training can help? What systems can be designed into the process to encourage quality interactions?

What can you do to make the service experience emotionally positive? How can you increase the positive sights, sounds, and smells while reducing negative ones?

What can you do to give your customers special treatment? How can each employee treat customers so they feel special? Or, how can the employees in the back office treat front line service personnel so they feel special? What can you do to make your customers feel valued?

What can you provide that's difficult for your competitors to match? What can you offer that would make people miss your company?

Source: Comanche Marketing. Reprinted by permission.
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Copyright © 2008 Matt Michel

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