Define your company's image by creating and protecting a brand.

When you need to tighten or turn a pipe, do you reach into your toolbox for locking pliers, or do you reach for Vise-GripsR? And when you cut your finger on that sharp edge of ceramic tile, what eases your pain: an adhesive bandage or a Band-AidR? Brand names are everywhere, but a single name has yet to emerge that sticks in the minds of consumers when they think "plumbing and heating."

Impossible, you say? Your shop's too small to make such a large impact on your community as to be on the forefront of their thoughts for PHC? No way! Creating a brand name and image for your company doesn't have to be left to global companies such as Nike and Coca-Cola - you CAN make a name for yourself.

It's been the "buzzword" in marketing for the past 10 years, and has been floating around for a better half of the 20th century. But the idea of branding has only recently entered into the construction industry.

Larger service providers (see this month's Pipe Trades Giants list) understand the power in a brand name. Many know that well-known is better than the unknown in the eyes of the buyer.

Plumbers' Success International announced at its "Success Summit" membership meeting in Charlotte earlier this year that it has acquired rights for a national brand - Benjamin Franklin Plumbing. It will be subjected to a PSI test-marketing program to see if the organization can create a desired level of consumer awareness within a reasonable time.

The brand name stems from PSI's market survey of 1,600 residential customers, which found that most customers see plumbers as honest, frugal and hard working. Co-founder Jim Abrams and the other PSI members chose the name because it fits that image.

You've been challenged to keep up with the ever-changing consumer-driven market, and you know you must continue to provide a strong relationship with clients. You also know that creating and protecting a company's image is not for the faint hearted.

"Marketing is building a brand in the mind of the prospect," writes Al Ries, one of today's best-known marketing strategists, in his book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding. "If you can build a powerful brand you will have a powerful marketing program. If you can't, then all the advertising, fancy packaging, sales promotion and public relations in the world won't help you achieve your objective."

In other words, to be first in the minds of your clients you need two skills: the ability to build a brand and the know-how to keep it alive.

Helping the industry on its way to branding power is David Allen, executive vice president of McKinstry Co., a $100 million contractor based in Seattle. His experience ranges from field training to marketing, and he travels across the country showing construction companies how to define their image and understand the concept (and importance) of branding.

"Information is king in gaining the edge over competition," Allen said at a recent Chicago-based Mechanical Contractors Association Construction Institute management course. "It's important to get brand awareness going in this business."

Steps To Success

According to Allen, the first steps in creating a brand for your company is to take stock of your Brand Equity, or your accumulated value and worth. We're not talking dollar amount or monthly workload.

Take into account your company's history, reputation, internal resources and experience. Has the company been family-owned since the 1800s? Have you acquired top-notch equipment and trained your field techs to be the best? Have you faced hardships and obstacles and become a stronger, more unified workplace? Write it all down. You're beginning to create a company identity.

This identity translates into the perception of your brand. It begins with knowing your market position (Are you a small shop willing to expand? Where do you stand in respect to your competition?) and combining it with the uniqueness and resources of your company (What makes your shop special?).

Before we even get into creating colorful and catchy logos, your company has stood for something since you've opened your doors for business. What benefits and promises do you offer your clients? By taking an internal look at how you perform and deliver care and service to your clients, a brand personality emerges.

'Face' Of A Brand

Now begin to think how you want to portray your company to clients. What is the tone of the brand you wish to create for yourself? You want something that'll stick in the minds of consumers; something that becomes their "first thought" - like KleenexR, Saran WrapR and XeroxR. As part of the service industry, you want to portray integrity, honesty and trust.

But you need to protect your image if you want it to make an impact. A brand has "soul," Allen says. It embodies a company's character, emotional core and reputation. Just think of all the name brands you know of that have gone the way of the Dodo because of a tarnished image. (Remember the Pinto?)

The key to protecting your brand is consistency, says Allen. What do those high-profile firms have that you don't? Across-the-board consistency. You can walk into any Burger King around the world and expect the burgers to taste the same, the uniforms to look alike and service to be identical. Define your company's overall branding strategy and stick to it. Carry it throughout your entire business.

For your clients you're providing "one voice," or solidarity. You have now become a unified front.

"The idea that marketing runs plumbing is untrue. Consistent delivery and a good customer base drives marketing," says Allen.

A brand operates two ways in the minds of consumers:

  • Functional - It gets them to connect a visual image with the integrity of the company, and

  • Psychological - A client thinks "They must be reliable, or they wouldn't be around."
Going along with that idea, brands translate in the minds of consumers as the "better price," "better service" and "better place to work." (Think about that the next time you're hiring.)

It's now time to develop a logo.

Graphic Presentation

You see them everywhere - the "Golden Arches," the "Swoosh." These are singular images that automatically make you think "McDonald's" and "Nike." They don't even need words. Just think of the marketing power you could have if your company's "hand-held wrench" logo made people think instantly of you?

To come up with the visual image of your brand, it's imperative your senior management be involved. "All staff in all departments contribute to 'brand-building,'" says Allen. If you want to stay consistent, then your team should play a role in development of your company's image.

To achieve that unified front, maintain a consistent visual image. Choose one way for your company name or logo to look, and try desperately not to alter it. Your logo's core identity must be protected because now it has value. It differentiates you from every other service provider in the world - you are unique.

Allen says through consistent visual imagery (hats, uniforms, signs, advertisement, letterhead, etc.) and consistent service, you'll be able to adjust to market changes and alter your company's brand message without abandoning the core identity.

Also, make careful changes to your identity. If you scrounge on delivery, the brand suffers. Refresh new benefits to clients or you may see an "erosion" of your brand value, Allen warns.

Brands guide clients to services, so track your brand's progress with your customers. Take surveys at the end of a call or ask clients how your company's image makes them feel.

Ultimately in your market, your new solidified image will help differentiate you from your competition. And with your new logo and brand in hand, you are now ready to tackle the market.

Additional Resources:

Several books are on the market to help explain the importance of brand power:Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition, by Jack Trout and Steven Rivkin;Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing, by Harry Beckwith; andThe 22 Immutable Laws of Branding: How to Build a Product or Service into a World-Class Brand, by Laura & Al Ries. These books and more are available in our online bookstore.