A friend of mine who had recently bought and merged a couple of small trucking companies called a few weeks ago to say he wanted to meet with me and my partner, Sam. It turned out he had a gift for us--two sets of matching shirts and hats emblazoned with his company's new logo. He was very proud of them. He thought they projected just the right image for his new business and would help establish it in the marketplace.
I didn't say anything. I don't insult people who bring me gifts, especially if they're my friends. But I can't think of anything less important for a new business than having matching shirts and hats. To be sure, my friend would argue that they're marketing tools. I wouldn't disagree. But if you ask me, much of what passes for marketing these days is a waste of time and money that has nothing to do with building a good solid business.
I have nothing against having a good image. But it should be based on who you really are--and not on some mirage conjured up by a marketer.
Let me be clear about what I mean by "marketing." I'm talking about using advertising, signage, design, packaging, brochures, stationery, business cards, and so on to manufacture an image of your company for the ostensible purpose of making customers and prospective customers more interested in buying whatever you sell. The key word is manufacture. I have nothing against corporate images. On the contrary, I think it's very important to have a good one. But it should be based on who you really are and what you really do, not on some mirage conjured up by a marketer. Instead of spending the money on marketing, you should use it to make your business better and build your reputation in the industry. The best way to develop a great reputation isn't by marketing--it's by acting in a way that earns respect.
That said, I admit that my company does many things that some people would consider to be marketing. We have a website. We have a brochure. While we don't do any advertising per se, we do put the company's name and logo and a description of what we do on our trucks, which thus serve as traveling billboards. On July Fourth every year we hold a big party and invite customers, suppliers, employees, and members of the community to eat, drink, be merry, and watch the fireworks from our premises on the Brooklyn side of the East River. And that's just for openers.
But I don't believe that any of these things constitute marketing in the sense I'm talking about. Are they related to sales? Absolutely. Everything we do is related to sales, and I have no problem spending money on anything that generates more of them. Indeed, I encourage our people to be creative in figuring out how to locate, land, delight, and serve customers. But the word marketing does not appear in anyone's job description. Our people don't market: They sell.
Lately, however, we've had some disagreement over work we needed to do on our sales materials. It turns out that we have a difference of opinion about what generates sales and builds the company--and what is just marketing.
The controversy arose as we were trying to improve the facility tour that we give all prospective customers. The tour is one of our best sales tools. Among other things, it gives the prospects a chance to see and interact with our employees, who have become our most effective salespeople. The weak spot is at the very end of the tour. People often ask how our computer system works. They want to see how they can use it to keep track of the boxes we store for them.
In the past, we would have them gather around the desk of company president Louis Weiner, who would give a demonstration on his computer. That was a letdown. No matter how good a job Louis did, the demonstration never lived up to the standards of the rest of the tour. So we decided to install a plasma television in our conference room with the idea that we'd show a DVD about the computer system to people who were interested. Unfortunately, the DVD proved to be a disappointment. It came from our software provider, and it was boring. The prospective customers would arrive at the end of the tour feeling energized and excited by our staff. We'd sit them down and show the presentation, and you could just see the energy draining out of them. It took the edge off the entire day.
I told Louis that I thought we had to do better. He said he knew a guy who could do a terrific video for us. I suggested Louis invite him in to meet with salespeople and senior managers, including my wife, Elaine, who is our VP of human resources. They had their meeting, and it was a big success. The managers said they really liked the guy--his name is Tom--and felt he would be a big help to us. It immediately became apparent, however, that the agenda had changed. For one thing, the video was no longer a priority. The managers had decided they shouldn't show a video at the end of the tour. Instead they felt they should use the time to connect with the prospective customers on a personal level, trying to establish relationships, encouraging people to think of us as their partners and not just as their suppliers. How we'd deal with questions about the computer system wasn't clear.
More important than the video, the managers felt, was the website. I didn't disagree. Your website is often the first thing prospective customers look at--before making a phone call, or listening to a pitch, or taking a tour. If they don't like it, you may never hear from them. Apparently Tom had shown the managers some of our competitors' websites, and ours didn't measure up, which I could have predicted. We'd never finished constructing it. In any case, I agreed that we should upgrade it.
But the staff's next recommendation set off alarm bells: Tom had convinced them that we should redo our brochure and come up with a snappier design. The managers also felt we should repaint our trucks so that they matched the image we would be trying to project through the website and the brochure. I didn't like it. I smelled marketing. Now, I'll admit that our brochure doesn't look like the work of a professional designer and copywriter. On the front are pictures of storage racks. Inside is a letter from Elaine and me. Tom had shown the managers some brochures from our competitors, and they were embarrassed by the comparison. The other companies had elaborate folders with flaps into which you could insert papers addressing the needs of particular market segments. Our brochure looked dated. It looked as though we had done it ourselves--which we had, about 12 years ago.
But that's exactly how I felt our brochure should look. It projects accurately who we are. We are not a hip, slick, button-down, jet-setting, high-gloss type of business. We're warm and fuzzy. We have cutting-edge technology, and I'll match our service against anybody's, but inside the company we feel like one big family, and I hoped that our customers would get that sense from the brochure. It's also worth noting that the brochure's role is different from that of the website. Prospective customers don't see the brochure until they've met with us. Its purpose is to reinforce what we've told them about the type of company we are. I don't want them to look at it and think, "Wow, this is a really expensive brochure." I want them to think, "That's nice," and then focus on real issues.
But the managers were sure we needed a new brochure, and normally I don't stand in their way when they really want to do something. I'll tell them if I think they're making a mistake, but I won't forbid them to do it. Often they will go ahead and do it anyway. That's good. I want them to be independent. I want them to have the attitude, "Okay, we'll show him." It's healthy for the business. It spurs change. Sometimes, moreover, it turns out they are right.
With the brochure, however, I put my foot down. To me, the image we project through the brochure reflects the soul of our business--who we really are, what we stand for. This is not a money issue. If I thought the change would be innocuous, I'd let the managers spend the money. But this change would not be innocuous. A slick brochure would send exactly the wrong message. We'd lose our distinctiveness. We'd be like everyone else. We might even alter the feel of the business, which I never want to do.
I also nixed repainting the trucks. I like the way our trucks look. They're not fancy, but I don't want fancy. Like the brochure, they reflect who we are, not some marketer's idea of who we should be. Besides, who's to say that another design would be better? Can anybody seriously argue that customers make choices based on how a supplier paints its trucks? I could see no business rationale for spending the money. I'd rather give it to our employees or to charity.
As clear as that seems to me, I haven't been able to convince our managers, including my wife, that I'm right. They loved the ideas Tom came up with. They think that I'm just being obstinate, or maybe that my ego is getting in the way because I was involved in developing the brochure and deciding on the look of the trucks. Right now, Tom is redoing the website. Louis and Elaine think that, once I see it, I'll change my mind and give the go-ahead on the brochure and the trucks. I doubt that will happen. Apparently, I haven't done a good enough job of explaining to them why I feel the way I do. Maybe this column will help.
Norm Brodsky is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.