Every business works hard to build a brand, to create an image that identifies their products and services and differentiates them from their competition.

But can your brand--no matter how positive and highly-regarded--actually create a marketing obstacle?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes.

Here's another in my series of interviews where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. This time I talked to Tania Burke, the President of Trek Travel, a full-service cycling vacation company that offers trips in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Latin America, about the impact of a strong brand on the growth of a business.

(Oh: I own two Trek bikes I really like... and that's also why I understand the marketing "challenge" faced by Trek Travel.)

On a surface level it's hard to imagine how how being associated with the Trek brand can cause a problem.

It's simple: because we have Trek in our name people automatically think we are high performance, racers, gear heads... so the challenge is to extend beyond that initial brand perception so people realize we have trips for all levels of riders.

Granted the Trek name is also a huge asset. Avid and non-avid cyclists recognize the name. They know Trek has great products. That's a hugely positive brand association that gives us extremely high credibility. People know and trust the brand so they feel confident booking a trip with us.

So that's our struggle. Everyone knows Trek makes outstanding bikes for hardcore riders, so to tap the broader market we need to play down the performance aspect so casual and recreational cyclists realize we have great trips for them, too.

But that brand association does give you an advantage over your competition where avid cyclists are concerned. After all, I learned about you because of your Tour de France trip.

True. Our main competitors have trouble attracting avid riders, something that is easy for us. Many of our competitors are known for "softer" travel and struggle to attract harder-core riders. Those customers naturally come to us because of the Trek name. Our brand is more associated with relatively fit travelers.

Which, of course, creates a problem across the rest of the customer spectrum.

We feel our brand is all about the traveling by bike experience. It doesn't matter what type of rider you are; you will have an amazing trip with us.

Yet we still meet people who assume all our trips are incredibly hard. We're Trek Travel, we do cycling vacations... so it must be super challenging. That gets reinforced by the media attention we tend to attract; all they want to hear about is our Tour de France trips. We do those really well, but they're a small part of what we do.

So how do you get past that?

We focus hard on imagery. We put a lot of emphasis on trip flexibility, on different daily ride options... we try to get that message out without alienating the people who want to ride the classic climbs or who want to ride cross-country.

Mostly, though, it's all about the people that create the experience--not just our guides, but everyone at Trek Travel: who we hire, how we train, the standards we set, we way we create "wow" moments, and our focus on continuous improvement.

That's definitely paid off. We implemented Net Promoter Score (NPS) and we're at approximately 80% this year. People love to talk about their vacations and share their experiences, so recommendations are huge in the vacation travel industry: 40% of our customers are repeat customers, and 20% of our new customers come through referrals and word of mouth.

Since to customers your guides are in large part the "face" of your business, they make a major impact on customer satisfaction and brand perception.

Absolutely. Even if something doesn't go perfectly on a trip, our guides can turn that around. If you don't like your room, they can work it out at the next hotel. They're a huge part of the experience. That comes back to our extremely thorough hiring process; it's just so important.

Once they're hired, though, we typically only see our guides twice a year. But we know what they're doing out in the field through our processes and checks and balances.

They have a lot at their disposal: van, trailer, equipment, $100k or more in bikes, credit cards, cash... they have everything they need to run these trips all over the world. We put a tremendous amount of trust in them.

And the longer they're with us the better job they're able to do. If they can walk into a winery they've stopped at before, if they know the owners by name, if they've established good relationships... the guests feel a greater sense of comfort and can have a better experience.

It's a fun but tough lifestyle. Across the industry the average guide stays for approximately three years; our average is over five. We're really proud of that, and that's another way we build our brand.

Once a customer has taken a trip you they create their own brand perception... but what about establishing your brand with potential customers?

Much of our traffic comes through organic search. We focus heavily on SEO, paid search, digital ads, etc. We do a lot of marketing through Trek dealers. And we participate in a number of gran fondos and events.

Our primary marketing channel is our website, though, so we work really hard to make sure it's perfect.

So let's talk bikes, since that is a big part of your brand.

We definitely benefit there. Say you rent a car: if you planned to get an economy model and you get upgraded to a cool sports car, you feel good about it. So we definitely win in that regard.

Then there's the fitness side of it: a better, lighter bike helps even novices ride more easily and feel better on the bike.

And we have electronic shifting available, which is something newer riders really love.

After the trip we offer a discount on the bikes we provide, and approximately 40% of our customers buy a new bike when they get back home. Not only does Trek sell a lot of bikes that way, but that helps reinforce our brand experience as well--loving the bike you rode makes you enjoy the trip more.

A better bike always makes for a better ride. But if you're providing great bikes that appeal to enthusiasts...

The benefits of being part of the Trek brand far outweigh the issue we have with people assuming we only offer hardcore trips. That may be a problem... but ultimately it's a good problem to have.

Published on: Dec 30, 2015
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