Work Continues on Final Section of I-69 Project

Dealers Make Their Mark Through Company Branding

Mon March 26, 2007 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson



Heavy equipment dealers are not immune to the whimsy of customers, who quite suddenly can become distracted and wander away to competing outlets.

A dealer’s name and reputation must be “branded” in a customer’s mind to avoid such rupturing of a commercial relationship. For this reason, the marketing strategy called “corporate branding” is becoming as important to heavy equipment distributors as it has been for a long time to retailers of other services and product lines.

“We’re tractor guys,” said Chris Gaylor, president of Power Equipment Company, speaking of branding initiatives. “This is not the stuff we’re thinking about every day.”

The executive of the Knoxville, Tenn., Komatsu and Ingersoll Rand distributor thus expresses the reluctance of some dealers to undertake branding, believing that it is enough to do a good job of selling and servicing iron and then simply to bank on the loyalty of satisfied customers. Any dealer — Gaylor is not one — who thinks along those lines had better think again. The fact is, effective corporate branding is a key to a company’s growth in the heavy equipment industry, which has grown increasingly competitive in its equipment offerings and services.

Leading distributors of heavy equipment are fully aware of the need to brand — and periodically to re-brand — their dealerships in order to ensure that they stay connected to their customer base and can attract new customers.

Branding as a marketing tool traditionally has been associated with an individual product, its image, its reputation, its instant recognition in a lineup of similar products. Companies have gone to great lengths to build a brand name for a product or a line of products and to protect that name against all comers.

Corporate branding, however, is more encompassing: Its goal is to build or preserve the good name and market clout of a company itself, in conjunction with its products and services but also as an umbrella organization. While the two brands — product and company — often are wedded in the minds of consumers, a company brand that is trusted also can sell new and unknown products. New generations of excavators, automobiles or MP3 players sometimes become instant hits because the companies selling them have consumer confidence.

What is a corporate brand? It is more than a logo, a jingle, a catch phrase or a color scheme. It is all of that and much more. Any company that wants to brand itself begins by examining itself so that it can project accurately its true corporate identity.

“Obviously every company has a brand,” Gaylor noted, “whether it is something the company overtly worked to develop, or just tweaked, there is a perception that it has in its marketplace — whether it is intended or not. Every company has a brand, but is the perception of your company the one you want your customers to be getting?”

It follows that some companies are branded haphazardly, some weakly, some unwittingly with a reputation of, “Don’t buy here!” Through thoughtful branding, smart heavy equipment dealer executives are positioning their companies to attract wayward customers looking for a company they can trust.

When a dealer decides to undertake this self-examination process, which leads to new communication efforts, it is acting in response to a discovery that something has changed. In some cases, the market has changed and a company response is required. Perhaps a company’s focus and business plan have changed. Sometimes it just is time to change.

“In our case,” said Gaylor, “it was triggered by the fact that there have been enough changes in our company and the kinds of markets that we serve, that it was time to retell our story to new customer bases.”

Not coincidentally, the company in 2006 celebrated its 60th anniversary, having grown to serve customers in four states. It was a good time to start fresh. Working with a Knoxville-based firm, Ackerman PR, the leadership of Power Equipment Company acted to “re-energize,” rather than change, its brand and to “retell it to new customer bases we have expanded into over the last few years.”

A piece of the new brand is a fresh logo, a stylized version of “Power” that ties into the company theme of “Power to perform.” The new visual identifier replaced a logo that featured a piece of equipment that effectively dated the company.

“The old logo was a bulldozer in a hand, a visual image for many, many years,” Gaylor said. “The new logo downplays the dirt construction equipment aspect of our business. Fifteen years ago, 90 percent of what we did was earthmoving equipment. Today it is not.”

The machines that Power Equipment Company sells today often are used in forestry, scrap-handling and demolition, Gaylor said, industries that are not “necessarily associated with the bulldozer. The old logo fit for a core group of customers, but for the others, it didn’t. It sent the wrong message.”

In Dallas, Texas, Continental Equipment Co. almost literally is branded. The company has a registered trademark image that resembles an old-fashioned cattle brand, declaring, “Real Texas Power.” The slogan is part of a new logo and also is used as a stand-alone secondary image.

The Komatsu dealership is just more than a decade old and has six locations across north and west Texas. Despite presiding over a relatively young company, Continental leadership determined last year that the dealership needed to re-brand itself and “clarify” its market position; it proceeded to do so in-house. Consequently, a world globe was removed from its logo.

“The globe led people to believe that we were more of a global company,” said company spokesman Jean Mault. “We are a part of the Komatsu distribution and service network and certainly will not be servicing a piece of equipment in China. We have had some management changes and, as a result, have refined our business focus. Our primary drive is to inform our customers that we are here to support them in Texas.”

Komatsu colors now grace the logo. The more prominent role of the “Real Texas Power” image has resulted in a jump in requests for decals for hardhats, Mault laughingly observed. “It’s a guy thing.”

All of which might sound like a cosmetic redoing of the company’s image. But Mault said the transformation goes deeper than that and is a reflection of strategic marketing decisions.

“We want to draw more attention to our company,” she said, “and the ’Real Texas Power’ slogan serves to reinforce our position in the market.”

Virginia-based James River Equipment Co. is not so much re-branding as it is evolving its message to its customers. The firm began 80 years ago in Colorado — far from the James River — and then jumped to Virginia, where an East Coast division of the company took root. It has distributed John Deere construction equipment since 1972 and now operates 20 locations in North and South Carolina and Virginia.

“James River is getting to be a pretty big company,” said Michael Board, director of marketing and advertising. “Our main focus is service for all product lines. We are really customer-service oriented. Our main mantra is we want to make sure that we give our customers something they can’t get just anywhere, and that they understand that we’re here for them.”

Board credits company President Mark Romer with creating the customer-service ethic. “It really is one of his philosophies that the company is not just about moving iron, and selling iron, but about relationships. He wants us at the dealer level to have a relationship with a customer, to be an outlet for solutions for customers.”

Consequently, Board said, the company has created “sort of a catch phrase. It is on our business card and letterheads and reads, ’It’s all about people…It’s all about relationships.’”

He said the phrase has been used “in one form or another for several years, but we kind of tightened it up in the last year or so and got it down to that form. We’re looking to develop it more in the future. We added it to business cards this year and we’re kind of bringing it into the mix. It’s been something we’ve said for a long time, but we’re just now getting it down to this easy to-communicate form.”

That the expression is rooted in company philosophy suggests it is an accurate representation of the company and, therefore, an appropriate corporate branding element. As it comes into more prominence in future marketing efforts, it may move from being an internal focal point to being an external identifier, a corporate brand, if you will, that is wholly separate from the John Deere products it sells.

“We don’t have a campaign announcement planned, or anything else, per se,” Board said. “It just is going to be incorporated into print, radio and TV, and, internally, in newsletters. It will be something the customers see about every time they hear from us.”

Board, who has a marketing and public relations degree from University of North Carolina-Charlotte, is handling the evolutionary change internally. He was managing a store and doing similar work for Piedmont Farm and Yard until it merged with James River Equipment. Board was asked how James River will know if its low-key “relationships” theme is successful in building confidence among existing and potential customers.

“Of course, most companies would say that you can track it with your sales. If there is an increase in sales, the campaign has been successful,” he said. “But with us, it really, truly first is about building these relationships.”

Papé Group is a Eugene, Ore.-based company with five divisions including construction and material-handling equipment. It has office locations in six states in the northwestern and western United States. Last year, company officials decided to more closely unite the diverse companies — which range from Ditch Witch franchises to a business flight service — under the Papé banner.

“Some of our divisions did not have the Papé name associated with them directly, so we renamed some divisions, with Papé as a dominant part of the name, and then made sure all the Papé named-divisions fit under a consistent umbrella. We hoped to leverage the brand equity of both the divisions and the company group,” said Tim Clevenger, the firm’s director of development.

The branding effort involved determining the public perception of the company and then working to ensure that the company was operating in alignment with its goal of serving customers. Service has been a core element of the company’s business plan since the company’s beginning in 1938; a more dominant use of the Papé name in a new logo now consistently communicates the “service” message across all divisions.

The internal project to re-brand itself began in 2002 and, Clevenger said, “is a process that never ends.” Company executives still are executing the plan, with a new Web site coming online soon. The magnitude of any major re-branding project is such that many companies are reluctant to start it.

“The research we did prior to embarking on the plan told us that there are some dealers that embrace it,” Clevenger said. “But it is such a long-term investment, that a lot of dealers just don’t.”

How will Papé Group know if carrying out the plan was worth it? “This always is a difficult thing to measure,” Clevenger said, “but we’ve consistently seen our ’unaided awareness’ levels increase. Decision-makers were called and asked which dealership comes to mind first when they are considering an equipment purchase. We’ve seen our favorable response rate to that question increase over the last few years. That is the only quantifiable measurement we have. Anecdotally we’ll see and hear from customers that everything [the company divisions] seems to kind of fit together now, but that’s just anecdotal.”

Clevenger believes in branding, especially when a corporation has a long-standing, positive message to tell.

“The only thing that companies have to differentiate themselves is a brand that means something,” he said. “For us, that is a commitment to service.” CEG