Tag : brand

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129: What Is Your Competitive Advantage?

In the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to consult several entrepreneurs who were starting new companies or starting new brand initiatives. When someone is asking me for advice, I tend to ask a lot of questions. In these situations, it’s been interesting to me how many times I’ve stumped someone with a two-part question I didn’t intend to be difficult.

“What is your competitive advantage? Why would someone hire you instead of your competition?”

The answer to those two sentences should be easy. You need that answer to determine what your brand is and what that brand’s ensuing message will be. You can and should be leading your presentations by addressing how you solve your clients’ problems. Soon after that promise, though, you’ll probably need to explain why your firm best solves those problems.

Maybe you do it faster than anyone else or for the lowest net cost.
Maybe you have innovative technologies that aren’t available anywhere else.
Maybe you can offer exclusive, dedicated personal to their account and only their account.
Maybe you have more narrowly-niched personnel for their asset type and/or location.
Maybe your brand leads your market in recognition, social reach, and consumer participation.
Maybe your terms are the most friendly to buyers or sellers.
Maybe you have the most efficient and targeted advertising campaigns.
Maybe you have the best track record for monetary results and the data to prove it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Also, you may have more than one answer. In fact, you might have different answers depending on the competition. In my business, I typically have two categories of competition: designers or print shops in my prospect’s local community and national auction-industry vendors. My competitive advantages for those two categories have some overlap but are typically different.

Auctioneers compete with other auctioneers, but they also compete with other types of businesses. So, part of your primary competitive advantage might be the auction method in some situations. In others, where everybody is using a similar method, it will be other other criteria that separate your value proposition.

If you can’t answer this question of value proposition, how do you expect to differentiate your company from the pack? If you can’t differentiate yourself from the pack, what’s your plan for acquiring new clients? My guess is that you’ll end up with the riskier reserves, the headache clients, and the lowest commissions—the projects other companies don’t have to take. Then again, maybe that’s your intentional brand image: that you work harder for less.

Taking It Personally

I pretty much know what my professional value proposition is, but I wanted to know what my competitive relational advantage is. So, I asked my wife why she chose to marry me. She had thousands of options, just at our small college—and interest from a few other dudes in the communicative arts building alone.

“You made me laugh.” (Also, I didn’t pull my pants halfway up to my armpits like one of the guys who had taken her on a handful of dates.) She told me that she came to college from Bolivia wanting someone tall, dark, and handsome. I replied, “Well, you got the tall part.”

I try a lot of humor on her that doesn’t work. When I do make her laugh, she almost always tells me, “That was a good one.” This is good affirmation, as I work to maintain some job security. (I don’t think it’s unrelated that a lot of my social media posts and face-to-face social interactions seem to have the same relational strategy.)

I’d love to know what most drew you to your significant other. What made them so different from the other fish in the sea?

Stock image purchased from iStockPhoto.com.

112: Asking the Wrong Branding Question

Right before a recent seminar, my buddy Andy asked me a question. He thought the answer to it would make a great blog post. I’ll let you decide that, but his question does create a worthwhile discussion.

The two-part question: “If you have an established print design template, how do you incorporate that into your web site? Or should you try to get your print template to match your website?”

In the waning minutes before my presentation, I blurted an impromptu answer.

“Neither. You’re asking the wrong questions.”

I’ve had months now to ponder my answer, and I keep returning to that extemporaneous instinct. As much as I authentically preach templates, especially print templates, those templates can’t be the genesis of a branding strategy. In one of my seminars, I recommend that the first media to create in the branding process is a website; but for most businesses, the brand shouldn’t start with the .com, either.

It’s not even a “chicken or the egg?” enigma, because brochures and websites are both eggs. The chicken is your brand. Every way that your brand is expressed hatches from the hen that gives it her DNA—its appearance, its personality, its intrinsic qualities.

Another way to think of it is as a wheel. Any medium we use for company or auction promotion is just one spoke on the branding wheel. The structure, direction, and shape of the wheel is determined by the hub. The consistency between the spokes on that hub greatly determines how efficiently and smoothly the wheel travels. For the spokes to be the most consistent with each other, they must be formed together. Brand Wheel Spokes While new, small, or growing companies may not have the resources to produce all of their brand’s expressions at once, they can lay the foundation for future expressions from an early stage. The easiest way to codify the underpinnings of future media is to create a brand guide. The brand guide is a reference document that can be emailed to any vendor, subcontractor, or employee to explain how your brand will be expressed. Most major corporations use these, but I’ve seen small businesses put together good guides, too. (One of my clients in 2013 now uses the best one I’ve seen on any level, let alone in the auction industry.)

The two overarching areas your brand guide should include are a personality profile and a style sheet.

The personality profile briefly explains the heart of the organization—how you want the public to understand you, which niches or audiences you want to attract, and how you expect verbal interactions to occur. Even better would be to summarize those three paragraphs or less to three to five words that you want to encapsulate your brand.

The style sheet transcribes your company Pantone numbers & 3M colors, fonts & text styles, design requirements (like margins, spacing, text hierarchy, etc.), logo variations, and more. Some companies that allow their agents or franchisees to coordinate their own media also include samples of specific media templates; some even create various digital templates, formatted by their respective media-creation programs, for vendors to use to build respective media.

The more specific the brand guide, the more consistent a company’s media will be. The more consistent the company’s advertising is, the faster it will build brand recognition and retention—especially if narrowly niched. Recognized brands get more consideration and then more customers and then more evangelists.

If you want to grow your business, focus on the chicken. She’ll take care of the eggs.
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Religion likes its creeds and catechisms—its traditional branding. The American church likes its What Would Jesus Do bracelets and Not of This World stickers—its cultural branding. Some of these can be constructive for those who adopt them as filters by which to sift their lives. I’ve heard a lot of great examples of personal worldview statements along those lines, and I’ve unsuccessfully tried to adopt some over the years. Sadly, I have a bad memory and a minuscule attention span.

The one measuring tool (or personal brand guide) that has stuck with me since high school, though, is Luke 2:52. “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.”

For me to follow Jesus’ example, I must be constantly
(1) learning and evaluating the world around me—growing my ability to discern
(2) exercising and taking care of my bodily shell—growing my physical capabilities
(3) ingratiating myself with people, both those I love and those with whom I rub lives—growing my relational influence
(4) falling more in love with Jesus and his gospel—growing my kingdom impact

Mind, body, heart, soul.

Those four words take turns convicting and congratulating me in my introspective moments.

How ‘bout you? What credo defines your goals and journey?

[footer]Stock photo purchased from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

110: Rebranding Strategies from Super Bowl Commercials

Two of my favorite commercial’s from the 2014 Super Bowl had something in common.

One commercial used self-deprecating humor with 1980’s icons.
The other hired a movie director to shoot an abbreviated action movie scene.

Radio Shack made an established one-liner come to life. “The 80’s called. They wanted their [insert item] back.”

Jaguar leveraged a subtle movie trope and used a white car in a dark ad.

What one point were both the Radio Shack and Jaguar commercials—two very different brands with very different ads—trying to make?

“We’re not who you think we are.”

Both had the same goal: change their respective brand’s engrained perceptions. Radio Shack had been wearing a pocket protector long before Best Buy took its lunch money, broke its soldering gun, and stuffed it in a locker. Jaguar had been showing people it’s yearbooks from the 1960’s, while yelling at Audi to get off its lawn.

Both now wanted you to know that they aren’t old, that they aren’t has beens. Both brands needed to tell you that they aren’t just evolving; they are going in a new direction.

Together, these two strategies encompass the most common ways that brands reinvent themselves. Radios Shack courageously showed you their past in order to contrast and give context to their future. In contrast, Jaguar grabbed a dramatic car from its garage and hoped its raspy exhaust note and some movie villains would wipe your memory of Jaguar’s recent AARP street cred.

Entrepreneurs ask me about how to “phase in our new look,” usually after a logo change, merger, or other important mile marker event. My answer to that question is twofold:

  1. Make the transition period no longer than six months—hopefully shorter.”
  2. Develop as many of the new media templates as you can before launching the new look, so that as many matching media pieces as possible can launch simultaneously. (This requires patience and self-control. If you’re like me, the secret proves a tough one to keep.)

For an auction company, it might be easier to transition a brand than it is for most other businesses, because—in addition to company promotion—auction marketers generate a lot of media to promote their sale merchandise. So, it’s relatively easy to distribute a large quantity of quick impressions for a new company image in a compressed period of time. Also, every once in a while, an auction company will get a premium asset to sell that will make a high-visibility campaign on which to start a new brand look—for that clean break.

Consumers who buy at auction are primarily shopping for specific items. Their search for that item draws them to photos and online mentions of that asset category, specific items, or distinctive attributes. As long as those assets remain the primary emphasis in auction campaign advertising, the brand image should be happening in the periphery, anyway. So, a style makeover—while seemingly abrupt to the advertiser—will not be jarring for the consumer.

Whether you’re showing a new era for an established company or just wowing people with new capabilities to replace old perceptions, don’t linger in the limbo between brands. Go boldly toward your new image.
[tip]

When my pastor and his wife told their country church that they were changing the brand, 75% of people (including family members) left the congregation. Becoming a church that made unchurched folks feel welcomed meant making some church attenders feel uncomfortable. Candidly, every once in a while, I still get uncomfortable when my spiritual mentors challenge me to extend grace like God does—even when there are lots of positive peer pressure at what is now a megachurch.

Changing the dress code or the music style or the Bible translation from those of a traditional church can make you a contemporary church. Moving away from programs and dogmas and denominational jingoism can make you a culturally-relevant church. But I’m thankful that my spiritual mentors didn’t stop there—where form can still trump function.

Successful church happens when Christians don’t hold ownership of their local assembly—when it’s bigger than a brand, when we’re evangelists instead of multi-level marketers. When outsiders feel at home while still challenged by Scripture, growth can’t help but happen. Where there’s growth, there’s life. Often, life requires the death of an old thing for a new thing to sprout. Old things like the way church used to be.

95: What Would Your Brand Do?

Image used by permission by purchase from iStockPhoto.comDuring the past couple Augusts, I’ve attended the Global Leadership Summit via satellite campus.  Each year, this gathering of business and ministry leaders (over 165,000 in 2011 alone) draws some of the leading thinkers and speakers from both the nonprofit and for-profit worlds.  It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to TED Talks.

This past year, Bill Hybels, the event’s creator and host, left us with a challenge, the completion of which has been on my to do list until tonight [New Year’s Day].  The assignment: define your organization in just five words.

For years, I’ve rolled my eyes at mission statements and the like, especially the ones that get posted on store walls or printed in company brochures.  I don’t really care what a company’s mission statement is.  If your customer service and marketing already exemplify it, I already know your vision and values.  If they don’t, why give me a yardstick to to measure your shortcomings?

Tonight, though, I finally assembled five words to define my company.

For the past week, I’ve been working on my content for 10.5 hours of classes I’ll be instructing at the Certified Auctioneer Institute (CAI) in March.  Tonight, I was working on a section of the material about defining your brand and then filtering various business and media decisions through that brand.  That’s when I bumped into the challenge of the five-word sieve.

After making my list of five words, I wondered what my clients would list as my five words and if any of their lists would resemble mine.  I also thought that it would be entertaining to hear from my friends, industry peers, and family as to what they, too, would list as biplane productions‘ emphases.  But it was my five words that stared at me like a list of New Year’s resolutions—to conduct my business in such a way in 2012 that the definitions of biplane productions‘ observers would fall as close to these five words as possible.

The point of this exercise wasn’t to create magic words or build a corporate guessing game for you.  My goals for biplane productions aren’t much different than yours: create mutually-beneficial transactions, cultivate long-term relationships (with both industry peers and clients), nurture an expert brand to an expanding audience, and get bigger black numbers that come with smaller red ones.

No, the point was to create a filter that will guide your brand and mine at each decision of literally hundreds or thousands of decision points—from website user interface to direct mail style sheet, from voicemail greetings to email signatures, from company dress code to bidding platform(s).  The ramifications of those cumulative choices will, in turn, move our companies closer to or farther away from our respective goals.

All of us may not need to make a five-word list.  We certainly don’t need another plaque on the wall.  But we all need to be looking at our everyday decisions through the lenses of our brands.
[tip]

I lead one of the three squads of the parking team at my church.  Eight of us direct traffic for the 8:30am service.  After we get everybody into the building and the signs & cones rearranged for second service, we eat breakfast together in our church’s cafe.  During one of these breakfasts, I had each of the team members discreetly write the five words they’d use to describe who we are and what we do.  Using a flip chart, I transcribed the cumulative list of words; then we tried to find five common denominators.  It was a great exercise to recast the vision of why we exist and what we do.  I love the heart of my team mates, as they were expressed in these summations:

Common Grounds group chartRESPONSE
The working definition of worship at our church is “the appropriate response to God’s revelation.”  So, serving is part of our response to unmatched grace, mercy, love, acceptance, and truth.  We hope that people can see worship in what we do and how we do it.  Words that came in this category included: joy, serve, glorify, awesome, expressive, and excitement.

IMPACT
Every encounter with Christ and Christians either pushes people toward Jesus or away from him.  What we do out on the asphalt (and grass) could change someone’s trajectory; and we’ve heard multiple stories of those new vectors from attendees, other servers, and other team members.  This is more than showing up to check something off a guilt list; this is ministry.  Words that came in this category included: greet, desire, energy, welcome, encourage, smiles, safety, connect, humble, and touch lives.

COMMUNITY
The Christian journey was designed to be completed with other travelers, each helping one another grow closer to Jesus.  Even the toughest personalities on our team are frail, because we’re all human.  We need encouragement, accountability, acceptance, and even boots to our back pockets.  Some of the most authentic conversations I’ve experienced have been with members of my team.  Words that came in this category included: love, unity, observe, conscientious, encourage, connect, humble, growth, and initiative.

PRAYER
I have cried during our pre-game prayer circle time.  I’ve locked arms with friends, laid hands on those who’ve made themselves vulnerable, and heard prayers that have to shake heaven.  In the least, they have shaken me—shaken us.  I’ve held Rick’s iPhone on speakerphone, as we prayed with someone in prison.  When a need or hurt is expressed by a teammate via email or group text, prayer ensues.  Listening to new believers pray has been both precious and convicting, as they skip religious jargon for straight-up conversation with heaven.

LOVE
This word appeared over and over again.  True, biblical love expresses itself in many ways—often in the ways categorized in the other four words.  Our pastor quotes some famous writer all the time: “Love is always on its way to someone else.”  As a parking team, it’s our role to be conduits to each other, to friends, to strangers—even to the combative.  If love isn’t the filter for our response, all of the above degenerates.  Love is the reason, the expression, the connection.  As Paul wrote, without love, we are nothing.

How would you describe the ministry or serving team to which you contribute?  Is it where you’d hope it would be?  If not, what can you do to affect change in the direction of that ideal?

[footer]Stock image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com.[/footer]

81: Your Brand Doing the Heavy Lifting

Global Force Auction Group

Full page trade publication ad

I recently had a conversation with a newspaper sales rep, who has been my contact at her newspaper for years.  She had called a couple weeks earlier to ask if my clients had any auctions in her region, and I had none to send her way.  That Thursday, she was calling to see if my client would be interested in any company promotion ads.  I told her that my client typically didn’t run lead-generation ads in newsprint—that they let the branding and content of their auction ads sell their services to prospective sellers.

That’s my recommendation to just about every auction marketer with whom I consult—and not just in newsprint.  If you’re going to spend company money on promotion, spend it making your auction promotion look better than what your seller is willing to pay to create.

If someone is looking through the classifieds for an auction vendor, they are going to be attracted by the professionalism communicated in a company’s ads.  They will also be looking to see the volume of auctions you have and if what’s being sold in the ads is similar to what they’d want to sell.  The same holds true in direct mail, signs, proposals, etc.

Counts Realty & Auction Group

Full page business journal ad

That said, there are situations and publications where accomplishing your goals will require a company promotion ad.  Before you craft your advertisement, take a stroll through your phone book, directory, trade publication, or ballpark outfield wall.  Take note of the advertisements you like and why and the ones you don’t and why.  Then use the following checklist to build your piece.

Keep your company name, logo, and contact information for last.
Phone book and trade publication ad designers know you take great pride in your business.  So, they will often build your ads so that you see first what’s most important to you: your business name or logo.  Unless your brand is ubiquitous (think: Walmart, McDonalds, Ford), assume that people are coming to the phone book, directory, or other print medium not knowing who you are or why they should care.  At the same time, don’t hide the logo, in case they’ve seen your brand somewhere else.  You want to build on any previous impressions.

Put information in order of the viewer’s wants or needs.
Unless you’re the only company under a publication category or in your market, you are competing for business.  And every company has a preeminent value proposition.  Maybe you’re the most convenient, the cheapest, the most thorough, the most established, the most innovative, the one with largest market share.  Whatever your competitive advantage is needs to be communicated first and foremost in your ad.  It needs to be framed by the prospect’s benefit.  And it needs to be simply stated and clearly illustrated.  If the shopper’s want or need is not met in your pitch, they don’t care what your name or phone number is.

Avoid mug shots or staff pictures.
The problem with using your face in your advertising is that your face isn’t for sale; your services or products are.  Unless you’re leveraging your own fame—which would require you to be famous (don’t kid yourself)—your portrait adds little, if any, value to the sales pitch.  Pictures also limit the shelf life of your ads more than stock images.  Unless you’re a model, assume that your face won’t sell your service or products.

Print Ad Redesign

One of these was scanned from a newspaper insert. One of these is my redesign.

Use only images that illustrate the benefit or process of what you’re selling.
It’s tempting to use some loud clip art or brash stock image to grab attention—and then try to stretch a pun or cliche to match it.  A good way to avoid this is to start with your core message first and then search for images that clearly illustrate this.  (Know that images aren’t always necessary.)  Before you purchase a stock image, grab a selection of potential images and show them to a handful of people (preferably of different genders and ages), asking them, “Do any of these images communicate [your message]?  If so, which one represents that best?”  It’s not uncommon for me to show clients 25-50 possible images for one ad.

Sheridan Realty & Auction Group

Black & white trade publication ad

Finish with one contact point emphasized over complimentary contact points.
Make it easy to get in touch with you.  If you use more than one phone number, emphasize one over the other(s) and annotate the differences between the numbers.  Never use more than one URL.  Your address only needs to be emphasized if you have more than one location or if you’re advertising a  change or addition in locations (example: “Now on Main Street, across from the courthouse!”).

Police your brand.
Make sure all fonts and colors that your designer uses exactly match your other marketing pieces.  I highly recommend keeping an email with your Pantone (also called “PMS”) color number(s) and font names.  That way, if someone other than your typical designer builds your piece, you can send them these specifications.  You will also want to save regular and reverse versions of your logo, and make sure you have .PSD and .EPS file formats of your logo available.  (JPEG logo files can create limitations or hassles on design work.)  Lastly, keep PDF copies of other advertising pieces available to send for reference.

Your company promotion can communicate something far different from what its words say.  Sadly, most small business advertising says, “I’m much better at what I do than telling you what I do,” or “You need to trust that we’re more professional than our advertising makes us look.”  Don’t be one of those companies.
[tip]

If you’ve spent any length of time in organized religion, you’ve probably sat through a sermon or seminar on how to share your faith.  Many of these sessions are aimed at perfecting your presentation and knowledge of your faith.  I’ve found a number of these to be rigid in their approach.  Maybe it’s me; but I feel like some of these could substitute Amway or Mary Kay, Rainbow or Britannica—and fit in a hotel conference room or Zig Zigler video.

I prefer to advertise my faith the way I would market biplane‘s services—making the value and benefit inherently stated in my everyday work.  If the Holy Spirit’s influence on my personality, morality, and perspective isn’t creating new life in me, then why would anybody else want it?  And if nobody else would want it, why would I use practiced tactics to convince someone into drinking my ineffective medicine with me?  I’m not talking prosperity; I’m talking peace and grace and forgiveness—both absorbed and distributed.

All that said, the Source of our hope asks us to intentionally share it with others.  Through the apostle’s pen he asked us to be ready to give account of the hope that lives within us.  That means telling our respective stories—explaining what God has done and is doing in us and how that came to be from the Truth he left for us.  That means understanding life contexts and leveraging them for Truth.  That means listening before and after talking.  That means extending compassion, not just seeking conversion.

That means you.  And that means me.

 

[footer]Stock image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com[/footer]

71: Getting the Right Clients On Board

Jetliner SeatsI’m writing this post on what will probably be my last jet flight out of the Lynchburg airport. To kick off 2011 on an efficient foot, Delta will be withdrawing its regional jet service from Atlanta, leaving Region 2000 citizens with the choice of US Airways prop service to Charlotte, private jet charter, or a long drive to a Virginia or North Carolina city with an interstate exit.

Even with 80% average occupancy on it’s 2010 flights, Delta hasn’t turned a profit here since 2008, when it operated at 62% average occupancy.† In an effort to offer Delta a package that would keep flights connecting ATL and LYH, Lynchburg city officials brought in airline industry consultant Mike Boyd. Boyd told them the problem was not how many passengers were on the planes but what type of passengers were on the plane.†† In a small city with multiple college campuses, our jets fill early with lower fares, instead of higher-margin last minute purchases typically purchased by business travelers. (Boyd suggests that Delta embargo availability of a number of seats until the last two weeks before departure to regain the higher-margin fares.)††

I can’t fault Delta. As I track productivity and profitability for biplane, I excuse myself from specific accounts, refer work to competitors or peers, and selectively change pricing structures.

Not all clients are created equal, even if they can keep you equally busy. Most of us want high-margin, headache-free work; the challenge is how to attract that work.

Part of that is branding—answering the questions, “What public personae are we projecting? And what kind of business does that attract?” You will have an uphill battle attracting premium clients with subpar marketing or high volume liquidators with a mom-and-pop feel to your collateral.

Part of that is taking the time to measure efficiency, review profitability, and quantify intangible aspects of your work. You might be surprised where you’re most efficiently generating revenue. Then there’s the question I asked during a recent consultation: “How much do you need the money that comes with that headache?”

Part of that is a brave self-control to shew away a bird in the hand to make room for one or two in the bush. A good, indirect way to sift prospects is changing your price points and/or terms of transaction. Sometimes, I just explain to now-former clients or prospects that biplane is not a good fit for them. It’s better to have a difficult conversation on the front end of a poor fit than on the post-game evaluation. (I’ve learned that one the hard way.)

So, where’s your sweet spot? For some it’s in high risk/reward problem solving; for others it’s in predictable efficiency.

And with whom are you working when you’re in your wheel house? It might be a demographic group, a personality type, or infrastructure.

From where do these good fits come to you? Answering this question will give you a good start on where you can go to find more clients like them.

Successful, popular brands—name plates like Apple & BOSE, CNN & FoxNews, MINI & Jeep—don’t appeal to the blank masses. They implement specific brand strategies to duplicate their happy customers. Do you?

[footer]†Bryan Gentry, “Delta to discontinue service from Lynchburg airport,” October 27, 2010, Lynchburg News & Advance
††Bryan Gentry, “Consultant: Lynchburg airport could keep Delta,” November 12, 2010 Lynchburg News & Advance[/footer]
[tip]

I’m really glad God doesn’t take just the easier cases, those with wills more pliable than mine. I’m thankful his invitation isn’t segmented to a specific people group.

The hard part for me is extending that patient, unbiased, consistent grace to others. So often, I prefer to associate with those who agree with my theology, those whose journeys are closest to my own, those whose needs fit into my available time and resource windows—the people who I’d look forward to having on my street in heaven.

But, as Andy Stanley wrote, “Grace is inviting to the unrighteous and threatening to the self-righteous.” When ugly feelings brew inside me over certain people, I am convicted by this litmus test and have to ask myself if I’m starting to take credit for any transformation Christ has accomplished in me.

[footer]Stock image used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010.[/footer]

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69: Retail vs. Wholesale Branding

Shoppign CartsFor Christmas gifts last year, I bought my grandparents gift certificates to Aldi. They love that place—and will sell you on why you should, too. If you’ve never heard of the German-based super market chain, they have a strong American presence. In order to use a shopping cart, you have to insert a quarter into the cart return. You push that cart through warehouse-style aisles of vendor-placed boxes and cases. Some of the canned goods might be missing labels; a good number of items sit on the floor. Stores open at 9:00 A.M. or later and close at 8:00 P.M. or earlier. And they sell stuff cheap enough for my grandparents to forego their local Walmart Super Center and bring their shiny quarter.

My cousin, on the other hand, has been a chef at Wegmans, a very different grocery store—a place so premium it makes Whole Foods insecure. It’s like Disney World for the hungry: multiple specialty cafes, cooking classes, recipe subscription services, gourmet take-home meals, roofs over their parking lot cart returns, online shopping (sortable even by special diet restrictions), downloadable store maps, video tutorials, a food blog, and a magazine. Foodies, yuppies, and French expatriates can walk amidst gastrointestinal delights from 6:00 A.M. to 12:00 A.M.

I’ve shopped at both and can see how the two extremes have each garnered a dedicated following. Both constituencies know what to expect in terms of cost and shopping experience.

You’ve probably seen auctioneers brand themselves at each end of that continuum, too. Both extremities offer profitable business models and market segments.

We all recognize budget brands with an almost-wholesale/closeout feel. They have cheap, crowded newspaper ads and photocopied posters or brochures. Their liquidations and consignment sales advertise with phrases like “Something for Everyone!” and “Too Many Miscellaneous Items to List!” You’ll see lots of star bursts, thick fonts, and bright colors in their marketing pieces. Their pictures regularly show time stamps and/or harsh flashes from point-and-shoot cameras.

Then there’s the retail auctioneers, who hire professional photographers to capture their items and ad agencies to design their media. They use ballrooms and wedding-style tents, suit-wearing bid assistants and sophisticated multimedia systems. Some even have live music, catering services, drive-through event centers, and/or on-site financing representatives. In their advertising, they implement headlines that describe amenities and features of the auction item(s) and let pictures sell the sizzle. They have uncluttered Web sites, custom auction signs, and advertising-wrapped company vehicles.

The mushy part of the deal, though, is that most small businesses are somewhere in the middle. Wherever a brand is on the spectrum—between generic and niche, budget line or premium exclusivity, family operation and corporate feel—it’s important to know and then guide public perception objectively. If your market is not on the easy-to-segment ends of the scale, you need to determine if you need to move toward one—and, if not, how you are going to differentiate your firm from the rest of the large median? I recommend creating a chart that answers the questions like:

  • What are the common denominators amidst our sellers? Our buyers?
  • What non-auction brands have similar customer bases?
  • How do they market themselves and their products or services?
  • How are we different from other auction firms? From non-auction companies that sell similar assets?
  • How do our differences benefit our sellers and/or buyers?
  • How do we leverage our uniqueness? And how do we then market it?

Another place auctioneers must be careful and self aware is in recognizing when an auction won’t fit within their brands. In my young career, I’ve had multiple occasions when I’ve bit off more than I could chew or chewed something that later soured in my mouth. Shooting for financial security, brand extension, or an interesting challenge, I’ve taken projects that weren’t in my wheel house. It causes brand dissonance in my customers; it has sometimes resulted in less-than-best solutions for their needs; it regularly kills my efficiency and profitability. With enough of these lessons and now referrals under my belt, it’s slowly getting easier to chase the work that best fits biplane‘s core competencies and refer the rest to someone else.

In addition, be careful in presentations and proposals not to promise Wegmans-type results to a client, when you know you’ll be using Aldi-style marketing—or worse yet, giving buyers the impression that they’ll get a steal of a deal while forecasting market-beating results to sellers. Auctions often surprise even the experienced professional, but don’t set yourself up for discontented buyers and/or sellers.

If you want premium retail results from your services, implement premium retail tactics. If you want to develop a low-margin, high-volume work flow, give buyers and sellers premonition of such proficiency. And if you’re somewhere in the ambiguous middle, never grocery shop hungry—especially at Wegmans.
[tip]

In the final book of the Bible, Jesus communicates that he desires Christians to be hot (close to him) or cold (far from him), because lukewarm makes him vomit. It makes sense. Both religious and secular observers have certain brand associations for the holy and the hedonistic. And they have a big problem with the gray area in the middle, especially when it looks hypocritical.

Hopefully, nobody reading this is wanted for axe murders. I doubt any of us are up for conferred sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI. Are we then all hypocrites? Are we all useless, stomach irritants to our Creator?

There is no sweeping blanket answer to that. It’s tempting to judge our respective relationships with God by exterior criteria like what we wear to church or the streak of stars on our Sunday school attendance chart, the amount our tax return shows we gave to charity or the stenographer pads of all the notes we transcribed from the pews. Often, our default temperature reading protocol compares ourselves to someone else (other than Jesus) on the continuum until we find someone who makes us feel warmer about ourselves.

As a pastor’s kid, Bible college grad, and devotional book author, I know how to game the checklists. They leave me hollow. As uncomfortable and convicting as it is to ask, I find myself more challenged and authentic when I consider trajectory and momentum. Am I chasing into the Light, as I see shadows in my own heart? Or am I running from absolute truth and supernatural enigmas to be my own god?

As emotional, short-sited humans, we may fluctuate on the sine wave; but is the baseline ascending or descending? Or as gets regularly asked a lot in my circle of friends, “Where are you with God right now? Where do you sense movement?”

[footer]Stock photo used by permission through purchase from iStockPhoto.com ©2010.[/footer]

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