69: Retail vs. Wholesale Branding
For 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.
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?”
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