Crafting A Great Brand : The Channel Perspective

Published May 1, 2016 by vishalvkale

One of the most neglected and underestimated aspects of Brand Building remains the contribution and role of the 3rd “P” of the marketing mix : Place. The other 3 Ps have been looked at threadbare in any number of excellent case studies, books, researches, in both India as well as the rest of the World. But, on this, the   third “P”, a few selective articles, case studies apart – I have not read anything in my reading so far. Funnily, this is at complete variance with my own on-ground experience in Sales for 16 years.
The question is and remains, how to go about building a great brand? Sure, you need a great product that fulfils a defined need from a set of prospective customers; it should be at a price-point acceptable to the customer-set {segment in Marketing Jargon}; this price point should not reduce the allure of the brand; and it should be backed by a strong marketing programme spanning Advertising and Sales Promotion activities – this is what most pundits will expound.
The question that occurs to me is this : you can have an optimal product-range, backed by a pricing that is in keeping with market needs and realities; with a strong marketing programme. All of this is also executed to near-perfection. Does this ensure success in the marketplace? The answer, basis long years of observation and work experience in sales across diverse industries and geographies is a clear and resounding no. In fact, the answer is very nearly an emphatic “almost never”.
All of the above is of no use if you cannot place your product in the right channel; please note : not just channel, but the right channel. Basis experience, I am only too painfully aware that a strong brand with a top-of-mind recall and strong associations etc {all the Jargon here} is not necessarily the sole, or primary consideration factor in the mind of the channel. Sure you will get placement – that is a guarantee almost. But placement does not mean tertiary sales.
What moves and how it moves from the retail shelves remains one of the least studied aspects of Marketing in contemporary Marketing Theory; again, basis experience, the power of the Brand is but one factor among several. And the list contains several items that prove to be googlies for even top brands, as many a brand have found out. Despite this, it is surprising that contemporary theorists in the field of Brand Building and Marketing pay no attention whatsoever to this vital aspect.
An example from my personal experience. In a state I was once heading, the leading brand {it was leading, still is among the top-2, frequently no. 1} just disappeared from shelves smack in the peak season : vanished,  like vanishing cream. The  reason was widespread dissatisfaction among the retail towards the online strategy, pricing and product availability of that company.  Where is the power of the brand here, and all those lovely associations and recalls? Nothing could work, as the channel united as one, leading to mayhem in peak season.
Another example : a product was washed out from 4 states in the space of a few months, due to massive claim pendency at the distributor level. Third example : I once asked my distributor, you sell xty-x of my products, and yty-y of my competition {y being much larger than x, obviously} – while our product range is not that much outclassed. His response contained one little gem, among the other points raised : I will, in front of you, give you an order of one truckload, and the competition an order of two units. Stay here and see who delivers first. The competition delivered within hours, I wasn’t able to even in 2 days. This leads to better profitability at the channel level, translating to increased penetration and marketshare.
There can be other examples – inability to penetrate markets and shelves due to legacy issues, relationship problems etc; lack of the right logistical base that ensures proper service and replenishment right till the smallest shop shelves; speed of roll-out etc. The point I am trying to make is that the Channel remains the only place where the customer comes into contact with the company offering, and the complete absence of appreciation beyond the clichéd POP and Sales Promotional activities belies the vital importance of the Channel.
You can always state that each of the above are one-offs; and you would be right. Problem is that I have seen these one-offs happening repeatedly, again and again – so much so that they aren’t really one-offs. The repeated happenings that I have seen in my career is leading me to question the basic premise of Marketing : the importance given to the various elements in the mix. It is also leading me to a basic theory basis my personal experience
Crafting a successful brand isn’t the  responsibility of just the Marketing Team, or the Brand Management Team alone : it isn’t their sole deliverable. The success of a company, of a brand – is the responsibility of the entire company, of every employee, and not just in customer-facing functions alone. This has been said before by pundits; my base point in the article is far beyond this; and focuses on the channel functions at the core.
Crafting a market victory requires a deep understanding the dynamics of the physical marketplace, and and in-depth understanding of the micro-level functions and realities. Let me give an example – a brand once came in with a revolutionary premise : MOP or market operating price,  strictly enforced. This is an ultra competitive market. We all laughed and ridiculed, yes  – including oh-so-smart yours truly. Two years later, this brand has shaken the foundations of the market with its surprising results; it may not be the market topper – but its rapid growth has stunned everyone.
There were other reasons – the right product at the right price etc. But that fact that the company keyed into the eroding profitability in retail, and the mayhem that price competition was causing in that industry gave it a small, tiny space in the marketplace for it to exploit. Initially, it was hard going but, eventually, the market began to accept. It is still early days, but the strategy belies a deep understanding of market realities.
They were also very innovative in customer contact at the retail points, with product dummies and trials in every point almost; massive visibility etc – the works. But this was carried out across the board, and with flawless execution. That is the next point I need to make- that the execution brilliance has to be uncompromising with a uniform experience across all customer contact points for a truly great brand to be crafted.
What does it take for a great brand to be crafted? Apart from all the points of the mix and its comparative importance of each component – flawless execution of strategy, and a uniform customer experience across all touchpoints. Having seen this in 3 industries, I can theorise that this is not industry-specific. This, combined with the other points – supply chain efficiency, deep understanding of channel functions, wants and ambitions, accounts transparency etc, are all prerequisites.
That is why I have a fundamental disconnect with most Marketing Theory around Brands : the exclusive focus on one {or two} selective item from the mix, which is completely absent from the real world I have seen and experienced. It takes much, much more than that to craft a truly great brand; Branding should encompass the entire gamut of activities required from production right till the after sales service. Every component plays a vital part in the brand story. And trust me – most top brand are clued into this…

That said – let me reiterate, in my career so far, despite having covered in excess of 2000 retail points at a minimum, I cant really say what really makes products move from the shelves. All I have experienced is that “Brand ” is only one among a set of factors, which I may pen in the due fullness of time and experience… that is, to me – the final frontier of Sales and Marketing : decoding the retail in the new and changed market dynamic and reality of connectivity and seamless inregration wrought by technology… this is the subject of the next article, whenever I manage to get around to it…

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