The Brand And The Channel – 2 : A Deeper Look At The Role Of The Channel

Published June 4, 2016 by vishalvkale

How does one create a Brand? Traditional Brand Management looks at concepts like the marketing mix, brand loyalty, awareness, personality, equity, positioning, attributes etc; all these and more are admittedly  core concepts with a range of practical ramifications and uses. The difficulty I have as a marketer in relating to these is due to the excessive focus on one element in the mix : promotion, and specifically advertising.
No Marketer can deny advertising its rightful place; it is through the medium of advertising that company products reach the consumer, and make the consumer aware of the same; it also helps build loyalty, creates differential & preferential demand, builds strong associations and all the rest of it; that is pretty much beyond argument. But the problem is that, in tandem with these steps, a host of other steps are needed to provide the base from which promotion can build. Further, these other steps provide the superstructure as well as stability.
Price and Product are most often considered in this set of “other steps”; what is left out are the organisation policy framework, culture, and… Place. The distribution network and its role gets most often ignored. I shall deal with the first two at a later date; this article builds on the previous article on Brand Creation, { Crafting A Great Brand : The Channel Perspective : Crafting A Great Brand : The Channel Perspective}
 I observed in the conclusion of the above article, “in my career so far, despite having covered in excess of 2000 retail points at a minimum, I can’t 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” The question that jumps to my mind is simply this : Why is it that in over 16 years and more than 2000 retail visits, have  few customers come demanding a specific brand choice across Telecom, Durables, FMCG in my observation?     
Rather than compartmentalise this into the regular constructs of marketing mentioned above, it seems to me that we should look at this in an entirely different light : the relevance of the customer’s experience with the company as a whole : Brand, Physical Product, Customer Touchpoints, Communication, Usage Experience, Employee behaviour and Ethical Conduct, Process Orientation as well as the Channel and its approach. The customer runs into these aspects on a regular basis, and forms an opinion of the company and its products basis a series of interactions; the sum total of these interactions is what determines the customer response to the company offering, and a continued relationship.
This is a divergent approach from traditional marketing, which does not give as much weightage to these aspects, leading to dissonance in the customer’s mindset towards the company. There do exist companies that have bridged this, and built a solid rapport with its customers spanning several industries – but they are few in number. Not all the points above will be equally relevant for all products; for example, high-involvement products typically will be impacted by most, whereas low-involvement products will be influenced more by the Channel than the other aspects, although they will still hold relevance.
When a customer enters a channel location, it is the first face-to-face direct contact with the company; and what the channel says in Verbal and Non-Verbal  communication / interaction to / with the customer is a significant influencing factor; this is further strengthened by a comparison of the actual product or offering vis-a-vis what the customer has been exposed to through Advertising and Brand Building. When I enter a store to purchase a Shirt, or a Mobile Phone, or even a bar of soap – I have a clear set of product attributes in mind – in my observation, few customers have a Brand-Centric demand.
It is usually a case of having a consideration set of Brands to choose from. Thus far, we are in established Brand Management theory; what happens next is the key. The further ongoing interactions of the customer with the organisation in the purchase process, usage, and re-purchase is the single most-ignored aspect of Marketing in the modern world in my experience. The first three Ps can only bring a customer to the store, but beyond that, lies an entirely different and little-understood world, both in theory {that I am aware of, at least} as well as in practice.
The impact of unfriendly  channel policies, lax claim settlement etc are all well understood by most experienced sales personnel; these have the power to wash out sales from entire regions literally overnight. What is lesser understood is what makes the channel recommend one product over another, given equality in the basics mentioned above. If you have everything in place, it does not necessarily mean that you have all bricks in place. Everything that happens right from the first interaction to repeat purchase in an ongoing cycle is the Brand’s core business.
The normal course of interaction in my experience leaves this most vital phase of the purchase process with zero or near-zero control or even influence of the organisation. At the most, as I have observed by and large, the focus of attention becomes After Sales Service; that, though vital, is only one aspect in a rather longish list. The modal response usually hovers around the statement that the rest is not in the control of the teams. But is that really the case? And more to the point, what are the other aspects that influence the customer decision while in the channel location? And, how does the Brand building aspect enter into it? This is the topic of the next part in this series…

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