Nov 29, 2009

Branding a product, company or service has become a hot topic in the automotive aftermarket. Many believe that branding is no more than developing a logo and corporate style. In essence, branding is the development of positive perceptions about a company, product or service that clearly differentiates it from the competition.

The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of all the above, that identifies the goods and services of one seller, or group of sellers, and differentiates it from other sellers.

As any marketer knows, this is just the starting point in developing a brand. What stands behind the symbol is much more important.

It has been said that a company’s success at achieving brand equity, the measurable results of consumer awareness, is far more valuable than any other company asset, including the bottom line. In this competitive global market, with varying trade rules, any product or service can be copied whether it is product design, pricing, packaging, or manufacturing. This is why there is so much focus today on the protection of intellectual property rights. In the automotive aftermarket, knockoffs are commonplace, even predictable. A good product will spawn a host of copycats of varying quality. So why is brand equity considered to be the most valuable asset a company can possess?

Howard Kosgrove, vice principal of marketing at Lindsay, Stone and Briggs Advertising, Madison, Wis., suggests, “A brand is the one thing that you can own that nobody can take away from you. Everything else they can steal.”

Patrick Hanlon is quoted as saying in the entertainment branding book, Madison Vine, “Brands of the future will be those that are able to surround their products and services with ardent advocates, loyalists: passion brands. Everyone else will be left to beat it out in the price wars.”

Think about it. Once a company has achieved the ultimate in brand equity, they have captured the hearts and minds of consumers. They will own the greatest market share or be on their way to capturing top share. Typically, a brand is built by much more than advertising. It also has to have excellent customer support, a quality product, competitive pricing and more. In the aftermarket, all too often, companies have surfaced backed by money, yet had little staying power. They failed to deliver on all the other factors that backs consumer claims and build loyalty on the path to brand equity.

Building Mind Share is a Step-by-Step Process

When it comes to branding, perception is reality. If consumers are sold on your product, then you have what every company seeks, mind share, a strong brand identity that can withstand serious competition.

One automotive aftermarket manufacturer, AMP Research, has achieved excellent brand equity with three products: the AMP Power Step power-deploying running boards, the Bed X-Tenderâ„¢ tailgate enclosure, and the newly introduced BedStepâ„¢ retracting bumper step for pickups. In the past 25 years, AMP Research is in the enviable position of creating and holding the lion’s share of the truck bed extender market while growing the Power Step and BedStep into fast growing truck step assists on the market.

Brand Equity is a measurement of consumer awareness and approval. The ultimate goal is to achieve strong brand equity-almost universal brand recognition similar to names such as Disney, Harley-Davidson, or Microsoft, three non-automotive brands that are tops in their respective fields from a standpoint of consumer perceived value.

Mark Wronski, director of marketing, has been at the helm of AMP Research marketing navigating the tricky waters of evolving the brand from motorcycle maker to bicycle builder to automotive products manufacturer. With 20-plus years as a creative director, he has had the distinction of working on multiple product launches and branding initiatives for Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, GMC, Lexus Infiniti and Lincoln Mercury. His list of credits as an automotive branding expert are diverse and include a study and recommendations for NASCAR-branded properties, the development of Lincoln’s “American Luxury” campaign, the launch of the Nissan 350Z, Lexus ES300, GMCs “Professional Grade” campaign, and the launch of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class for North America.

When AMP Research introduced the Bed XTender, Wronski saw an opportunity for AMP to capitalize on the product’s potential to carve a sizeable niche in the truck accessory market. Because of the product’s function and broad appeal, it has achieved nearly universal acceptance by pickup truck owners from soccer moms to the outdoor enthusiast.

The branding process begins with establishing the company’s core attributes, personalities, strengths and weaknesses, culture, philosophy and history. Let’s distill this core information into a few key words:

SEE – Respond to consumer needs. Identify real needs. Understand how people live and use their vehicles in everyday life.

INVENT – Do something unique. Create an original service that solves a problem or fulfills peoples’ needs

PROVE – Know your facts. Prove that the products and services you offer function as promised, use and abuse it. Prove and that consumers really want it. Prove that there is a market.

BUILD – Less is more. Manufacture the product and/or offer the service efficiently, quality, price/value.

Advertising pundits advise that in building a brand, you have to establish the product’s relevance to the customer’s lifestyle; i.e. the more apparent the connection is between the brand and the consumer’s daily activities, the greater the chance the product or service will be purchased.

There should be a strong persuasive reason to believe in the product’s claims. Claims or promises that are backed by persuasive evidence such as third party testing or testimonials have credibility. This ring of truthfulness builds a perception that this product is the genuine article, establishing a distinction from the competition. AMP delivers on its promises with innovative product design, smart engineering, high quality materials and finishes, and a commitment to customer satisfaction.

A Clear, Focused and Appropriate Brand

Think of the many times you’ve seen a commercial and thought that it was funny, clever or weird-an attention getter-yet left you totally confused of its purpose.

Some obvious examples of the companies that have strong brand equity outside of the aftermarket are Intel, Nike, Google and Mercedes-Benz. At a quick glance, consumers will recognize the leader in each respective field and know much about the products behind the logo.

In the automotive aftermarket, companies like, Meguiar’s, Edelbrock, Cherry Bomb and Holley Performance, have understood the value of a strong brand. In part, their success is based on the company’s longevity by providing products that have withstood the test of time. In part, it is a credit to each company’s success at evolving and meeting the needs of today’s consumers. Without a doubt, all have a reputation of providing quality, innovative products.

For AMP Research, the core brand attributes come from its culture of innovation and the “less is more” design philosophy of its founder, Horst Leitner. For over 25 years, this design philosophy has been expressed in products, bold corporate graphics, a succinct and to-the-point copy style, consistent thematic marketing strategies, and targeted messages.

Ten years after the inception of the Bed X-Tender, AMP Research is a leading manufacturer in the truck bed extender market and OEM supplier of the Bed XTender to Nissan, Toyota, GM and Dodge.

Horst Leitner, president and founder of AMP Research, says, “We don’t want to build products that simply look good, our products must have a purpose or function, not just decoration. Mark understands this philosophy. He understands our customer. And he is one of the most creative marketers I’ve ever met. His work in creating the expression of the AMP brand embodies who we are and what we do.”

Wronski has condensed the AMP Research philosophy to a short paragraph:

Finding the simple, functional solution to a complex design challenge is the goal of every AMP Research innovation. Thomas Edison remarked that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. But before there’s either, there’s observation. The eyes of everyone at AMP Research are trained to look at everyday life, and envisioning new products that prove themselves in the marketplace. To illustrate this, the AMP Research Process is to the point:

  1. Define needs
  2. Assume nothing
  3. Less is more
  4. Use and abuse

In ten years, AMP Research has grown into a $25 million dollar business. The company’s success is clearly centered on products AMP has designed and patented, but can also be credited to the marketing of the AMP Research brand. Wronski, as director of marketing, handles all of AMP Research marketing and brand initiatives. He works with a team of engineers and designers on new product development, is responsible for all of the company’s trademark and naming conventions, package design, support materials, in-store promotions, advertising, media buys, company web site, trade show activity and PR initiatives. He also coordinates sales and marketing programs with AMP’s distribution partner, Bestop.

Wronski says, “The automotive aftermarket is a much different animal than the OE world. Branding the AMP Research products for both is a challenge.”

Cherry Bomb, The Comeback Kid

A proof of the value of strong branding is evident in companies that not only maintain, but also constantly work to build the esteem and value of the brand, even after their product became dormant for many years. This is perfectly illustrated by Cherry Bomb, a high performance exhaust company that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Cherry Bomb Glasspacks were the rage when they were first introduced in 1968 at the height of the muscle car era. Then as legislators responded to the increasing number of youth that were being killed or maimed by driving cars with too much power, legislation began to be passed to muffle the power of hot rods. At the same time, there was a gradual shift toward the production of large, gas guzzling machines strapped for power. As hot rods fell out of production, the demise of the loud, in your face, straight tube designed Cherry Bomb Glasspack began to wane.

The Cherry Bomb brand in its heyday commanded respect and awe. After the product and brand was ignored for years, it took the insight of current marketing manager, Matt Graves, to recognize the true value of this brand. With new owners on board in 2005, Ken and Paul Banks, they gave Graves’ the freedom and funds to reinvigorate the brand by reintroducing it to not only the product’s former audience – the baby boomers that are now in their 50s, however now there was a whole new younger audience appreciative of the hot rods of yesteryear.

The Cherry Bomb brand today is experiencing widespread media attention, increased product sales and there is a buzz about the new Cherry Bomb. Graves said, “It really started with just a simple tag line that I threw out on an ad – Disturbing the Peace Since 1968. That tag line captures the rebellious spirit of the Cherry Bomb enthusiast. All of our marketing, from apparel to new product introductions, are designed to recapture the past while pushing the limits of the future.”

Today, Cherry Bomb continues to grow its product line introducing six new high performance mufflers in many different variations, all tuned for horsepower and a unique Cherry Bomb sound. Much more than a manufacturer of Glasspacks, Cherry Bomb specializes in custom systems and accessories to ensure the enthusiast has a unique product for their make and model vehicle.

The New Kid on the Block

While Cherry Bomb is able to ride a wave of nostalgia and high brand recognition to the future, E3 Spark Plugs is wrestling recognition from automotive aftermarket giants like Champion, AC Delco and NGK. These multi-million dollar companies are strong in sponsorships and have high dollar budgets that can buy consumer awareness. Known for producing more power, with improved fuel economy and lower emissions, E3 now has 16% market share of the lawn and garden market, an incredible increase in a few short years.

Branding the new plug, E3 for Energy Efficiency and Ecology, the E3 plug is the only plug on the market that has claims of adding power, fuel economy and lower emissions. It is also the only plug that has been written into an EPA rulemaking as a supplemental emissions control device.

E3’s patented electrode, branded as DiamondFire technology, is the secret behind the success of this new entry in the already crowded spark plug market. The diamond shaped electrode improves combustion with edge-to-edge optimized spark paths, creating more power and more consistent firing of the air/fuel mixture.