In today’s highly competitive marketplace a strong brand can help a dealer stand out in every customer interaction
By Michael Chazin
Given today’s fiercely competitive market for office supplies it is increasingly important for dealers to maintain a strong brand presence. “The landscape in which independent dealer operate in is one with enormous competitors,” says Sean Marx, CEO, Give Something Back in Glendale, California. Dealers battle brands such as Amazon, Costco and Staples that are already top-of-mind with many customers.
“Dealers don’t only need a strong brand to resonate with consumers that might be interested in doing business with our channel, they also need to stand for something,” claims Marx. Dealers need to be consistent in delivering their brand promise and message to stand out at every customer interaction. Give Something Back has supported local non-profits for more than 25 years. Since 1991, GSB has donated more than 70% of its profits to worthy causes throughout the country. “Our brand is all about helping people,” says Marx. “Customers understand that by choosing us, they are supporting their community.”
Whatever brand a dealer attempts to establish has to deliver the package that the customer expects. For a brand to deliver the complete package dealers need to be incredibly good at what customers experience when they come to do business, says Pat McMahon, president of One Point, Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Product diversification is a strong dealer characteristic that plays into the One Point name and logo. The dealership went from a printing company, to a printing and office supply company and then added contract furniture and commercial flooring. “Our name really works,” says McMahon. “’One Point’—customers can go to one location and get everything they need. There is little that an office needs to buy that they can’t buy from us.” One Point’s logo takes its lead from the best branding techniques manual. The logo is actually a “1” with a dot after it,” says McMahon. The logo states the name of the dealership – One Point.
After acquiring a contract furniture dealership, Corporate Environments, in 2010, McMahon thought about changing the name of that dealership to One Point, but the need just wasn’t there. “The company had a 20-year name in the market and had a great reputation as a Herman Miller dealer,” he says. It was really a separate business with separate operating systems and its own truck fleet. So the company became Corporate Environments, A One Point Company and the thought was that could change after a couple of years. The name change hasn’t happened, and the Corporate Environments ID has hung on.
Be a solutions provider
Jamin Arn, president of Office Pro, Janesville, Wisconsin, selected the dealership’s name as one way to be recognized as an industry professional. “I put a lot of thought into my name and logo because my intention was to be knowledgeable about as many areas as possible,” he says. Recognizing that he was selling consumables, Arn wanted customers to understand that Office Pro was a solutions provider.
To get a message like that out into the marketplace Arn says the place to start is with the culture of the company. Once the culture is established internally, employees deliver the brand message with every customer interaction. “You can stuff your deliveries with all sorts of materials but nobody tends to pay any attention to those,” says Arn. “Instead, it might be the delivery driver who tells the customer that if she orders a chair from us we’ll put it together for her. Or it might be the customer service person who attempts to sell a chair mat when a chair is ordered.”
Private label products offer one way that Office Pro differentiates itself from the competition and establishes its own identity. A line of cleaning chemicals is fully associated with Office Pro. “We identified some top moving items and went to our supplier and negotiated pricing with them,” says Arn. He has private labeled floor finish, floor stripper, toilet bowl cleaner and more. “When they run out of stripper they just have to look at the label and they know who to call,” says Arn.
“Branding is a way to make ourselves unique, and we have to have a brand promise,” says Stacy Duke, president of Butler Business Products, Houston. “Our brand is our motto which is ‘Yes we can.’” She empowers all employees to live by that promise and to take care of customers no matter what the need. Even when the request is for an odd-ball item, the only one who can say no is Duke.
Dealers need to understand that the perception of their brand is linked to how their internal culture resonates with the external world. “Hopefully what your company stands for is something that appeals to customers,” says Marx. “The more the customer experience aligns with your brand the stronger your brand will become, and the more it will attract the right customer.”
When customers feel your brand
Almost two years ago, Arrow Office Supply, Detroit, surveyed customers to learn why they purchased from the dealership. “We found that they liked working with us because of our people,” says Marc Crane, business development manager. “Our people separate us from the competition. From our customer service staff to our delivery drivers and our sales team—it’s very important that the customer feels our brand with every touch they have,” he adds.
Arrow Office Supply pushes the fact that it is a service-oriented brand with the message “Service, Selection, Savings”. That message can be found on the dealership’s website and on all materials that get sent out including letterhead. “Local” is also a key component of the dealership’s overall messaging.
“Every time we go into a new customer we always push buying local,” says Crane. It is not just that Arrow can provide better service than big box suppliers, but it also uses competitive pricing so it makes sense for customers to keep their purchasing dollars in the local community. “Arrow Office Supply is out in the community supporting local nonprofits,” says Crane. “One of the benefits of supporting a local company is knowing that the company supports the community where you live, work and play.”
Arrow reinforces the brand with personal emails, handwritten thank you notes and phone calls to the customer to say thanks for the order. “We live in an impersonal world, so it’s important for us to personalize the message as much as possible,” continues Crane.
Delivery drivers take the same approach and greet customers with a warm smile and thank them for their business. “Our drivers are the face of our company so that is an important role for them,” adds Crane. Currently when a customer calls or emails the dealership with a compliment, whoever receives it asks the customer to share their thoughts with an online review on the Arrow Office Supply website.
A dealer’s local presence and community involvement definitely take the stage as still one more way to promote a brand. “Having a logo and a name is obviously important because we sponsor a bunch of things,” says Arn. Office Pro has the naming rights on a local soccer field as well as the gym at the local YMCA. The logo also goes on the coffee brewers and water coolers it places, as well as on its shredding trucks and every tote and container that is used. “Our logo is on the backs of kids’ jerseys at sporting events, at the soccer field they play at and at the gymnasium they go to,” he adds. “It gives us validity and a presence in the community. People know who we are.”
Strong brands get known
Greenwood Office Outfitters, Fort Worth, Texas, has had a dog, Oscar, as its mascot for almost six years. Oscar is featured on all company materials—shirts, truck wraps, online, in emails and more—and has become well-known in the community. “The brand that I am trying to put out to people is that I am local, I’m independent and I’m here to stay,” says George Wood, chief executive officer. “When they see the Greenwood Office Outfitters logo embedded next to the dog, the message is that we can be trusted.”
Wood notes that everyone has a soft spot for dogs. “And our dog is iconic,” he says. He took Oscar to a golf tournament sponsored by the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA). Oscar camped out on a tee sponsored by Greenwood Office Outfitters and everybody wanted to have their picture taken with him.
Oscar has become a celebrity in his own right and Wood has had vendors approach him at shows wondering how to get his dog to push their products. He is constantly working on creative ideas to use the image more aggressively. “We came up with ideas of what Oscar could be doing actually posing with products and selling them. I sent some images to a couple of manufacturers and they absolutely love the idea.”
Greenwood Office Outfitter sends out email blasts at least once a week to get promotions in front of customers. The dealership maintains a large inventory and produces its own wrap-and-label orders which it stuffs with the latest promotions. “When the admin who placed the order opens the box she sees what we are trying to market,” says Wood. He also runs regular contests for delivery drivers for them to scope out their customers and pick up on products they see that don’t come from Greenwood. When intelligence is provided by drivers that results in increased sales, a gift card is given out to reward the driver.
It was close to two years ago that Egyptian Stationers brought together its two operating divisions, Egyptian Stationers and Egyptian Business Furniture, under the name Egyptian Workspace Partners.
“Our name really didn’t match what we did and from a customer perspective, the two divisions were almost two separate companies,” says Brett Baltz, director of supplies.
The rebrand has set the dealership up for success. “We were trying to do some cutting-edge marketing on the web and knew we needed a fresh, updated brand to do that,” says Baltz.
“We really want to partner with our customers so the last word in our name is ‘partners’,” says Baltz. The thinking is that salespeople can sit down with customers and prospects to help them streamline the procurement of everything from pens and toilet paper to chairs and medical supplies. At the same time a more consistent brand should start to generate more online leads.
“We bring a lot of value to our clients and how we communicate that value is supported by the consistency of our messaging,” says Baltz. The new brand portrays a consistent message across all media and the focus is on the Egyptian Workspace Partners website where the dealership is fully explained. “We’re going to drive people to the website, we’re going to convert them into customers and then we are going to stay in front of them with email,” says Baltz.
Brands carry a message
Late in 2016, Sundance Office, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, updated its image with a new logo, new delivery van wraps and a stylishly updated website. “We realized that to really grow, especially outside our Tulsa niche, we needed a more professional brand,” says Tyler Condry, marketing director. Essendant put Sundance together with the Bond Group and the new look was developed over a nine-month time frame.
The new logo maintains some of the same elements as the previous identity but has reorganized them in a more professional presentation. “We still have polka dots but they have been rearranged in a more organized way,” says Condry. “We added organization to the look and our mission is to organize a part of their work life for our clients.”
There can be a perception in the market that a smaller, local seller of office products doesn’t have the same capabilities as big box providers and may not be able to meet the needs of some customers, suggests Condry. “We tried to create something that was visually forward looking that would challenge that perception,” he says.
Communicating Sundance’s brand message and brand promise starts when a meeting is secured with a potential new client. Before the meeting the prospect receives a gift bag. Branded swag in the bag includes a lunch bag and Sundance mug or tumbler along with a variety of vendor samples and supplies. “When we actually meet with them we lay out the complete relationship and how their customer service rep is really their personal account manager who will take care of all their needs,” says Condry.
Along with an updated identity, Sundance is working on maintaining its hometown Tulsa market while at the same time it pursues new sales in Oklahoma City. The first sales rep moved into the area in February and a new office will open in February 2019 with two salespeople. To demonstrate its wider marketplace commitment, Sundance created a custom catalog cover for 2019 that features the State of Oklahoma made of office products; the Tulsa skyline runs along the bottom of the front cover and the Oklahoma City skyline runs along the bottom of the back cover.
Brands demonstrate value
Independent dealers have to bring something different to their customers on a regular basis, suggest Steven Pawloski, Arkansas Office Products, Jacksonville, Arkansas. “We have to brand and figure out ways to show the value of what we have to offer,” he says. “If we can’t provide something different, they’re just going to go on the internet.” Being different, in part, means making it easy for customers to get whatever they need. It might be issuing credit memos in a timely manner or delivering orders during off hours.
If a customer has a question, undoubtedly someone on staff can provide the answer. “When you call in here somebody on our team knows that product well enough to describe it and explain if it will meet the need,” he says. Perhaps the product selected is not the best solution, then the Arkansas Office Products employee will present alternatives. “You don’t get that sort of attention from the big box stores,” he says.
To achieve that level of competence, Pawloski regularly uses role playing techniques so employees learn the best way to interact with customers. “We do that a lot because it starts with customer interactions,” he says. “We need to make sure that they know exactly how we want them to act.”
With more orders coming in online, independent dealers are faced with a challenge. Do they handle these orders in the same way that suppliers on the internet do—treat them as just another incoming purchase without identifying the buyer or making any attempt to bring value to that internet purchase? “The number of online orders continues to grow, but we can’t rely on customers to just get on the internet and order because that puts us in the same boat as Amazon and Staples,” says Pawloski.
No matter where the order comes from, a salesperson will still reach out to the customer for a face-to-face meeting at least once a month. That would be in addition to the driver making a stop at that location. The rep then asks if it would be okay to stop by monthly to go over specials or introduce new products. ‘If you tell them that you will stop by once a month for about three minutes, they’re okay with that as long as you bring value and don’t spend a lot of time,” says Palowski.”
Brands go digital
At Sundance Office the majority of orders come in online, but every effort is made to stay in touch with those digital customers. There is a banner that runs across the top of the shopping cart page that says Eagle Eye Order Reviews. “We ask our reps to review every single order and as they do that they might toggle between S.P. Richards and Essendant to see who has the best price,” explains Condry. The sales rep might refer the customer to an item on sale that could save them money or let them know that an item is out of stock and suggest an alternative.
The brand promise at Butler Business Products starts with Duke’s elevator speech. She asks potential clients if they have a butler and everybody laughs. Then she lets them know that when they do business with her firm they automatically get a butler. “I tell them we’re here to serve all their office needs and everything they need to run their business,” she adds. “Everybody can take care of everyday needs; where Butler shines is supplying those hard-to-find items,” says Duke. “We’ve converted several accounts just by saying we can help find an item.”
After taking a Disney marketing class, Duke has instituted a routine by which Butler customer service employees stop by a customer’s location while it is receiving a delivery or experiencing a furniture installation. “They get to see the full circle of what we promise,” says Duke. Employees like the experience she says because it shows them that their activities matter. “It is very hard to explain that on a piece of paper or at a meeting. When customer service people have a chance to get out and see what is involved it can be extremely rewarding.”
Take the brand challenge
Not every dealer can have an iconic brand, the best name or the most recognizable logo. But every dealer can certainly make an effort to come up with all of those marketing necessities. Whether it is home grown or developed by an outside organization, when the combination is just right the result can have a strong impact on area businesses. “Brand can be as superficial as your personality or as deep as your character,” says One Point’s McMahon. What do you want your brand to be?
Michael Chazin is a freelance writer specializing in business topics. He has been writing about the office supply business for more than 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.