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Branding in a Recession

In these uncertain economic times, marketing may seem like the easiest thing to cut. However, smart executives understand that during a recession, marketing is a non-negotiable budget item. Here's why:

  1. Lose visibility and you will lose market share.

    Out of sight is out of mind. And when clients are buying less of your services, you need to find cost effective ways to stay top-of-mind. Direct sales calls are expensive. Marketing is not.

  2. Companies that market grow faster.

    According to a November 2008 article published by the Wharton School, companies that advertise aggressively during past recessions had sales 256% higher than those that did not continue to advertise.

  3. It gives your sales people a reason to call.

    Your clients hate the constant barrage of calls by staffing reps. So rather than encouraging your team to simply make more cold calls, use marketing to share valuable, educational information that can serve as the basis for meaningful conversations.

But what about branding?

Branding is commonly viewed as the "fluffy" image building part of marketing. It can be costly. It can be hard to measure. And it's an easy expense to cut, but should you?

This issue of Idea Club will help you answer that question. It focuses on what a brand is, how to create a brand, and practical tips for branding during a recession--without spending more money.

Brand Awareness and the Staffing Industry

If you think that branding does not make a difference to your business, and that your clients are aware of your company, your service and who you are…think again. Recent research conducted by Inavero Institute for Service Research found that in the staffing industry, clients have low brand awareness. In fact, the average HR professional can only name two staffing firms beyond their current vendors. Nearly one-third can't name any at all.

While you might consider this lack of name awareness to be a challenge, there's some really good news in these numbers. Prospects may not know your name, but they don't know your competitors either. By establishing your brand and clearly defining your position in the market, you have a huge opportunity to take business away from those who are doing nothing.

Positioning Your Brand

When you think of branding, what comes to mind? An attractive logo. A cool website. A catchy slogan? A good brand is actually a lot more about substance than style (although often the two go hand in hand). A good brand defines your company's unique service promise. It ties directly to your business model. And it defines your positioning message.

Positioning is how you differentiate your services from your competition. It clearly articulates (ideally in 10 words or less) how you want to be seen in the market. When done correctly, positioning creates demand for your services and keeps you from being seen as a commodity. For example, Wal-Mart positions itself as the low price leader. Dominos Pizza as the fastest at delivery. And Disney positions itself as the best at family entertainment.

Now, more than ever, it is important to create your unique differentiation--to avoid being seen as a commodity. During a recession, commodity level service providers will see margins fall--if they can even retain their clients.

To survive this recession, your brand should be positioned so that your clients, candidates and your internal staff are able to:

  • Understand what makes you different
  • Articulate it to others
  • Value your brand (and in the case of your clients, be willing to pay for it)
  • Embrace it and defend it when it comes under attack

Create a Brand Identity

Branding takes positioning one step further. The idea is to create demand, not just for your services, but for your specific brand. The goal of branding is to create in the mind of your customer the belief or curiosity that you offer something special that no one else does. Call it a mystique. Call it unique. The brand happens when you describe what you do in terms that build you into the partnership with your client--by solving a currently specified need or even better, offering a solution to a problem your clients have not yet identified.

Coke. Nike. Apple. Harley Davidson.

These simple words create an image in our minds. Without description, you immediately think of the product they offer. However, more than that, these companies have created a cultural significance with their brand. Their brands conjure up images, emotions and feelings; goodness, athletic, the ultimate in cool and a sub-culture. They are brand leaders, internationally recognized and revered. They have millions to spend on advertising that simply talks about their brand. Their ads don't push a product, they portray a lifestyle.

How can you create this type of brand awareness, without the millions?

It is possible. The challenge is to consciously design your brand image, learn from what market leaders do, and reinforce your brand message at every opportunity you have. Here are three ways you can build your brand:

  1. Create a Personal Brand

    A personal brand emphasizes the image of an individual over your services. For example, Donald Trump is a personal brand. George Foreman is another.

    Personal brands can also extend to the entire organization. One notable example is IBM. You can't help but picture blue suits, white shirts and red ties. Another great example is Southwest Airlines, which became famous for not just low fares, but the friendly, sometimes over-the-top actions of their employees.

    A personal brand creates value because it captures the charisma of an individual or an organization and transfers it into an implied value about your services. A personal brand has an almost magnetic ability to attract customers, and it's a great differentiator because it is almost impossible to copy. But at the same time, a personal brand can be very hard to change (even casual Friday's have not had an impact on IBM's blue-suit image).

  2. Create a Product or Service Brand

    For most companies, the easiest and strongest brand is based on product or service differentiation. The goal is to align your services with something the consumer wants--either by fulfilling a need or solving a problem. Mary Kay is a good example. They sell beauty, not cosmetics.

    Is your company selling staffing services? And is your primary differentiation your service? If the answer is yes, then: stop selling staffing. Try to position your service as a solution, a way to increase business performance, cut human resources costs, or maximize human capital.

  3. Create a Market Brand

    A market brand is defined based on who the customer is. You design your services specifically to fit a tightly defined market. For example, you won't find a Rolex advertisement in Popular Mechanics, but you will in Skiing and Fortune.

    A market brand is an ideal solution when you have a better ability to serve a very specific niche than anyone else. You often see strong market brands in executive recruiting, when a specific individual or a recruiting firm has greater knowledge and experience in their marketplace than anyone else.

Branding During a Recession

Virtually every management consultant advises clients to invest more aggressively in marketing during a slowdown. But when cash flow is tight, the practical reality is that marketing is often the first thing to be cut. No matter what your marketing budget, you can maximize the impact of your brand by coordinating your efforts and making smart investments in order to:

  • Enable your sales force to better leverage their time
  • Keep your firm top-of-mind
  • Reinforce your differentiation
  • Sell new services
  • Expand awareness of your firm
  • Educate clients and prospects on new ways to use your services
  • Lower your sales and recruiting costs

What to do now:

  1. Identify and express core brand values.

    More than ever your company must speak with one voice, and your employees are the best ambassadors for your brand. Be sure that they clearly understand, and can articulate and incorporate your core brand values into their sales and service efforts.

  2. Resist cutting prices.

    This too shall pass. Eventually, the economy will recover. Cutting prices devalues your brand and will be difficult to reverse in the long-term. Now is the time to focus on the economic value your brand offers, and then find clients who still shop for the quality you provide. If you must reduce prices, then look for ways to repackage your services so that you can offer lower priced solutions that come with less service.

  3. Focus on serving core customers. Keep your brand top-of-mind and build customer loyalty by using e-newsletters, postcards and other low-cost marketing to keep in touch with your current client base. Remind people of what you can do. Cross sell to new contacts within the companies you currently service. And provide useful and educational information to help your clients weather the tough times and nurture relationships.

  4. Expand your brand beyond "staffing."

    During a recession, most companies aren't looking to hire, so if people perceive that you're just a staffing firm, they'll immediately assume they don't need your services. Now is the time to think like Mary Kay. Find ways to sell "beauty" or in the case of staffing, sell "cost-savings," "labor efficiency," "talent optimization," or some other variation of the value that an effective and strategic approach to staffing can offer.

  5. Maximize your reach for minimum cost.

    What are your competitors doing right now? Most likely, making lots of cold calls, and in the process, they are antagonizing your clients and creating a negative brand for the entire staffing industry. Now is the time to be different. Don't sell staffing, sell staffing education. Use email, direct mail, PR and public speaking to teach people about how to staff during a recession. Brand your firm as experts, and in the process, give your sales people a positive reason to make calls to clients and prospects.

  6. Get more involved in the community.

    Use sponsorship and community involvement to increase opportunities to network with executives from successful businesses and build awareness of your brand. Tie your sponsorships to your core brand values for greater effectiveness. For example, if you provide IT staffing, donate computers and equipment to local schools.

Have the Courage to Come Out a Winner

Without a doubt, these are scary times, but if past economic cycles are any indication, the companies with the courage and foresight to make intelligent investments in marketing and branding will come out the clear winners.

Right now, you have an almost unprecedented opportunity to develop a unique brand for your organization, capitalize on the mistakes most companies in the industry are making, and win business away from your competitors. It takes courage, and it may require changes in your business strategy, but branding in a recession will allow you to not only weather the economic storms ahead, it will catapult your firm to far superior growth in the years ahead.

- David Searns

David Searns is president of Haley Marketing Group. For more ideas for growing your staffing firm, visit www.haleymarketing.com or call 1-888-696-2900.

Sources: Presentation by William R. "Max" Carey, Jr. Ideopia All About Branding Commodity or Value Service Provider? Eric Gregg, Staffing Success, Sept/Oct 2008 Is Branding Relevant to Small Business? Wayne Attwell, entireweb