The Power of Storytelling Begins With Your Internal Customers

It's easy to see that manufacturers need to evolve their marketing approach and deliver a customer experience that stands out.

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A Commerce Department report shows that manufacturing made up only 11% of gross domestic product for the second quarter of the year. That's the smallest share since 1947 - when the department first gathered the data.

When you consider the industry's shrinking footprint coupled with increased competition, it's easy to see that manufacturers need to evolve their marketing approach and deliver a customer experience that stands out. Doing that starts with internal brand engagement.

Moving Beyond Product to Brand Vision

Manufacturing companies put a lot of focus on their products by the very nature of what they do. They create new offerings, tell dealers and distributors about them, and then release enhanced products over time.

Unfortunately, when products are the primary focus, customer relationships and the customer experience become transactional and commoditized. Companies become so dialed in to their possible profit margins that they get locked into price wars and struggle to focus on building their brands.

The problem with a product-over-brand mentality? It contributes to the perception that manufacturers only make commodities that can be found anywhere, regardless of the name on the product. However, when the focus shifts onto engaging customers and internal team members with a strong brand vision that they can then share with customers, connections happen.

Brand stories have the power to make branded manufacturing companies stand out and become more than commodity competitors. The secret to harnessing that power? Brand alignment. It's an effort that allows manufacturers to empower their sales teams, dealers, and distributors to share their story with passion, confidence, and belief.

The Secret? Internal Brand Engagement

When branded manufacturing companies focus on just products, development, and rapidly bringing new products to market, it doesn't leave time to create and perfect the brand vision. While frontline representatives are well-versed in product information — think sizes, colors, shipping times, and price points — they need to be even more versed in the brand story they're being asked to share.

To be clear, having a handle on product information is incredibly important. But frontline teams need to believe in how that information fits into the company's identity and promises in order for it to have impact and build connections that last.

Take Patagonia, a branded manufacturer that doesn't make its product its identity. It doesn’t spend any time focusing on how its jackets are better than jackets from the competition; instead, it focuses on building relationships with its entire value chain, right down to the customer. And those relationships are based on something far beyond just what the company makes. As a result, competitors that make comparable products haven't been able to differentiate or offer anything close to the customer experience and personal bond Patagonia has.

The Risks of Brand Misalignment

Manufacturers that don't make brand alignment a priority face a few key long-term risks.

  • Wasted product development: The time and resources invested in product development won't pay off if the product gets lost in a world of commoditized competitors.
  • Margin erosion: When a company pushes product over brand, it is forced to compete mainly on price, which makes profit margins suffer. If a company has a strong brand vision and identity, though, it can charge more with good reason.
  • Lack of loyalty: Customers are loyal to brands, not products. The same goes for distribution partners. Companies should take the opportunity to build a value chain that focuses on story, not offering.
  • Disengaged product representatives: Dealers and distributors have a lot on their plates, a lot of priorities, and a lot of goals. If they aren’t excited to sell a particular brand, odds are they either develop a negative opinion of the brand, which they then project onto the customer, or they simply fail to talk about the brand at all.

How to Start Implementing Internal Branding

So what can you do to get out of the product-focus rut and equip your stakeholders to tell a solid brand story? Begin by engaging your internal customers — employees, from the C-suite to the frontlines — with your vision. To do that, start with these four steps:

1.      Translate your brand's story. It's imperative that your internal teams and frontline representatives understand and believe in your story if they're going to communicate it well to customers. That said, when you communicate it to them, narrow it down and make it digestible. Share what you want them to know in an engaging way. The more you do this, the easier you make it for reps on the front line to tell your story in every customer interaction.

2. Reframe the audience. Your audience starts from within. Use internal marketing campaigns and internal branding activities to engage your employee audience before sending your marketing messages out into the world. The best way to do this? Adjust your perspective. View your frontline representatives as customers who you need to buy into your story. When they get on board, they'll share that story with others just as well as it was shared with them.

3. Captivate your audience. Just like you invest in finding the best way to communicate with your external customers, invest in making your brand story interesting to everyone in your organization and on the front lines. Think about different ways to share your brand story with different roles in your company and emphasize different elements or modify punchlines depending on who you're talking to and what they need.

4. Spread your story; don't force it. TED Talks uses the slogan "ideas worth spreading." But what exactly is it that makes an idea worth spreading at all? The answer is experience. Instead of sharing product fact sheets or an email full of bullet points, bring the story to life for your employees in more creative ways, like podcasts or peer-to-peer sessions. Turning basic information into stories will make it something your internal audience wants to hear, not something they're forced to engage with.

As your manufacturing company continues to make products and rapidly bring them to market, look past commodity competition and set your sights on internal brand engagement. By building a story that ties your product value to your brand vision, you can build brand loyalty and increase margins from the inside out.

Chris Wallace is the president and co-founder of InnerView, a marketing consulting firm that helps companies align their brand and product stories with their customer-facing teams . InnerView ensures the people who represent your brand have the tools and strategies to tell your company story confidently and consistently. Chris has nearly 20 years of sales, marketing, and corporate leadership experience. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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