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A New View of Branding

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Take a look at the world’s most valuable brands. Not a single one represents a publisher. It could make you think that branding isn’t meant for the book business.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Branding is primarily a way of doing business. It’s a business strategy that is carefully defined with the customer in mind. It’s a promise that an organization makes to potential audiences–and then must deliver on.

Your brand is more than your company name and much more than your logo. Your brand is your reputation, or, as Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, says, “It’s the things people say about you when you aren’t in the room.”

The London-based branding agency Brand Guardians describes the link between brand and reputation this way: “Branding is about performance. Branding represents different things to different people. But in the final analysis, branding is a tool for delivering your business objectives: a means to an end, not an end in itself.”

Yes, It Starts with the Products

Clearly, with this broader understanding of branding and with so many new books reaching the marketplace every day, publishers need to be as interested in branding as (for example) Coca-Cola is. For books as for all other products, consumers use brands to simplify choices. And just as they are influenced by a book’s title and content and an author’s brand, they may be influenced by the publisher’s brand. Does your name as a publisher mean anything to the reader who walks into a store and begins to browse through book titles? Does the potential consumer make a judgment about the quality of the book based on knowing that you’re its publisher? Does the soon-to-be consumer have an idea of the content or philosophy of the book because your name is on it?

Even a small publisher can–and should–grab hold of the advantages that branding offers. This requires spending time defining your brand space. Who are your customers? What are the subject areas or approaches that you want to become known for? What differentiates you from all other publishers?

Because there are so many book publishers today, defining unique brand space requires combining a number of characteristics. This could involve becoming the only book publisher with titles that address issues faced by women who work in or deal with major corporations. A bit extreme, perhaps, but you get the point. Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate.

One of the biggest mistakes that organizations make is trying to be all things to everyone. It’s tempting to take advantage of what looks like a hot book concept, even when that concept does not match your list. But if you do this, it will be difficult, after a while, for the public and attractive authors to understand what you stand for.

What you might do instead is set up different divisions–in effect, create more than one brand. For example, a publisher could have one imprint for books about issues that women face when they work in or deal with major corporations and another imprint for books about issues that women face in politics.

Next, the Behavioral Boost

Once a brand has been defined, it’s important to make sure that the culture of the organization reflects it. We call this branded customer service and see it as a way to enhance a brand’s unique identity. Branded customer service goes beyond generic service. It is more than excellent service. It is a strategic and organized way to deliver on-brand customer experiences that magnify brand promises.

When customers get service that is in sync with brand promises, a multiplying effect occurs, and it drives home the essence of a brand. When customers get service that does not match brand promises, as so frequently happens, trust is undermined and brand erosion occurs. This can weaken and even ruin a good advertising or marketing campaign.

From personal experience, we know how well branded customer service can work for authors. It’s one of the things that attracted us to Berrett-Koehler, the San Francisco—based business-book publisher. While BK’s name is not as well known as Random House or Simon & Schuster, the company has a strong reputation as a publisher that lives the values of the books it publishes, all of which aim to offer businesses competitive advantages while making them better places to work.

BK has developed ways to make behavior reflect the contents of its books. For the most part, Berrett-Koehler staff members walk the talk. They form partnerships with authors, lavish personal attention on them, and encourage their participation in a variety of publishing decisions. Recently, BK invited its authors to help revise its mission and vision statements.

Business is a world of details, and a publisher like BK, with its brand promise of making organizations better places to work, can live that promise with printers and other vendors by getting material to them on time. While not a breaking point for reputations, keeping time promises definitely makes work easier. Facilitating shipping and taking returns in a helpful, nondemanding manner also expresses the brand promise.

Because it consistently delivers on its brand promises, Berrett-Koehler can attract brand-name authors even though it doesn’t pay advances; it pays royalties only once a year (and they aren’t the highest in the industry); it commands less shelf space in bookstores than, say, HarperCollins; and it expects its authors to invest major amounts of time and energy in marketing their own books.

How does a book publisher create an internal culture that enables its staff to deliver its brand in every interaction with authors, distributors, bookstores, and other customers? By acting on the knowledge that customer service must possess four attributes if it is to function as a brand.

1. Your customer service must be unique. The service experience the publisher provides must be different in some way from the service experience that other publishers provide. Given the vast number of possibilities, it is relatively easy to define and exemplify a distinctive theme, such as “It absolutely, positively, has to be there overnight” or the very different “a reasonably priced alternative” for sending your packages.

2. Your customer service must amplify or deliver the core brand promise. At Disney hotels, housekeepers arrange stuffed animals that children have brought along so that the open arms of their beloved toys welcome the young visitors when they return to their rooms after a long day. Simultaneously, the staff is delivering clean rooms, family entertainment, and the core Disney brand.

3. Your customer service must be delivered with awareness. Delivering good generic service can be so natural that service providers do not think much about it. But quick and friendly service may not suffice to present or reinforce the values of a publishing operation and its brand space. Branded service normally requires that staff members understand your brand and make a conscious decision to represent it in action.

4. Your customer service must be delivered within a defined and consistent range. If service is inconsistent, customers will not see it as representative of the brand.

Meeting these requirements is a challenge. But it is also an opportunity. We predict that many businesses–including publishing companies–will capitalize on this opportunity, and that the distinction between good, old-fashioned generic customer service and branded customer service will come to be understood in the same way that the marketplace today understands the distinction between generic products and branded products.

Janelle Barlow, president of TMI US (a partner of the multinational consulting organization TMI), and Paul Stewart, director of TMI New Zealand, are the co-authors of Branded Customer Service. For more information email Janelle.Barlow@brandedservice.com or Paul.Stewart@brandedservice.com; or visit the Berrett-Koehler site, www.bkconnection.com.

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