What Makes You So Special?

Creating Your Company Brand

S.S. Saucerman / October 2017

See if any of this sounds familiar: You’re a mid-size contractor in a mid- to upper tier building market, and you have a lot of competition. Your company’s been around a while and through sweat, luck and more late nights than you care to count, you’ve managed to carve out a solid reputation in your community. You’ve thrived through market upswings, survived downturns and hired/fired good and bad people. And finally, today you genuinely feel like the pieces are firmly in place and you’re realizing the vision that you had for the company those many years ago.
    
But there’s a problem. As good as everything is, you still occasionally find yourself asking, “OK, so if everything’s so great, why aren’t we blowing the doors off the place? Why isn’t there more of a separation between ourselves and our competition?” Though there are likely smaller, more minute reasons entering into the mix, I’m here to suggest that the true lack of separation you’re feeling from your competition may not be so much a product of your company’s abilities as it is how the public perceives those abilities.

But Mom Always Told Me I Was Special …
Stay with me here. Over the years I’ve observed that people (and by extension, companies made up of people) tend to accept that the daily growth and hurdles they experience are singular to their own, unique existence. It’s certainly always felt that way to me, and I’m guessing you feel the same. And though that may be apt on a personal level, I would contend that these same gains, losses and milestones we overcome in business are not as unique as we’d wish to believe.
    
I’m also betting that your (and my) local competitors have gone through a surprisingly similar trial of misfires, mistakes and adaptations while building their enterprises, and that we’ve all come up with pretty much the same business remedies, methods and protocols. In short, we’ve all arrived at where we are today along (disparagingly) similar paths. We’re not that special.
    
I’m sorry I had to be the one to break it to you.

What’s Your Brand? (Creating a Market Identity)
But don’t let this revelation get you down. Knowledge is power when used for good, and you can turn this insight to your advantage. Let’s call it a “driving force” to motivate you to take the necessary next step that will finally allow your company to truly stand out. So, working from the premise that macro-operations are similar in nature, let’s explore one proven method that has allowed others in your position to finally break away from the frustrating cluster of also-rans: branding.
    
Most of us associate branding with products, but being as we’re in a service industry, our service is our product. And what quality do all successful products share? They’re recognizable. You know what you’re getting even before the purchase because the company selling the product has taken the requisite time and effort to communicate a clear product identity to the public prior to the sale. They’ve formed a brand. But this wasn’t by accident. These firms spend countless hours and devote vast resources making sure you understand exactly their product is all about—and you need to do the same.

A Plan of Action
Now I’m not talking about just labeling yourself an acoustical ceiling company; it’s too ambiguous, and many of them exist. You need to take it to the next level. What type of acoustical ceiling contractor are you? What separates you from the 10 other acoustical contractors in your town? What makes you special?
    
If you’re struggling to get started, here’s a little exercise you can try to gain the proper mindset: Take a moment to consider your local/regional building market. Now read the questions below and respond with the first name that enters your head:
    
1.    Which contractor in your market do you associate with medical/hospital work?
    
2.    What about schools and government buildings?
    
3.    And who comes to mind for more complicated sitework or civil projects?
    
The answers themselves aren’t as critical as the fact that a name likely did come to your mind. And that’s not an accident. Those companies have likely spent considerable time and energy to hone their personas.
    
So, what about you? What’s your vision? How do you want the public to view you? Pick an aspect of your company you consider a strong-suit and formulate a plan so people know you are the go-to company for that service. With dedication and consistency, it won’t be long before your company is associated with your chosen genre and—from then on—you will find your word-of-mouth work opportunities (these are huge in our business!) will grow. But nothing will happen without a solid plan in place, so to further that along, here are a few things to consider as you develop your own branding plan:
    
Make sure everyone in your company is on board with the new brand. I list this first because I consider this the most important step. All employees—from executive level to mail room—should be engaged and knowledgeable regarding your new branding vision. Too many firms ignore this ever-so-crucial element and then wonder later why the effort faltered. I know it’s cliché, but it’s true: The best marketing tool you have as a company is your people. If you can manage to get everyone spreading the same clear and enthusiastic message, success won’t be far behind. On the other hand, if your message is muddy or half-hearted, the effort is ultimately doomed to wither and die.
    
Think of your new brand in the terms of a company personality. Just as you care about how others perceive you as an individual, consider how you want the buying public to view your company on a personal level. How do they feel about you? Are you the local underdog—David, setting out to slay the entrenched Goliath’s in your market? Are you the high-end, exclusive choice for a discerning clientele (my all-time favorite example of this is the old Curtis Mathes® commercials for their television sets: “Curtis Mathis: The most expensive television in the industry—and darn well worth it!”).
    
Or perhaps you want to champion your benevolence and dedication to the community. Highlight your company goodwill.
    
Whichever personality you choose, if you remain consistent (and check in periodically to ensure the message is still in focus), the buying public will eventually begin to form an emotional connection between that message and your company.
    
Update your company environment to reflect your new brand. This includes letterhead, logos, signage, truck decals, work clothing—anything that advertises who you are and what your new brand is about. This is the “Tinkertoy” part of your brand conversion, but it will help deliver your message on a more immersive, subliminal level, helping to cement the image of your brand into the minds of the local market clientele.
    
Stick to it. If your experience is anything like mine, you won’t get it entirely right on the first try. This is not unusual. In the classic Edisonian “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” sense, be prepared to re-visit and re-evaluate your plan along the way. Keep an open mind and listen to the input of not only those around you but your clients as well. Pick a period of time (quarterly?) to re-visit the plan and to weigh its current effectiveness against the goals and expectations you set forth in the beginning. Oh, and don’t be surprised if this all includes some cheerleading on your part to reinforce your commitment to the effort. It’s all part of the process—and the end benefit is worth it.
    
Go out of your way to reinforce your image as the industry expert in your chosen field.
If your goal is to become the “go-to” acoustical ceiling company for medical work, immerse yourself in that world. Cold-call all the area hospitals, attend medical expositions and trade shows, connect with industry experts and take measures to stay abreast of medical engineering and construction innovations. If there is an industry publication/magazine (and there are magazines for just about everything these days!) for your chosen genre, subscribe. Learn and absorb as much as you can about the industry itself, and before long you will find yourself far more confident and at ease the next time you’re in negotiations for medical work.
    
Use your imagination. There are countless ways to get your message across. Here’s an example I came across many years ago that I’ve never forgotten (and have since seen repeated in other offices): I had a morning meeting with members of an architectural firm in Milwaukee. I was the GC, and we were doing a hospital project together. We met in their conference room—my first time in their offices, and during the meeting I remarked on the dozens of hospital/medical photographs and renderings (past projects of theirs) that covered the walls. I was a little surprised by such a heavily medical-themed display because I had historically known this A/E firm to be associated with school/university work.
    
And this is where they let me in a little secret. The wall was entirely Velcro®, and it was company practice to “customize” the conference room according to the type of meeting about to be held. In my case, it was medical. And yes, this meant that some poor soul, prior to my arrival, had been tasked with the wholly unenviable job of un-sticking what existed previously on the walls and replacing them with the company’s stock portfolio of medical/hospital projects. For the 3 p.m. meeting later that day, it would again be switched to strip malls and retail spaces. Brilliant.

Don’t Forget the World Wide Web
Of course, in today’s world it goes without saying to not forget to embrace all things Internet. Online content isn’t optional anymore. The public expects to find you online and many (most?) will learn virtually everything they know about your company and brand through this one electronic portal.
    
Keep your Web identity fresh, take focused measures to ensure it reflects your brand and company philosophy, and always, always keep it engaging and entertaining. Dry and/or unenthusiastic material is the death knell of Web advertising. If you run a blog, keep it updated and relevant. Provide hyperlinks to those pertinent industry connections we mentioned earlier.
    
And finally, provide a messaging vehicle wherein the public can interact with you and your staff. There is no easier and quicker (albeit sometimes hard to hear) way to find out what’s really working and what’s not than to listen to those who’ve interacted with your company and people.
    
Good luck!

S.S. Saucerman is a full-time commercial construction estimator and project manager for a large upper-Midwest general contractor. He is also an established freelance writer and author whose work spans 20 years. In addition to construction and writing, Saucerman also taught building construction technology part-time for 11 years at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill.