Tl;dr - Manufacturing branding is a long, gradual, accretive process. Midsize manufacturers should be extremely cautious about spending on industrial marketing programs based on glib assurances of brand dominance. Instead, companies should invest in the activities and capabilities through which brands are organically established and defended over time.
What is Manufacturing Branding?
Manufacturing branding is how industrial manufacturers establish market recognition and favorable opinions.
A strong manufacturing brand helps to put your company top-of-mind with your customers and prospects. They know of you, think of you, and hold a positive opinion of you.
Unlike consumer brands which strive to be ubiquitously recognized, industrial brands are often quite powerful within a niche but may be unknown even in adjacent spaces.
Many people think of branding as an objective of industrial marketing. That's wrong.
Sure, a manufacturer's marketing department has important brand-related functions that we'll explore below. However, it's a mistake to assume that marketing can create a strong brand. In fact, any manufacturing brand "created" through industrial marketing efforts will be unjustifiably expensive and merely a facade.
A brand is the market's opinion of your company; a belief, good or bad.
A durable and valuable brand is built (or degraded) with every customer and prospect interaction and transaction.
Strong Brand is a Byproduct of You Doing You
Industrial brands can't be advertised into existence. They accumulate gradually, much like a pearl.
The quality of your products, efficiency of your customer service, availability of spare parts, effectiveness of technical service, efficient commissioning, exceeding project specs, and clear communication are all factors that build or detract from a brand.
A strong manufacturing brand is an outcome of your culture and your products. It's the aggregate of every engagement.
Industrial marketing can help to remind prospects of your promise and position, but it can't create it. Further, marketing can't defend your brand if you don't ship on time, don't answer the phone, fail to fulfill promises, or sell crap.
Here's a quick diagnostic to understand the strength and durability of your industrial brand. First, ask your team to describe it. Then have an independent third party ask random prospects, customers, vendors, trade associations, etc.
There will always be outliers, so focus on the middle. Maybe even wordle the results from each group. Where's the overlap? Disconnect?
Are your cultural priorities reinforcing behaviors and decisions that support or detract from your brand? Does your team visualize your brand in concert with the market? Or differently? (Hint, if it's the latter, you've got a big problem. You still have a brand, but it's likely working against you!)
Can your team articulate how each decision and action supports strategy and culture, and contribute to your manufacturing brand? If not, then they're delivering a disconnected series of ad hoc experiences to prospects, customers, and vendors. That's jeopardizing your brand.
In contrast, if they can, then it's likely that most interactions will contribute to strengthening your desired brand.
Investing in Manufacturing Branding is Expensive and Problematic
"But,' you may ask, 'every marketing agency talks about investing in branding. Large and elaborate trade show booths, journal ads touting our expertise, sponsorship of events and conferences, and industrial internet marketing are all important brand investments we're told to make."
I understand. That's what we're told.
What revenue can you attribute to each of those?
Does that mean they're bad investments? Not necessarily. But for mid-size manufacturers, spending on manufacturing branding is a black hole. You can pour endless money in with no reasonably accurate way to measure effectiveness.
Here's the calculus I recommend.
Invest in industrial marketing activities that deliver measurable revenue impact. (Of course that means you need a solid marketing automation and sales tech stack to ensure that you accurately measure and attribute revenue.)
Demand generation, lead generation, sales enablement, and content marketing can all be tracked to determine attributable revenue and profit. Properly implemented industrial internet marketing is incredibly powerful, and contrasts sharply with the indiscriminate tactics often promoted.
The return on investments in visitor and customer experience can be harder to measure, but provide clear competitive differentiation. For instance, easy navigation, helpful chatbots and fluid communication in preferred channels directly from a website are examples.
For capital equipment companies, investing in "approved vendor" qualifications is also appropriate.
What kind of branding investments are realistic for middle-market manufacturers? Start with those that don't require any marketing investment beyond perhaps a bit of PR via traditional media outreach and perhaps press release marketing.
For instance, burnish your company's Glassdoor profile. Work to put your SMEs (subject matter experts) on the stage at the conferences frequented by your prospects. And actively support educational and feeder programs for your future buyers.
Don't simply squander money to splash your logo around.
Industrial Brands - Real World Stories
Understanding how brands accrete naturally can inform the creation of an industrial marketing strategy that includes brand goals. So here are a couple of examples from among my clients that illustrate different circumstances.
AZO USA is the Memphis-based subsidiary of a German family-owned company that builds machinery for ingredient and bulk material handling. They are a prominent member of PEMA (Process Equipment Manufacturers Association.) Their machinery is used by many multinationals and leading domestic manufacturers of food, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, plastics, and other products. One type of machinery, a "screener" was first invented by the founder of AZO. Today, many in the industry refer to a screener generically as an AZO.
Wenger Manufacturing builds extrusion cooking machines in their factory near Kansas City. Their machines are used in diverse markets, from traditional food, livestock feed, and pet care, to large-scale fish farming "aquatic" food, and more recently in plant-based "alternative proteins." Wenger is well known in some markets, with dominant market share as the original innovator of the technology. In other markets, the same company and essentially the same technology, is in the early stages of brand creation. The point is that a manufacturing brand is the product of how your target market perceives you, and when that market is different, so is your brand.
Rovema North America is the Atlanta based subsidiary of a German manufacturer of packaging machines. They compete in various markets, and in some, the best-recognized brand is different. One long-time, large competitor was Bosch Packaging Machinery, another German based machinery builder. In January of 2019 Bosch was acquired by a private equity group. In conjunction with that transaction, the entire brand was abandoned in 2020 and replaced with Syntegon Technology. Undoubtedly there were reasons for the rebranding, but the result was neither intuitive nor familiar to many customers and prospects. Remember, brand, like SEO, is generally a zero-sum game. Yours strengthens or weakens in relationship to competitors.
Industrial Marketing Should Defend and Protect Your Brand
You build your brand through thousands of interactions, promises kept, and heroes created among your customers. It's neither feasible nor durable for midsize manufacturers to buy a brand by throwing marketing dollars at it.
That being said, an important function of marketing is to protect and cultivate a manufacturing brand. Consider simple administrative steps.
- create and enforce a content style guide
- develop, and then distribute and promote content that answers the questions buyers ask. Press release marketing should be an explicit tactic in your industrial marketing toolkit. Becoming a go-to informational resource not only helps prospects find you, but also contributes to a powerful brand.
- establish common guidelines for LinkedIn profiles (at least the association with the company) and email signature blocks
- recognize and mitigate the brand challenges of digital printing (vs. consistent pantone colors) across materials, business cards, etc.
- create a resource center and instructions to ensure that your team, partners, journalists, etc. properly use your logos and trademarks
- provide presentation templates and sales enablement materials so that each rep has the opportunity to customize materials but within appropriate brand constraints
- discuss and reinforce brand in the context of each buyer and customer interaction. Empower each employee to be a brand ambassador and hold them accountable.
Build and Protect Your Brand - Don't Just Dream
Brands develop gradually. They erode quickly. Your industrial marketing strategy needs to cultivate the former and protect against the latter.
Pouring money into manufacturing branding is ill-advised and generally unproductive for middle-market industrial manufacturers. Manufacturing branding is a long game demanding a strong industrial marketing strategy, relentless execution, and perseverance.