Filling potholes in the customer journey.

The path from your brand to your customer must include your dealer’s brand.

Manufacturer brands that sell through independent dealers often ignore those dealers. And in cases where the dealer isn’t completely ignored, they’re taken for granted—and treated as an in-house sales rep. Manufacturers and their dealers often end up fighting over customers like a divorced couple in a custody battle. Both claim to want what’s best for the customer, but there’s a healthy dose of self-interest for all parties concerned. Manufacturers want to cultivate loyal customers and so do their dealers. So, let’s start with that foundation and explore ways the brands all can work together.

What, exactly, do we mean by branding?
Branding has become a broad term that implies a lofty level—real or imagined—of marketing savvy and activity. It’s often equated with a brand’s graphic standards, and those are important. But it’s more complex than visual identity. Your brand is anything that answers the question, “Who the heck are you and why should I care?” The most beautifully designed purchase experience will be forgotten if your customer, dealer, or employee is confused by the answer. All parties deserve a happy, supportive and integrated brand experience. Delivering this Holy Grail of marketing requires some practical guidelines.

Nobody owns the customer.
Manufacturer brands need to acknowledge a hard truth. To the end customer, there is usually no distinction between the manufacturer and the dealer. If either of you screws up the relationship, the customer will blame you both. As much fun as it can be to assign blame, I think we can agree it’s not productive. Or profitable. To a customer, the dealer is the immediate face of the brand. So, it’s wise for a manufacturer to help make the dealer’s job as easy and effective as possible.

The dealer has a brand to nurture, too.
This statement often has manufacturer brand managers tilt their heads like confused puppies. Depending on the market you’re in, the dealer may have to compete with others in their market who are selling the same product. For example, in the commercial transportation category, a fleet customer operating regionally or nationally will have countless truck dealers calling on them. If a manufacturer doesn’t leave room for a dealer to wrap his own brand around the transaction, the dealer is forced to do it on their own—and typically without the resources to do it effectively.

Start with your common ground: The Customer.
Having a healthy relationship with your dealer network requires operational tactics that go deeper than branding. We’ve covered many of them in this blog, and I’d encourage you to take a look past topics like communication, evaluation, and incentives. When we talk about focusing on the customer in this context, what we’re really trying to do is minimize—or better yet, eliminate—any friction in the transition from manufacturer communication to dealer communication.

The hand-off from the manufacturer to the dealer is critical. The scenario usually goes something like this: The customer is on the manufacturer’s website and fills out a contact form. Then… nothing. Our research shows that a solid 30% of inbound leads never get any response, and of the 70% that hear back, it’s often days or weeks later—long after the window of opportunity has closed. (More on this in our earlier article, “The Senseless Death of a Sales Lead.”)

Like most relationships, it’s all about communication.
When you’re mapping out your customer journey, make sure the trip highlights your dealers and all they bring to the party. That involves having internal conversations about the critical role the dealer plays. It requires listening to dealers and incorporating their input.

A great example of this is when we created the sampler for Häfele’s Artisan line of high-end cabinet hardware. The manufacturer wanted a brochure, but when we conducted dealer research they pleaded, “please, not another brochure!” The result is this product sampler that solved the dealer challenge of helping customers visualize the hardware. By including dealer feedback in our development process, we avoided the “where do we put the dealer logo?” part of the conversation. The result was as much a dealer’s tool as a manufacturer’s piece as an interactive consumer wish book. That’s just one example, but it’s the kind of broad, inclusive thinking that helps build individual brands that all work together. Try it, and your bottom line will thank you. As will your dealers.