Service brands - Strategic Brand Management

There is no legal difference between product, trade or service brands. These are economic distinctions, not legal ones. By focusing on lyon branding per se, i.e on signs only, the law does not help us much to understand either how brands and the branding process work or what the specific characteristics among the various players are.

Service brands do exist: Europcar, Hertz, Ecco, Manpower, Visa, Club Med, Marriott’s, Méridien, HEC, Harvard, BT, etc. Each one represents a specific cluster of attributes embodied in a quite concrete, though intangible, type of service: car rental, temporary work, computer services, leisure activities, hotel business or higher education.

However, some service sectors seem to be just entering the brand age. They either do not consider themselves as being a part of it yet or have just started becoming aware that they are. This evolution is fascinating to watch, as it highlights all that the brand approach involves and reveals the specifications branding an intangible service.

The banking industry is a fine example. If bank customers were asked what bank brands they knew, they probably would not know or understand what to answer. They know the names of banks, but not bank brands. This is significant: for the public, these names are not brands, identifying a specific service, but corporate names or business signs linked to specific place.

Until recently, bank names designated either the owner of the corporation entrusted with the customers’ funds (Morgan, Rothschild) or specific place (Citibank) or a particular customer group. Name contraction often signals that a brand concept is in formation.Thus, for example, BanqueNationale de Parish as become BNP.

Some observers consider this as just a desire to simplify the name, as per the advertising principle ‘what’s easy to say is easy to remember’, as short signatures make it easier to identify the signer. Such abbreviations have definitely had an impact; however, they seem to reduce the whole branding concept to mere part of the writing and printing process solely within the realm of communication.

As they are contracted, these bank names come to represent some kind of contract instead of a mere person or place. In order to become visible, this contract may take the form of specific ‘bank products’ (or standard policies in the insurance industry). But these visible and easy-to-imitate products are not the explanation and justification for why they have decided to build a true brand. They are merely the brand’s external manifestation. Banks and insurance companies have understood the key to what makes them different: the relationships that develop between a customer and a banker under the auspices of the brand.

Finally, one aspect of service brands that contrasts with product brands is that service is invisible (Levitt, 1981; Eiglier and Langeard, 1990). What does a bank have to show, except customers or consultants? Structurally, service brands are handicapped in that they cannot be easily illustrated. That is why service brands use slogans. No wonder: slogans are indeed vocal, they are the brand’s vocatio, ie the brand’s vocation or calling.

Slogans are commandment for both internal and external relations. Through a slogan, the brand define sits behavioral guidelines, and these guidelines give the customer the right to be dissatisfied if they are transgressed. Claiming to bethel bank with a smile or the bank who cares is not enough. These attributes must be fulminate by the people who offer and deliver the service. The fact that humans are intrinsically and unavoidably variable is definitely challenge for the brand approach in service industries.

This is why brand alignment has become so important if the whole organization is to ‘live the brand’ (Ind, 2001). Brand alignment is the process by which organizations think of themselves as brands. The brand experience in the service sector is totally driven by what happens at points of contact, where customers meet the company’s staff, salespeople and so on.

This is true of Star bucks as well as of Citibank or HSBC. It is also crucial at Dell. This company is actually not a computer manufacturer but a service company, identifying each client’s need and assembling the product to fit it. There is hardly any R&Dinvestment at Dell. All the efforts are concentrated on the customers and organizing the company by customer segment to better listen and react. People are essential in this process, not machines.

Branding in the service sector entails a double recognition. Within the company, people misreckons the brand values as their own. Theinternalisation process is crucial. It means explaining and justifying these values to each cell within the company. It also means stimulating the self-discovery of how these values might modify everyday behavior. At the client level it also means that clients recognize these values as those to which they are attracted.

One point must not be overlooked. Brand management in the service sector means not only delivering a differentiated experience but ensuring that the resulting satisfaction will be attributed to the right brand. This is why the design and branding of all contact points are so important. Places of business, call centers, web sites and the like must all convey the brand. Just posting one’s logo on the front door is not enough.

The human component of the service brand

In services, there is no difference between the internal and the external. In other words, it is what is behind the brand that makes the brand. Thus, on a return flight from Tokyo to Paris, customers of the airline are in contact with its staff for 14 hours at a time. It is the attentive personnel who carry the brand, not few seconds of stealth advertising.

This is what makes passengers forget the frustration of the delays that build up from the beginning, disrupting executives’ best-laid plans. What has built Star bucks’ worldwide reputation, if not the politeness of its employees? For products it is quite the opposite: Evian is visible in bottles, in shops and in advertising. We never see the factory or the workers.

The first consequence of this is that the service brand is constructed internally. Orange is built up through hours and hours of training all staff how to behave in an Orange way, according to Orange’s codes and values.This concerns all points of contact with the customer, in the store, from the call Centrex or over the internet.

The second consequence is that employees cannot be expected to treat customers well if they are not happy themselves.In order to create the relaxed, warm atmosphere that characterizes Star bucks, its founder Howard Schultz innovated by responding to the worries of many part-time staff: with good health insurance cover, for example.

Another essential distinction between services and products is that the ‘factory’ is in the store. The location for the service production (or eradication, as the late lamented E Langeard called it) is also the place of its consumption: post office, hospital or restaurant. This is why it is so important to take care of the little details, since they lead to expectations and feelings. The rise of architectural and interior design expresses the desire for greater control over the impressions produced by the immediate environment on what is known as the customer experience, and therefore customer satisfaction.

Since service is carried out by people, their variability is a risk for the brand. The brand promises regular and dependable quality –hence the importance of defining strongbehavioural norms, supported by plenty of training (McDonald’s and Disney are models of this type). The alternative is to keep thepersonalised connection between customers and the agents themselves, who found alasting relationship, based on mutual recognition. However, this second approach conflicts with the need to move staff around.

Service, process and recruitment brands

In the services sector, in order to carry out the primary function of any major brand (guaranteeing the same quality of service), the brandies necessarily linked to the setting up of internal and customer-facing processes. To take the example of accounting and audit consultancies, to be ‘Mazars’ is to differentiate oneself from the big international agencies, the famous ‘big four’ who are all Anglo-Saxon, and therefore offer a different culture.

However, it is still necessary to homogenize the internal processes, to provide more regularity and the client experience. The brand is not only a common seal linking profoundly independent agencies in order to give an impression of size, but the sharing of the same concept of the profession. In services, it is important to make the intangible tangible –hence the importance of common processes.

Naturally, this has an impact on what is commonly known as the employer brand, since the raw material of service is the personality and competence of the people. For the employer brand, the task is to develop its reputation among executives or students of the top universities, based not on better salaries, but on shared values.

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Strategic Brand Management Topics