What makes a brand extraordinary? What differentiates an extraordinary brand from its competitors? Why do we respond to powerful brands as we do? What is in the secret sauce of winners? Why do we want to associate with the best? What do extraordinary brands have that the others don’t?
Again and again we ask these questions. We want to know how to replicate that high level of success and make it our own. Whatever role we have in a company or team, we all aspire to be a part of something extraordinary.
First, extraordinary companies with extraordinary brands are well aligned. Their cultures and leadership are aligned to the company’s brand intention, which delivers in alignment to what the customer is buying.
Second, the company has a unique recipe, and the main ingredient is clearly articulated, understood, and focused on. The priorities of what to focus on in creating and delivering the company’s products or services are known to everyone and all act in alignment to that set of priorities. A sense of individual and shared commitment exists among company or team members, regardless of role or function, to relentlessly pursue and deliver the main ingredient to the customer.
While this may appear complex, it doesn’t have to be. The simpler the message, the more customers are able to see and feel the difference.
Simplicity is one of the attributes of extraordinary brands.
Complexity in a product or service often makes the customer anxious. While we like to have choices, having too many choices is not a good idea.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable when someone tries to sell you something with a lot of add-ons or options? Do you ever find yourself questioning the motives of the seller? When we’re given too much to think about, being sold too much, or being sold something more complicated than we want, we tend not to trust the seller. Or we don’t trust our own ability to make the right choice.
If the provider of a product or service claims that it will fulfill all your needs, that’s a pretty high mark to reach. You are likely to respond skeptically. I am not saying it’s not possible; I am saying it is highly unlikely. Therefore, we’re less likely to trust it.
Potentially, a customer may lack confidence in a company that offers a little bit of everything or tries to sell an overly broad range of products or services. We tend to place more trust in those that work to master a particular product, service, technology, or expertise. If a company offers a little of everything, it increases the likelihood that it’s not going to be great at any of them. The one exception is a low-price provider from which the customer is not expecting a high degree of product knowledge or service competency.
Extraordinary brands: a passion for music
I once read a poem in which the author compared walking into a bookstore to walking into a bakery. The scent of books evoked the emotion associated with the familiarity and anticipation of a fine bakery. He wrote that opening a book’s cover was like breaking into a freshly baked loaf of bread and that flipping through a book and stopping at a page and reading was like taking the first bite.
This is the experience I have every time I enter Wildwood Guitars. Whenever I set foot into Wildwood, I sense its uniqueness. By today’s standards, its approximately 500 square feet is a small space from which to conduct a thriving, rapidly growing retail business. It is also part of its charm and likely contributes to the concentrated, alluring aroma of the fine woods and finishes emanating from the guitars hanging on the walls. As customers walk into the store and across the old worn Italian rugs, they are quickly and warmly greeted by the artists sitting at the four desks that have, over the years, replaced the counters and display cases that once occupied the space. Calling them sales clerks (they don’t have official titles) would be a gross understatement. Each is an accomplished player, who leaves customers marveling when demonstrating a particular guitar. They don’t sell. They help you choose the guitar that’s right for you, that best fits the music you want to create. As they will tell you with conviction, it’s not about buying just any guitar. It’s about the art and your self-actualization.
When you enter Wildwood Guitars, it doesn’t cross your mind that it is a thriving leader in its market, an important player in a worldwide industry. Yet it is one of the largest independent sellers in the world. It achieved this by becoming a powerful niche player in an industry that has moved rapidly toward consolidation and where big is the norm.
The world’s largest retailer of musical instruments is Guitar Center. Owned by Bain Capital, “Guitar Center plunged into the new millennium with the forward-moving momentum of the previous decade and a vision of vast expansion.” Compared to Wildwood Guitars, the company is a giant, easily the Wal-Mart or Best Buy of music, with over 239 locations in the United States and over $2 billion a year in revenue. The company proves that a low-price brand intention and the ability to offer a large selection of items and brands can be a sustainable and growth-oriented path to success. Throughout its history, Guitar Center has grown through a strategy of leveraging acquisitions and opening new stores.
Like all great businesses, even large volume players need to change to succeed. Any great company must innovate and evolve to be competitive long-term, and Guitar Center has proven it can adapt. It has an operational capability and efficiency enabling it to quickly distribute its merchandise to the store level, to move it from store to store, and to swiftly respond to its customers. As part of its vision, the company states, “Guitar Center has no intention of slowing down and will be around for generations to come.”
Two different approaches
The difference in Wildwood Guitar’s approach to how the customer is treated and the intention of its brand couldn’t be any more different than Guitar Center’s, whose stated main customer objective is “to provide for the musician’s every need.” As a result, it offers a broad array of products—keyboards, drums, audio equipment, DJ turntables—pretty much anything you’re looking for. Guitar Center is a low-price retailer with an extensive selection, touting discount pricing. Customer service is naturally in alignment to that intention. While the sales associates at Guitar Center receive product knowledge training, they most often help customers find a particular product from the extraordinary range of choices and fill the role of sales clerk.
The low-price brand intention influences the sales associates and their perspective on the company’s culture.
The contrast with Wildwood Guitars couldn’t be any starker. While many of the influences of big-box retailing have found their way into the marketing of retail musical instruments (including competition on price and volume), Wildwood has resisted this impulse and has successfully held its own. In fact, it has done much better than that. It has become one of the most trusted independent guitar dealers in the world by carving outa niche that has resulted in a consistent growth. Year to year over the past decade, it has experienced double-digit growth by focusing on selling guitars, a narrow selection of high-quality ampliflers, and a few select accessories. It has moved away from selling low-priced items and taken a boutique approach by offering high-quality, vintage, custom, and rare guitars.
Wildwood is currently the largest Fender Custom Shop seller in the world. Among independent dealers, it consistently ranks among the top providers of Fender, Gibson, Taylor, and several other well-known brands. Among guitar makers, it has achieved an elevated status, resulting in several lines of “custom” guitars that include the Wildwood brand in their model names. The average price of a guitar sold at Wildwood is between $3,000 and $4,000.
Steve and Marilynn Mesple founded Wildwood Guitars in 1985. Steve has had “a lifelong love affair with music and guitars.” Their approach was to “sell the greatness and goodness of guitars.” Steve’s leadership approach and its influence on his team at Wildwood are evident and is an excellent example of a leader’s influence on the customer relationship, brand, and culture.
The relationship between Wildwood Guitars and its customers centers on the trust that comes from caring. Customers from far and wide interact with the artists who make up Wildwood’s team and, by phone and email, making buying decisions based on their input and recommendations. The members of the team build relationships, carefully listening to what the customer is looking for from a particular instrument—what they play, what they want to achieve, and what they aspire to—as well as what the customer likes in a guitar, including how it looks, feels, and sounds. Without ever playing the instrument, the customer makes a decision. That level of trust is compelling and is evidence of the caring nature of the Wildwood brand. It explains why the vast majority of Wildwood’s sales are not in-store. Steve makes it very clear. “We never try to sell the customer anything that they don’t want to buy . . . period. That’s not who we are and it’s not what our customers would ever expect from us. Everyone here knows that’s not something we would ever do.”
Steve Mesple has made changes along the way. And while they didn’t always get the results he was looking for, he has worked toward always making changes consistent with what motivates his customers, the alignment to the business’s brand, and what he sees as an unwavering culture of passion. He’s carefully recruits the right people for his team and rewards them for their passion and dedication. With the advent of the Internet, he expanded his sales capabilities and reach. The store’s website now offers over 2500 videos of great guest artists playing Wildwood’s offerings. The videos are not just entertaining. They are educational, inspirational, and in service to the customer. As Steve told me, “People love to hear great guitars played by great artists. It gives them the opportunity to experience what we can offer them, which is an unparalleled inventory of amazing guitars and trust. And we do it with unbridled passion.”
To compete with the appeal of the Wildwood Guitars of the world, Guitar Center offers through its brand Musician’s Friend, a single-person sales unit called Private Reserve. Customers can call and speak directly to the person at Private Reserve and get the expert assistance of an artist in the selection and buying of a custom or high-priced guitar. In relation to its brand and the perception of its customers, Private Reserve is much like a small stand-alone brand that lives within the larger brand intention of Guitar Center. While it offers a distinct service and product, the customer may not intuitively or intellectually find it to be in alignment with their interpretation of the Guitar Center and Musician’s Friend overall brand intention.
At the core of Wildwood’s achievement and the success of Guitar Center is what lies at the heart of the success of any business. It is alignment. For any enterprise, large or small, competing in a local, regional, or global marketplace, the required ingredient is the alignment of the customer’s expectation and their experience of how it is delivered. #is means that the company’s people work with one another and act toward the customer in alignment with the brand intention and the customer’s expectations.