Marketing is a constantly evolving discipline. Not only does it change dynamically over time, the practical application of marketing is always changing within any given industry. Market forces, consumer behavior, environmental factors, and the industry life cycle itself are all variables, and those variables create an environment that demands adaptation.
You’ve probably noticed that marketing tends to have a “flavor of the month”. One day, every managed service provider is talking about direct response. A few weeks later, it’s all about email nurturing. Then it’s LinkedIn, or automation, or SEO. Everyone has an opinion, and there tends to be an air of “don’t bother with everything else, just do ___________” driving those opinions.
It all starts to look like the stock tips that used to randomly appear on your fax machine.
“Put all your money into email marketing!”
“Don’t worry about messaging or content marketing, you just need machine learning!”
“Creative doesn’t matter when your search engine optimization is good!”
…and so on. Much like the stock market, there are multiple ways to get a return on your marketing investment — but many people believe that “day trading” their marketing approach is somehow going to deliver faster results.
“Digital marketing today, cold calling tomorrow, then we’ll do some direct mail. Follow those trends!”
It doesn’t work. And even if that was an apt comparison, just think about how hard it is to make a fortune day trading penny stocks.
The vast majority of stock market success comes about from prudent investment based on vast amounts of research, not tips from a fax machine. Do you want reliable returns and qualified leads? Buy blue chips and sit on them for three decades. It’s not fun. It’s not sexy. It does tend to work, though.
Likewise, marketing success comes from following the long-standing rules of business growth, not from chasing trends. When you invest in marketing long-term, sticking mostly to fundamentals, the success will come.
What you should be focusing on are the “blue chips” of the marketing world: the safe, proven, known aspects of business growth that are a near sure bet. If I were to classify anything in marketing as a blue chip, it would be brand strategy. It’s time tested, it works, and it never goes out of style. The market always favors a well-branded business, and brands are communicated through any and every channel, from flyers stuck to a telephone pole to whatever holographic, VR, brain scanning technology replaces social media in the next few years.
What is branding?
The idea of branding is widely misunderstood. In fact, it’s so misunderstood that many people who write or make videos about branding don’t even realize they’re misunderstanding it.
Take for example this excerpt from a top-ranking article on how to brand an MSP:
When an MSP grows and becomes more mature, its owners eventually recognize the need for sales and marketing operations. And yet, many still overlook branding. Although not essential and, for sure, not the first thing to build your MSP around, recognizable branding, such as the vision and the mission statement, the elements of design embedded into various details of your website, office interior, and clothes might become a small, yet visibly shining gem that will allow you to stand out from the crowd even more.
This excerpt alone contains a royal sampler of incorrect information about the idea of brand strategy — and enough misleading information to seriously harm an MSP’s marketing efforts.
In this article, I’ll point out the mistakes as we explore and demystify the concept of brand strategy. This particular aspect of marketing has been my specialty for around ten years, and I can assure you that what you’ll take away from this post is a clear, correct understanding of what branding actually means, why it’s important, and how to do it.
In this article:
What is a brand strategy?
How do you brand an MSP?
Proven processes for developing an MSP brand
Leveraging a brand for more MSP growth
What is an MSP brand strategy?
Broadly speaking, a brand strategy is used to define the way a business positions itself in the market, how it communicates with consumers, and how it conducts business. The idea of “brand” encompasses several sub-concepts, including brand identity, brand image, and brand collateral.
That’s a straightforward definition, but let’s kick off this topic by exploring the mistakes in the excerpt at the top of this article.
This is, unfortunately, true — but it’s the only assertion in this passage that I can actually agree with. Many businesses (not just MSPs) wait far too long to consider the importance of sales and marketing. Moreover, the majority of MSPs never pay proper attention to brand building.
Then the quoted passage goes entirely off the rails:
Although not essential and, for sure, not the first thing to build your MSP around…
Saying that “branding is not essential” is a huge red flag that the author of the article really doesn’t understand the subject matter. And following that up with “for sure not the first thing to build your MSP around” just slams the coffin lid shut. Terrible advice!
Branding is absolutely an essential component of marketing, and an article on brand strategy should not start off by downplaying its importance. The truth is that branding is crucial, and that the most successful businesses — especially startups in competitive markets — start with a well-crafted brand and build their marketing strategies around it.
Why is branding an MSP essential?
The first reason is extremely logical: your brand image is the way that the market perceives your business. As long as your business exists, it’s going to “be branded” whether you like it or not. If you choose not learn how to build your MSP’s brand, consumers will decide what it is on your behalf. For 99% of MSPs out there, this means end users have given them the de facto brand of “an IT reseller that looks like all the others.”
So it follows that branding is important because it’s the pathway to shedding that image and becoming something more competitive and more compelling.
Why you should build your MSP business around a brand, not the other way around…
The idea that brand is not important to the IT channel is a holdover from the long-passed advent of the industry when things were very different.
There are situations where brand isn’t a top priority — the early days of the MSP being an example. These situations are created through specific supply/demand conditions.
If the market creates a demand and there are few ways to satisfy that demand (a blue ocean), brand strategy is often ignored because the better mousetrap has hit the scene and people are beating a path to the door. Naturally, if public opinion is creating buzz, the necessity is there, and people are just looking for someone to connect them to the solution, advertising is less important.
But this blue ocean doesn’t last for very long. “Easy money” entrepreneurial opportunities tend to turn into bloody shark tanks in no time once a few outliers prove their viability (and early adopters inevitably start packaging how-to guides and workshops on how to exploit the opportunity).
Blue ocean approaches don’t work past this point. The easy win is gone and the market is now competitive. The fact that there’s a demand for the product or service is no longer enough to make a business viable.
Here’s a brief example:
Let’s say someone comes up to me and says “I want to start a business selling bottled water. People need to drink water or they die, so I don’t need to talk anyone into buying it. It’ll sell itself!”
My first question would be “what are you bringing to the table that the other 100 bottled water manufacturers aren’t?” Because if you were the only person selling bottled water, the argument that “people need it” would stand — but you’re not. You’re competing against dozens of established brands.
Your potential customers have choices. The product is readily available. Technically, they don’t even need to buy bottled water, because they can just drink out of the faucet. They need the result, but not your means of providing the result.
Does this sound an awful lot like the MSP market? Sure, more people need IT services — but there are also thousands of businesses willing to provide them. Or they can just drink out of the faucet and do it themselves.
Just like launching a new line of bottled water, you must have a plan to carve out a niche in the market and pull some of that attention in your direction. You need a brand.
And to craft a brand, you need to be able to answer this:
Why is your MSP special, superior, or more suited to a certain type of consumer?
Answering this question is more meaningful to the concept of brand than logos, website design, polo shirts, business cards, or any of those other things that fall under “brand collateral” (also known as “marketing materials”) but are not a brand.
Focusing on brand collateral too early will barely move the needle and is often a waste of time and money. It’s like worrying about the paint job on a car that’s missing a steering wheel and has four flat tires.
You must first strategize a brand and determine where you fit into a crowded market and how you’re going to communicate value to your audience. Then you create brand collateral around those ideas. You make the car road ready first, then you worry about the looks.
And if you’re thinking that most MSPs are going at this whole process backwards, you’re right. Rebrandings happen because many, many people start businesses first and think about marketing later. They name their company, choose colors, decorate their vans, and do all of these expensive things before they even have a message to communicate and a brand to design around. Carried out this way, all the vinyl wraps and swag in the world won’t make a noticeable impression on the consumer because it’s still just a bunch of stuff with a logo and “Johnson Technology Solutions” printed on it.
Want to save yourself a lot of trouble and money? Craft your brand strategy before you spend tons of money on design and marketing. Too late? Get it done as soon as possible.
How to Brand an MSP Correctly
There really are no short and simple answers to this challenge — which is why so many people avoid it to their peril.
That said, one of my long-term professional goals has always been to demystify brand strategy and make it more accessible. That’s why I wrote REMIX Marketing, a guidebook specifically for MSPs that explains the why and how of building an IT brand. If you’re really serious about getting ahead of the growth curve and competing in a tough market, you must read this book. (It’s a short read, and you will be glad you took the time.)