Essential Branding Strategies with Jim Huebner
Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, Jim Huebner. Jim is the founder and CEO of Huebner Integrated Marketing, a 33-year-old firm dedicated to helping companies become more relevant to their customers and more profitable. From the world's leading recreational and emergency vehicle manufacturers to specialty baked goods and high-end power equipment makers, the firm has guided dozens of companies to more meaningful positioning, messaging, and relevancy since 1989.
He recently published his first book, The Irrelevant Old Brand, about why businesses fail and how to avoid becoming irrelevant. So Jim, welcome to the show.
Jim Huebner: Thanks. It's an honor to be here.
Lisa Ryan: So, share with us a little bit about your background. I know you have an extensive manufacturing background, but how did you get to do what, doing what you're doing?
Jim Huebner: Yeah, that's a good question. I always wanted to have my own business. I discovered in college that marketing was going to be it. I had some marketing positions before I started my agency in 1989. And about six years into it, we worked with many local clients, banks, doctor's offices, and insurance companies.
But they're all local, and we had a large manufacturer in our town. So I got an opportunity to do some work for them. One of their divisions was an RV recreation vehicle division. So it was fun doing marketing for a company that, in a vertical market, was selling products all over the country, even around the world, as opposed to just doing some local things.
So that was fun for us and more challenging and exciting. And we ended up in the late nineties just focusing on manufacturers in vertical markets selling their products worldwide. And that's all we've done since then. And yeah, that's how we landed in manufacturing.
Almost all of our clients are manufacturers of some product, and they all have the exact needs. So that's to understand how they're most relevant in their marketplace and how they can be more appropriate. And we help guide them through that and then help them communicate that to the world.
Lisa Ryan: So, what are some of the biggest mistakes manufacturers make regarding their brand?
Jim Huebner: I don't want to overuse the word relevance too much, but everything in my book has some kind of connection somewhere.
They're not all the same industries and things, but they are from many of our real-life stories. But often, manufacturers will find they got a good foothold in the marketplace with a great product. Over time needs change society changes. There are all sorts of changes.
And unless there's this intentional methodology to determine how relevant you remain in that marketplace. They tend to drift a little bit. Sometimes it ends up just being a messaging issue.
They're just saying the wrong things about themselves. So instead, they must focus on what is most meaningful and relevant to their customers. That's a more straightforward fix than sometimes when a product becomes completely irrelevant. Think blockbuster, or there are many situations where our society changes so much that a product is no longer relevant.
But that's what tends to happen. They sometimes need to catch up on what their message should be or how their product works. There's some innovation with their type of product that they should have included. And they sometimes need to retool and figure out what else they could be doing differently that's more meaningful and relevant to the customers.
Lisa Ryan: What would be some signs they may need to address relevancy? How would they know that they have some updating to do?
Jim Huebner: Yeah, in the book, we outline our process. There are a lot of different ways to skin that cat. Our process is undoubtedly the way we do it. We recognize there are lots of different ways to do it. We start by doing some research and having a lot of conversations and a lot of surveys and things going out to find out why those customers are doing business with us in the first place.
And why don't they do business with us? How critical are you to their success? How important is it that you're selling them what you have for their success? Because a lot of times, if you're just a commodity, that can be a considerable challenge. Suppose you're just a commodity and have yet to find a way to differentiate.
I wrote an article once on how to not sell on price. But, of course, it would help if you were not a commodity. A CEO of one of our clients called me in because he wanted to discuss how we're getting commoditized.
What do we do about it? And that's where a relevancy report comes into play. In the relevancy report, our goal is to uncover where those opportunities are. Where can we be more meaningful and more important to our clients? And it's sometimes about more than just the product.
Sometimes it's just about how the service is delivered, the product, or the relationships. For example, we had a client and the manufacturing space, and they talked about a client like them in the book that sells. They manufacture self-storage units.
It's all pre-engineered, still packaged, and delivered for the contractor to put up as a self-storage unit. And one of the things they found over time was, or through our research, that those contractors weren't doing business with them because their steel was better and their delivery was better because of all the traditional things. It was more fade-resistant. It didn't have anything to do with the product. It had a hundred percent to do with the people. It was because they built great relationships with them and hired salespeople who were great relationship builders.
Those contractors knew they had their back and that in thick and thin, no matter how tough times were. This particular manufacturer was going to have their back. I remember one time, there was an employee of that company that I went to church with. I saw him at church one morning, and I asked what you would do this weekend.
And he goes, Oh, I was sleeping all day yesterday Saturday. So then, Thursday night, we got a request from one of our contractors. He needed a bid out by Friday morning, and the only way I could do that was by pulling an all-nighter. And I got it done at seven in the morning, went home and showered, and returned to work for the rest of the day.
That's why they say they do business with you because of your relationships because people are doing that. They're pulling all-nighters to meet the needs of the customer. So that's how they were so incredibly relevant to those contractors because they always had their back.
It's only sometimes we have the best quality product. Sometimes it can be just the way you do business. Getting back to your original question, that process you need to ask, do the research and find out, and that sometimes honestly sounds selfish of me, but it's best to use a third party. It's best to have somebody from the outside ask your customers these questions because customers don't want to be uncomfortable or make it awkward in their relationship with you. So they'll tell you what they want to hear instead of a third party. They're like, I don't know anything. They don't know who I am, so I'm just going to let them tell them what I think. But it's finding those things out, finding out what they think you don't do so well, and finding those differing opinions about the brand.
Some people might think back to that one manufacturer I just mentioned. Some of the people thought they were doing business with them because they had this special e-coated steel, which is why people were buying the product. And other people recognized. Now it's probably our relationships, but it's just that process of discovering all these differentiating factors and then what we call value indexing those and saying, Okay, here's all the differentiating factors about our company, our brand, our products.
Which of these is most valuable? Which of these is the most meaningful and makes us the must-have one we've got to do business with? All things aren't equal. All differentiators aren't equal. You can have the steel. You can have a certain kind of steel or certain kind of treatment that you put on any product and or certain screws that you use or whatever it is.
But that might be less valuable in the eyes of the customer. It would be best if you got to the bottom of what is most valuable and meaningful to them, and that's what we want to hang our hats on. Not that the other things are ones that you ignore. You still mention those in your messaging, conversations, and marketing.
But as far as how you're going to separate yourself from the rest, it's got to be that one that is most valuable, most meaningful.
Lisa Ryan: How would a manufacturer decide who to connect you with? Do they hand you their customer list, and you go to town? Or do you call other people in the industries who are potential customers to find out about their reputation and why they may not buy from them? What does that process look like to even get started?
Jim Huebner: Yeah, generally, they'll give us their list of customers, non-customers, people they've been trying to get as customers. Sometimes depending on the relationships, we've been able to talk to their competitors: really good resources or other vendors in the industry.
Sometimes you can get what their accurate perceptions are of the brand you're working with from those other vendors. They'll say, Yeah, those are the guys everybody likes to do business with, or why is that? And then they'll extrapolate on that. But our four steps, or the four ways we do the research, is that we do interviews with key personnel is essential. I always say, this is just a gut number/ I haven't measured this, but I think probably 80% of the things we find out, they already know it's that extra 10 or 20% that is like, Oh wow, people perceive us this way, or they think this about our product, or they, that's where all the value is.
You find that out. You don't necessarily find that out with the critical internal personnel so much. So that's where you find the baseline. But then we also do interviews with key customers, either in person or on a Zoom call. We'll do interviews with other key stakeholders, which could be anybody from their attorney or insurance people to anyone associated with or connected to the brand.
Again, that's where the vendors come in. In the book, I give an example of a vendor that works in that same industry. And he provides some great insight into the main character in the book. And then we'll do a broader swap with email surveys and those kinds of things to get where it's going. They're rating certain things to give us a general feel.
But it's the specific comments, I'll be honest, the specific comments that, that people will make in these interviews that end up shedding light on where they truly, where their real opportunity is. And sometimes they're nailing it. So it might be a slight messaging issue.
Other times again, they might need it. And need to refocus on a sure thing that they're doing instead of what they have been doing.
Lisa Ryan: What would be an example of a big aha when you were working with the manufacturing and presenting them with the market survey you found? As you said, 80% of the time, they know what's happening or realize it. But what would be some examples of some aha's that the manufacturer did not know that's how they were perceived? Or, could it be something that they were doing well or something that they were doing poorly?
Jim Huebner: Yeah, one of the examples is the one the book is about, and somebody that's in makes a product. That is used in underwater sea exploration and anywhere with high pressure and a harsh environment. And they'd gone through 30 years of success, maybe even 40 years of success selling these products. They started getting beat up on price by some knockoffs and those kinds of things. So we went in and did this study, and we found out that they were trying to compete on a lot of the low-end stuff, and that's not your bread and butter. That's not why people buy your product.
And it all came down to one conversation with one engineer. This happened. And that engineer said. You got to understand when I'm putting one of these units on a robot that will be skimming the ocean floor. The last thing I'm going to be worried about is that I spent five extra bucks on the most dependable product on the market because I have too much to lose.
I have a million-dollar robot down there. I'm not going to screw around with some untested product, or I don't know how dependable it is when this one is 40 years of never failing. So that was the light. It was like, okay, so we've been sitting there talking about quality all along.
The problem with the word quality is everybody says it. It's an entirely subjective term. What's quality? For, in their case, the quality. Yeah. It wasn't that it lacked. It needed more quality. It was high quality, but it was dependable. That was the word. That was as simple as that seemed. After doing this for 30 years, I'm telling you that people get so close to it. I'm the same way in my own business. I get so close to things I can't even see them. And that's the beauty of bringing in outsiders.
What you probably heard it described is that when you're on the inside of the bottle, you can't explain what the outside of the bottle looks like. You lose that. For them to hear this engineer say, " Wow, " we got to focus on dependability.
And then the beauty of that is so all of a sudden. It gives you this new lens of how to look at HR, production, and who you're buying some of your raw material from. All these things, and ensuring that, okay, if we're going to be the most dependable product on the market. We've got to ensure that everybody we're doing business with and internally is in line with that.
That is our that's our battle cry. We're going to be more dependable than anybody else's. So how do we do that? That particular manufacturer had a person that was, and this is the example I talk about in the book, is they go through, and they hand test every single piece that comes through off the line instead of batch testing.
So why is their product more expensive? That helps explain that they're hand, individually testing everyone that comes off the line as opposed to batch testing. And there are other reasons their price is higher. A lot of it's because they're the most dependable on the market, so that they can command a higher price.
And so the result is they can get rid of the bottom feeders to people who want the cheapest on the market, and they can say, with great confidence, then you should buy this one because it's cheaper. But, if the one lasts forever, you need to talk to us. Did that answer your question?
Lisa Ryan: Yeah. Because it reminded me of there are many times that people chase these bright, shiny objects. If you stick to your core values and why customers do business with you, something new comes onto the market. But we are taking that third party and getting the accurate information because too many times we either make stuff or listen to people who are making stuff up.
Jim Huebner: Yeah. Versus having the basic information that counts. We have a give acronym, G I V e. E is endless quest. It's about keeping your finger on the pulse of how relevant you are. And that takes some work, and it can take either somebody internally doing it or an outside firm doing it. But it is essential to ensure that you're periodically making sure that our messaging is on track. Our products are meeting the needs or exceeding the requirements. In a constant evaluation of where is there greater op, where are there more opportunities for us to become even more meaningful and vital to these customers we sell to?
Lisa Ryan: What are the other three letters, then? We started at the end with E.
Jim Huebner: So the G is, and you could probably appreciate this, G is a grateful and generous is grateful and generous. I believe, and I've heard this before, gratitude is the attitude that sets the altitude for living. You have to start by being grateful. To give, to pour out, and be a giver instead of a taker. It must begin with gratitude. And it's interesting. As I was researching all of this, I came across a study by the University of Oregon, and I quoted it in the book.
It was a study done by a neuroscientist who studied people who are generally more grateful than the mainstream. And they found that as a result, and it's all chemistry-related. As a result, more grateful people tend to be more generous. Yeah. And I love it. I would've always thought that in my gut, but it was cool to come across an actual study that proved that was true.
And I say, A life that, or a brand that gives, is a brand that lives. And what's it take for a brand to give? It's just like life; a meaningful, relevant life pours itself out, not one that takes. And a brand is the same way. A brand must give in some unique way that nobody else is to thrive. And that starts with you got to want to give. You must be, you have to have a generous, you have to have a kind of this sense or spirit of generosity. And then the second, the "I" is inspired difference.
It's not just about being different. I threw it in giving because it's inspired because it's different in a meaningful and relevant way that helps make you valuable to that customer that makes your product valuable to the customer. So it's not just about what we were talking about before. It's not just about being different. It's about being different in a meaningful and relevant way and helps them get further down the path to success. So that's I, and then v is the value that exceeds the price. And that stems back a little bit to Warren Buffet's quote of price is what I pay, value is what I get.
The more significant discrepancy there is between the value and the price, the more relevant or meaningful that product or service must be. The example I use in the book is Ace Hardware. With Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe's, and Menards for people in the Midwest, you look at that, and you think textbooks would say there's no way a store like Ace Hardware could survive. I have some connections. Ace Hardware, my buddy, owns five Ace Star stores where their family does. I have an affinity for Ace, but it's always dumbfounded me how well they thrive in that market. But it's because they're the value of going in and somebody tell you how to take the thingamajig and fix it with the do-hickey.
All of a sudden separates them from everybody else. You walk into the big box, and maybe you'll find that person, but it's not guaranteed that you will find that person. And yes, YouTube helps. Things have changed, but at the same time, there's something about being able to ask that person, Okay, so if I'm going to do this, is this what I would use?
And they go, no, I'm not handy at all. And I have to depend on those people. I can't tell you how many times I've gone there just because I want to know if I was doing this right, and I had no problem paying the extra buck or two or...