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Branding gives you an edge – as long as you back it up

Create a positive image and you can gain a competitive advantage before you even meet potential clients

What makes a company sexy? And no, that doesn’t mean having an attractive boss.

Brands such as Google, Apple or Ferrari have a certain something about them. Other brands want to be like them and customers want to shout about buying them.

But can construction do that too? As an industry, our public image has certainly improved over the years, with the advent of the Considerate Constructors scheme and Constructing Excellence. But there is some way to go to make construction seem as high profile and sophisticated a business as law, for example.

Improving our ‘brand’, that intangible quality to do with how we are perceived by outsiders, is a pretty big task.

Stephen Cheliotis is chair of the Business Superbrands expert council. Business Superbrands is an annual list of the top 700 business brands, chosen by the expert council with input from a survey of business professionals with expertise in each industry.

He says industry bodies could do a better job of talking about construction. “The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants does a lot of very good promotion of the accountancy business and similarly the British Retail Consortium for retail,” he says.

“But I can’t think of any similar messages coming from the construction industry.”

He feels we could provide a more united voice and lobby the Government. This year’s Business Superbrands list includes Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska, Costain, Tarmac, JCB and Balfour Beatty.

Firms can’t enter the list; rather companies from all sectors are looked at collectively.

But this is not a woolly marketing exercise. Brands are assessed on reliability, quality and distinction.

Brand reassurance

Mr Cheliotis says: “In the economic downturn you want to go to brands that won’t let you down. The ones that provide quality but not at a huge premium.

“When you pitch for a project you want to be in the mind of the person already; it’s not just a fluffy logo thing, it is about reputation.”

This year’s list includes 34 construction-related companies, out of a total of 700 firms across all industries.

Tarmac is on the list. It might have an advantage, being a company that started over 100 years ago with a product, a mixture of slag and tar, which was named Tarmac.

Although the product became ubiquitous, the company is more than just one single product. But how can it get away from the one-product image as well as building on its heritage?

“If you say Tarmac to most people they may think about roads or airport runways,” says head of marketing Adrian Pickett.

“It is good in some ways as it is trusted and recognised. The people we are talking to are business-to-business rather than consumers, so the bulk of our customers use the products relevant to them.

“It’s been a strong brand for a long time. The thing is to listen and adapt to the times. If you stay rooted in the past you can’t move on. It’s about listening and moving forward.”

Back up the image

The secret to brand success is living up to your name, he says. “It’s what we are doing for customers. As a brand we put it all together. The service must match up to the promise.”

For Costain, getting its people to represent the company in a unified way is an important undertaking.

It has recently produced Representing Costain, a kind of staff and brand handbook.

Chief executive Andrew Wyllie says in its introduction: “Continuity is vital and as team players we must not let our colleagues down by failing to meet brand expectation … if you are representing Costain, look at the examples in this document. They are setting standards for all of us.”

It also sends out a brand book which showcases some of its projects to important customers.

Branding is something that must be thought about all the time, Mr Pickett at Tarmac says.

“We are constantly working on it. What your people want, the professionalism, providing solutions for people – it’s not just a single product. Underlying it all is quality of product and delivery.

“There is quite a lot of hard work ensuring it is all communicated; you have to win people’s hearts and minds so they see the benefits of working for that brand and being part of it.”

STRONG BRANDING IS MORE THAN IMAGE

Stephen Cheliotis at Business Superbrands explains why some brands are sexier than others.

“If you have a huge consumer presence, it might be that consumers enjoy the brands more so you have an advantage.

“Google, for example, delivers information but if you don’t deliver results you have failed. It goes back to reliability. There are invariably intangible assets but the reputation is based on delivery of the product.”

That said, even those brands which may have performed less well in terms of customer service can still be highly ranked.

British Airways will drop from eight to nine in the 2009 list, to be published in February. “BA has clever campaigning and marketing but it has dropped down a ranking in next year’s list,” he says.

“The temptation is to not bother with branding, but having a strong brand can give you the edge that will give you these wins. There is a lot of evidence that if you continue to invest, your brand will outperform.”

He adds that acquisitions by large groups may affect ranking. “Some of the most famous blue chip brands have disappeared because they have been bought. Brand names shouldn’t be dropped just be to boost the ego of the parent company around the world.”