Protecting brand integrity is mission-critical to optimizing market positioning and differentiation. But for companies that rely heavily on channel partners to market and sell their products and services, loosening the reins on their co-branding guidelines might be a good idea.
In an article written for Channel Marketer Report earlier this year, Mike Moore, VP of Channel Strategy at Averetek, a channel marketing automation software supplier, noted when CMOs see partners as unreliable participants in bringing the company’s message to the market, they generally direct their brand teams to exert tight control over use of the company’s brand identity and marketing materials.
The problem with enforcing strict co-branding guidelines, wrote Moore, is that it makes “through-partner marketing incredibly rigid and potentially ineffective.”
As many companies strive to boost their revenues through indirect sales organizations, making it easier for channel partners to promote their brands is critical. For example, Xerox simplified its co-branding guidelines so partners can creatively leverage the strength of the Xerox brand while ensuring quality results and copyright and trademark requirements.
“We are undertaking a massive effort to make it easier for partners to do business with Xerox,” Amy Belcher, the company’s VP of Global Channel Marketing and Enablement, told Channel Marketer Report. “I know when partners are dealing with multiple vendors and multiple programs, if you’re not easy to do business with then you’re forcing sales resources to spend time on administrative work rather than actually selling.”
Making its co-branding guidelines more partner-friendly was a top priority. “We’ve updated those co-branding guidelines to make them easier to understand and easier for partners to do business with us,” said Belcher. “Obviously, we want to maintain and uphold the Xerox brand because there’s an integrity in that brand. But we’ve modernized our brand guidelines. We’re more sensitive to the current market state and recognize that partners need more flexibility to market and sell our products.”
Channel marketing experts agree that simplifying co-branding guidelines is a good idea. “The more difficult it is to get assets approved by brands, the less partners want to work with their brands — that’s what we hear over and over again from our partners,” said Gary Ritkes, President of SproutLoud, a channel marketing automation platform provider. “When the brand approval process is too strict or time consuming, it absolutely decreases the partners’ motivation to co-market.”
Ritkes said you can see the impact of rigid branding policies in the amount of co-op funding partners leave on the table. “Over half of the co-op funds that brands make available in market expires and doesn’t get used,” he said. “It’s also why major dollars on creative assets end up wasted and not used in mass — certainly not to the extent that the brand intended.”
“Simplifying brand guidelines for partners makes sense,” said Mike Gallagher, Head of Marketing for Q2E, a SaaS platform that digitally guides the execution of partner programs. “For example, campaigns are often comprised of dozens of assets, each of which have their own distinct guidelines. Simplifying the guidelines on the elements of a campaign that partners are likely to touch — emails and landing pages, for instances — is going to eliminate much of the friction that keeps them from participating more enthusiastically.”
Like Xerox, other companies are trying to understand and then lower the barriers that keep partners from marketing the brands they sell, according to Cameron Avery, SVP business development at Zift Solutions, an enterprise channel management solution provider.
“Vendors used to be very protective of their brand usage in the channel because partners often went off track very quickly,” he said. “But things are changing. Forward-thinking vendors are taking a ‘less is more’ approach when it comes to branding channel assets. Partners are more likely to use campaigns and collateral when they are more brand neutral. Why? Because they can position themselves as experts with their own messaging and brand while getting a boost from the power of their vendor’s logo.”
Dana Harder, VP of Strategy for Content4Demand, a content strategy and creative agency (and sister brand of Channel Marketer Report), agreed that companies need to take more brand-neutral approaches to creating marketing materials for use by partners.
As she noted in a ChannelWeek webcast in August, many companies make big investments in heavily branded, product-focused campaigns. Instead, providing partners with lightly branded thought-leadership content that partners can easily customize with their own logo might be more effective.
More effective indeed. Zift’s Avery said that one client’s unbranded thought-leadership campaign was generating attention-getting results. “The campaign had three times the adoption of the company’s heavily branded product/solution campaigns,” he said.
Angela Leavitt, Founder and CEO at Mojo Marketing, commented that while partners are more eager to support their vendors’ marketing activities, they are becoming more discerning about the messages and content they’ll share. Partners are giving preference to market materials they feel are more reflective of how they talk to their customers. Vendors should be careful not to brand the materials they want partners to share too heavily, both in terms of message as well as design.
“Partners are pushing back on sharing heavily-branded materials that they feel are disingenuous,” she said. “They are not eager to share anything that looks or reads like something they would never say.”
Less branding does appear to be more with many partners. According to Leavitt, the most eagerly adopted through-partner marketing materials are very short, text-only emails.
Randy Sasaki, partner at A Fluent Vision (AFI), a sales and marketing consultancy, agreed that some partners complain that co-branded materials don’t represent them properly. “They want more flexibility to do more targeted marketing by verticals, by market segments, by proprietary services where they are ‘dragging’ manufacture products into the sale,” he said. “They want to customize the message and visuals, call-to-actions, the order of tactics, and the ability to execute from their own marketing platforms.”
“Overly rigid, strict guidelines for marketing and PR will deter utilization and erode partner confidence,” agreed Nikolett Bacso-Albaum, CEO and Founder of Market Impact, LLC, a communication firm. But before companies start trimming away at their co-branding guideline, they may want to determine if they are successfully communicating them in the first place.
“Partners generally respect brand guidelines,” she noted. “The issue isn’t with guidelines per se, it is with the clarity and consistency in which those guidelines are communicated. Brands need to understand the different contexts that partners will market their brand in. For example, offering partners a few simple variations of design that use different combinations of brand name and logo placement to account for different applications.”
SproutLoud’s Ritkes commented that embedding brand guidelines into channel marketing solutions can simplify the “ad customization and brand compliance process for partners.”
AFI’s Sasaki noted partners, especially those with less sophisticated marketing teams, “do not push back on brand guidelines” when vendors use portals to provide co-branded marketing materials.
Leavitt agreed, stating that more partners are showing interest in working with vendors who deliver campaigns via channel marketing automation solutions. “The adoption of solutions that auto-generate campaigns is growing,” she said. As a result, vendors can ensure greater compliance with their brand guidelines when they use solutions that automatically incorporate them into the materials they want partners to share.