Many years ago there was a moderately funny movie called “Caddyshack” starring Chevy Chase, who was funny for 15 minutes. He was probably upset that although he got top billing, the movie was stolen by funnier actors like Bill Murray, Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield.
But he did have one bit of advice that was worth noting. “Be the ball, Danny. Be the ball.” And no, its not the same as “Use the Force.” For business, it translates into “Be The Brand, Danny. Be The Brand.” You are the brand. Be it. Own it. Jealously guard it.
My first exposure to this angle of marketing goes even farther back. In the 1970s there was a phenomenally successful men’s hairpiece wholesaler called New Man Hair. My father was the distributor for them in eastern Canada. He also retailed them in his Toronto salon, Continental Hair. I remember he had a large sign in the front window with their logo. It lit up so there was no way you could miss it. I still remember the names of the synthetic stock units — The Adolfo and The Triumph. It was a great time to be in the business as these things were flying off the shelves.
But I remember when my father got a visit from someone from the head office. I was only about 15 at the time but my dad would insist I sit in on these business meetings. I guess he thought I would absorb something through osmosis. These guys knew their stuff. More pointedly, they knew my dad’s stuff. They had his sales figures for every month since he signed up with him. They were pleased at the initial sales growth but his performance had plateaued (their word) at 400 units per month. They wanted to know what could be done to help him do better”
Then my father realized that he was not working for himself. He was working for them. He had taken the bait that there was easy money in selling their brand, and now he was hooked. If he wanted to keep those easy sales he had to concentrate more on selling their brand, not his own. He had clients that had grown accustomed to seeing the New Man label in their Triumphs and he had grown accustomed to the extra markup he got as a distributor. He was stuck. He had to spend more time and money doing “educational” seminars and visiting other studios to keep those numbers going up. He had less time for the other lines that Continental Hair carried with his own labels.
The other side of things is that actual clients can play dealers off against each other. “Oh, I can get it $X.00 cheaper over at Whathisname’s Place.” So suddenly you are not just competing with your competitors but your “partners” as well. This is natural because the client is doing what the client has been told — to buy this brand.
In this sense, you are just a salesperson. There is nothing wrong with being a salesperson but most entrepreneurs see themselves as having a bigger role. So by going for the quick and easy marketing strategy, my father did make some money but he had also painted himself into a corner. Of course, those of us t of a certain age remember what happened: New Man cratered due to a partnership “dispute” and was bought out by a company that decided it was going to sell direct. It terminated its dealers” So that, as they say, was that.
The third side of this that can prove disastrous is with your staff. If and when a technician leaves to start up their own studio your supply lines are clear as day. A quick phone call and all of our clients can be looked after by the once-loyal staffer that you trained. This happened to me about 20 years ago.
However, since I usually work directly with small boutique manufacturers, my ex-employee hit a brick wall. There were some that decided to supply her but it was not enough. And when she went bust they wondered why I wasn’t buying from them anymore. Yeah, quite the mystery. I am still buying from the manufacturers that stuck by me.
You may be thinking that because this all took place before the last ice age that it’s not relevant. Well, it still is. I got caught in the same trap several years ago. I latched on to a manufacturer who I thought was different. I had an “exclusive” ( beware those words). I worked like a rented mule promoting their product. I was their No. 1 salon in sales worldwide. So when the dreaded conversation came, when I was told that “ Toronto was a big city” and I “should have a partner.” I thought I was cooked. I really did. I had bought into their nonsense that there was no other product like this one and I was trapped. And they counted on the idea that I would lose too much by dropping them altogether. They thought I would swallow it.
As much as I hated the idea of dealing with people that would break their word, I felt I had to go along. I was told it was “just business,” but all business is personal. Nothing is more personal than our livelihoods. But fortunately, I had allies. I was able to get out and rebrand with a product that is superior and a supplier that respects my business. Fortunately, the majority of my clients who were into this new design had gotten into it because they knew me and trusted me. So when I walked them through the change it was a pleasant surprise that they kept with me. I lost some, yes. I lost some who returned. But since I have been concentrating on my brand, my bank account has never been healthier and I sleep better than ever. And one of my takeaways from that was that my clients respected the Michael Suba brand over anything else.
So when someone new asks me if a carry a particular company’s line of product I simply say, “No, I have my own designs.” That sometimes ends with, well, an ending. But more often than not the potential client is intrigued to find out what I do that’s so different. Remember, they want your guidance and expertise to get them the best look that they can afford. Your knowledge and expertise and experience is your brand so never water it down by passing it over to someone else.
I do buy from several AHLC vendors; Dimples, HairArt (Jackie was one of the guys that stood by me all those years ago) and Dermal Italy to name a few examples. They have great stuff that I can recommend to a client, but they also let me run my show. That is just as important to me now as the quality of their products. I am the captain of this ship and I am quick to admit that on the ocean of international commerce the HMS Continental Hair is but a bent toothpick. But it is my bent toothpick and Continental Hair is my Brand. In the long haul that’s what builds equity.
By Michael Suba, President, Continental Hair, Toronto