Buy product from a manufacturer. Mark up the price and resell that product to an end user. In a nutshell, that's how the traditional distributor model has worked for a long time. Then, end users stopped wanting to buy "products." Distributorships responded by offering services and solutions. Many transformed themselves into marketing services providers.
But how does a distributor become a marketing service provider? "It's more than putting it on your business card. You have to truly be able to provide the marketing knowledge," says Joe Cox, vice president at CMFI Group. "I think the shift is evident in the work you can produce, the types of people you get, and how you go out and get new work."
In other words, how your company is staffed says a lot about whether you're actually providing marketing solutions. Cox describes CMFI as a hybrid — combining the best aspects of an agency and distributorship to provide branded marketing logistics. As part of its evolution, CMFI complemented its supply-chain expertise with an entire creative department, staffed with a director of marketing services (for business development), art directors and a brand manager. This team also manages the staff of copywriters, video and web experts.
Although many distributors now employ or work with writers, designers and developers, the brand manager is a position more commonly found in agencies than traditional distributorships. "The brand manager is basically responsible for larger clients' brand maintenance," Cox says. "That means the logo and the style of the business is communicated the same way throughout."
At CMFI, the brand manager is tied specifically to sales of environmental display projects, such as showrooms, lobby exhibits, trade show booths, three-dimensional signage, point-of-purchase displays and so on. Among his responsibilities, the brand manager at CMFI generates creative briefs for prospective clients, with a focus on what they do and who they sell to. "We try to get deep into the client, as far as understanding what their goals are," Cox says.
The brand manager will also draft solutions for the client. If there's a visual component, he presents concepts, gathers feedback and works toward approval from the client. "He'll be sitting there sketching in front of them, saying, 'What if we took the wall and did this with it?' By the conclusion of the meeting, he's already shared his vision with the client and gets them to buy in," Cox says.
Another aspect of the brand manager's job is developing standards for clients and compiling them into a written document. "That's kind of the law of what clients use to brand their companies," Cox says. "He consults on photography style, fonts — how everything gets used in the communication package."
Perhaps most importantly, the brand manager supports the efforts of sales reps to sell creative solutions. The brand manager position actually grew out of CMFI's need to sell ideas rather than products to clients. CMFI's brand manager started as a sales rep. "Most of our other reps were used to selling products, and he was used to selling ideas because he was a creative person," Cox says. "Then, one day, another rep asked for help selling an environmental design solution. Once that happened, the previous owner of the company said maybe he ought to be working with the other reps to do the same thing, so it naturally evolved."
Having a brand manager signals to clients that CMFI is able to support branding solutions. But Cox emphasizes that there's even more to it than that. The culture itself has to support a creative-services mentality, down to the architectural space. "It wasn’t like we just had an empty office and we stuck a guy in there and put a title on his door and called him the brand manager," he says. "We built a creative suite for our company in the warehouse part of our building. When a client comes in and says, 'Let's go back to the creative suite,' there truly is one, as opposed to a guy in a cubicle that just says he's the creative guy. It is truly one of the reasons why our clients look at us as a strategic marketing partner."