Are you branded? Featured

9:46am EDT July 22, 2002

The full-color Ultimate Edge catalog didn’t sit on the table long before the 11-year-old kid started flipping through its pages.

“There’s the one I want,” he said of one of the many colorful snowboards covering the catalog’s pages, along with photos of snowboarders in action and plenty of accessories. “Or how about that one? And those boots? And there’s the skateboard I want. Cool.”

Clearly, this small, West Mifflin-based company has gotten the full attention of a whole category of teen-agers and pre-teen wannabes, those with the purple hair, lip or eyebrow piercings, tattoos, baggy pants and a penchant for extreme sports. They’re spending hundreds of dollars each to equip themselves with brand-name boards that make them look as hip and edgy as their defiant attitudes when tail-grabbing down a snowy slope.

Way cool? Perhaps if you consider that, according to Ultimate Edge owner Tony Gyke, the company’s image has taken it from annual revenue of less than $100,000 to more than $1 million in only a few years. What’s much cooler about Gyke’s story, however, is the fact that Ultimate Edge began as, of all things, Skip’s Propeller Service, named after its former owner. Its primary business: repairing motor boat propellers and motors.

How the company evolved into Ultimate Edge involved a dramatic transformation by a man who knew his growth opportunities would be forever limited if he didn’t step back, take an uncomfortably fresh and creative look at his business — and turn his little repair shop into a brand with a future.

This is a story about rethinking what you do and how you do it — and what others think you do and how you do it. It’s about a willingness to change your identity with the times and then manage it. It’s about branding.

The problem, local marketing experts say, is that smaller companies think they have to be the size of Nike, Coca Cola or Tommy Hilfiger to be able to afford to build solid brands that matter to consumers and which secure the companies’ futures. Or they mistakenly believe their reputations are their brands. In either case, they wind up with no brand.

“Branding exemplifies the character of an organization or product,” says Larry Werner, managing director of Ketchum Public Relations in Pittsburgh. “It creates an instant identity or feeling, good or bad, about the company. But it’s a serious problem for a lot of companies — even large companies ... Sometimes not having a reputation is worse than having a bad one.”

Dan Droz, a Harvard graduate who has spent his life helping companies create brands, images, products and marketing strategies, says branding is really a management issue.

“When people say, ‘I don’t have an identity,’ guess what? You do,” he says. “Perception happens, but branding is the way you manage that perception. And it’s being able to manage that perception to and for a certain audience.”

Panic mode

Droz, president of Droz & Associates in Pittsburgh, says smaller companies tend to ignore the need for branding, right up until they face any number of problems.

“Ultimately, companies feel one of a few things happening,” Droz says. “They’re starting to lose sales, it’s getting more expensive for them to get accounts, or there’s more competition.”

Nonetheless, business owners tend to go forward with business as usual as long as nothing drastic happens to the company.

“Then they usually follow a certain pattern,” he continues. “First, there’s denial — a feeling that our customers will never leave us. Usually a defection of a client initiates the second stage: panic.”

Panic leads to a reactionary stage, when business owners take steps which they hope will stop the proverbial bleeding.

“Most companies believe they can save their business by lowering prices,” Droz says. “For some, it’s a response that works for a while, whether price cutting or offering gifts with each purchase. In a panic situation, price cutting may be the easiest thing, but your competitors can drive you into a wall on a price to price situation. Then there’s the tailspin.”

But that’s not the clincher. With their continued problems, they often turn to the likes of Dan Droz, because they think they need a new brochure, or, at worst, a new logo or sales strategy.

“Some prospects come to us and say they need a brochure, which is a solution to a problem,” Droz says. “They have made a strategic decision to spend dollars on a specific tactic. But what problem are they trying to solve?”

Suffering Sufrin

When Droz offered members of a local networking group a free, one-hour consultation, brothers David, Michael and Adam Sufrin decided to try it. Together, they run what used to be called Adolph Sufrin Inc., an East Liberty-based office supply company started by their family in 1935. The three took over ownership five years ago, when their father died.

The problem, says David, the company’s president, was that they felt the company, which they considered a rather “old-school mom-and-pop” operation, was losing ground against the likes of Office Depot, OfficeMax and other giants that have broken into the Pittsburgh market with seemingly deep discounts.

What they needed, perhaps, was a new logo. What Droz helped them create, however, was an entire brand. But to get there, the Sufrin brothers had to overcome a long-held philosophy against branding.

“Dad never put any emphasis into image or logos,” David says. “In his world, there never really was a brand that resellers had to maintain. We sold brands. My dad’s philosophy was that we didn’t need a brand.”

David says he was happy when all three brothers agreed to discuss their situation with Droz.

“When the offer was made, in my mind it was maybe another chance for a logo,” he says. “We knew we did the job and knew we could compete, but we didn’t have the perception that our competitors have. And [potential customers] aren’t looking for a quality mom-and-pop relationship.”

The first thing they agreed to do was change the name of the company to Sufrin Supplies,while maintaining Adolph Sufrin Inc. as the legal name.

“We needed to create an image, a brand,” David says. “And using the word supplies was important. Adolph Sufrin Inc. doesn’t say much to people who don’t know the name. Now Sufrin Supplies has given us a higher level of respect and recognition with customers and suppliers.”

Droz stresses that business owners need to be well aware of the importance of their customers’ perceptions of them within the first 10 seconds of the initial contact, which set the tone for any future relationships. Managing that first impression, he says, begins with the right name, logo and image.

That’s why the company created a long-desired logo, which includes a yellow piece of lined notepaper with the company’s name, underlined in what looks like red crayon and pinned to a clean white surface with a red push pin. The new image appears on the cover of the company’s office supply catalogs — which previously appeared terribly outdated, David admits, with a drawing of its showroom — as well as on presentation folders, business cards, letterhead, uniforms and its white panel trucks.

In addition, the Sufrins changed the company’s motto from “Our service is the difference,” which, according to Droz, wasn’t enough to stand apart from the giant discounters, to a more image/perception-making motto, “Bringing More To The Office!”

But the design package was more than just a new look, Droz says. “Their response was, ‘These guys helped us change the way we thought about ourselves.’ It’s not just a logo, it’s the experience that a [customer] has. We call it total user experience.”

David agrees, adding that the new image even changed the way he perceives the business.

“The first day, when I actually saw the logo, I didn’t sleep that night,” David says. “Just knowing the potential of what it could do — I was just proud of it.”

Just as important as what customers thought, however, was the effect on employees.

“I think it was a boost for our employees — even our drivers,” David says. “And our sales reps just ate it up, because it was tougher to get through to younger people with our old-school efforts.”

Not that the transformation occurred without doubts or problems, David and his brothers acknowledge. For one thing, the effort cost at least $50,000 to implement — a price tag which had all of them second-guessing their decision at one point or another.

“We were gung-ho early on, then we started to question the cost,” David says. But not following through, he adds, “would have shown a lack of commitment to the employees that would have amplified our problems.”

Nor has it solved all of the problems.

“It hasn’t made our problems magically go away. But it makes some of the challenges a little bit easier to face. Before, we wouldn’t have had a chance.

“Nobody’s going to say they’re buying because of our logo,” David adds. “But it definitely gives us the structure to continue into the future.”

Ultimate dilemma

Tony Gyke, owner of the former Skip’s Propeller Service, needed more than a new name or logo to jumpstart his small business. In 1996, when he bought out partner Skip Dunlap, who started the business in 1974, Skip’s Propeller Service repaired outboard motor propellers, engines and engine drives and sold boating accessories.

Gyke says he had a solid business serving 30- to 55-year-olds, but he had one significant problem: “The fact is that boating is very seasonal — but my payments were not.” He also had trouble holding on to good employees because of the seasonality of the business.

Before Gyke met Droz, he says, his first thought was to expand his boating repair and replacement parts service to Florida, where he could stay in business year round. Then Droz engaged him in what he calls a roundtable discussion, at which he teaches clients to “play.” Droz encourages them to let go of their preconceived limitations to openly explore what they could become if they really wanted to and didn’t have any obstacles.

In Gyke’s case, the exercise led to the recognition that one area within the boating accessories market was growing rapidly: the wake board market. Who typically rode wake boards behind a boat? Young people who are into a wide variety of extreme sports, from snowboarding and skateboarding to in-line skating and extreme biking. Gyke overcame the narrow notion of regional expansion with a grander plan to go after the explosive market for extreme sports accessories — which covers all seasons.

Like Sufrin, one of the first things Gyke did was work with Droz to change his company’s name to Ultimate Edge to reflect its new direction and give it a sense of identity. While it continues to operate its boat propeller and engine repair services, its new brand reflects an edgier attitude, fit for teen-agers with baggy pants, purple hair and pierced eyebrows.

To support that, Droz helped Gyke create a full-color catalog full of snowboards, bindings, boots, skateboards wheels, wake boards and other accessories. The catalog features daredevils and full-color shots of customers in action, with an invitation for customers

to send photos for possible use in the next catalog. The catalog is on the Web at www.ultimateedge.com.

And its tone is, well, way cool. Case in point is the introduction on boarding, which states, “Boarding is not a sport. It’s a life. A mission. A religion. At Ultimate Edge, the boards are what we live for; what we love; why our heads, backs and butts hurt after a week’s worth of ollies, fakies, Haakonflips and J-tears.”

It’s not exactly the way one might talk to the 30- to 55-year-old crowd — the same crowd that turns to Gyke’s company for a new outboard motor propeller.

But Gyke says the catalog did well for a first attempt, although he lost money on it. The second catalog, he says, was a money maker.

Perhaps his greatest challenge wasn’t so much in transforming his company from a mom-and-pop repair shop to a hip boarding sports and accessories company, as much as it was in trying to relate to his newfound market. It didn’t help that this quiet, laid-back entrepreneur with virtually no boarding experience was in his early 40s and that he employed a generally older staff.

“For the first two years, I tried to do it all with the same sales force [that worked under Skip’s Propellers], and it didn’t work for us,” Gyke says. “The older work force — it kind of scared the customers. And the teen-agers did irritate some of the older employees.”

But as he points out, he’s not talking about just any teen-agers. These kids typically have piercings, bleached or bright-colored hair, tattoos and baggy clothes.

“At first it was a shock for me — until I got to know them,” Gyke says.

To solidify the creation of his managed perception, or brand, Droz recommended that Gyke find a boarding “hotdog” at a local high school who knew the language and could draw customers — starting with his own friends. That’s when he found Ace, who worked for him until he went to college. Gyke says teen-aged customers no longer are scared off by older staffers and often come into his store above the repair shop to talk shop with younger employees.

“Don’t let looks deceive you,” he says. “They knew the product, and they knew the sport.”

As part of the brand build-up, Gyke launched a newsletter written in that “seditious” teen-aged tone, and he sponsors boarding sports events and athletes entering those tournaments.

The overall cost of Gyke’s branding transformation: $50,000 to $60,000 over a two-year period, along with continual investment in inventory for the catalogs and retail store. But it also purportedly boosted his company’s annual revenue to more than $1 million.

Gyke’s advice to others considering such drastic change: “You’ve got to change with the times. But stick with it and don’t second guess.”

Asked whether he is glad he turned his company on its head, he doesn’t hesitate to say yes.

“I think it got people to take us seriously,” Gyke says. “We’re not just a mom-and-pop shop anymore.”

How to reach: Dan Droz, (412) 338-1818; David Sufrin, (412) 363-8000; Tony Gyke, (888)470-2161

Daniel Bates (dbates@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.