How Stihl Fulfilled Brand Promise of Superior Product, Customer Service

Chainsaw Marketer Aligned With Retail Partners, Spokesmen, Media That Complement Core Messaging

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Ken Waldron
Ken Waldron
In the current economy, there is little doubt that the "throwaway society" mentality has lost its luster. Customers are looking to brands that provide lasting value propositions, and as we move into 2010, this will remain integral to the "new normal."

My previous work with marketing-communications agencies such as Chiat/Day, Martin Agency and Campbell-Ewald, for clients such as Nissan, Mercedes-Benz and Chevrolet, taught me that two things are invaluable to a company's success, no matter the industry: superior product engineering and knowledgeable customer service. That these two things become associated with a brand promise is a universal truth that must be fulfilled at retail by people who genuinely believe in the product.

Stihl, the leading brand of chainsaws worldwide, gained its leading position because the company remains highly focused on extraordinary product performance and comprehensive service before and after the sale. The unique two-step distribution model -- products are sold only through servicing Stihl dealers across the country -- allows for national product and brand development combined with regional and local promotion, training and retail service.

Hopefully, your company is taking the appropriate steps now to stay competitive in the future. Globally, Stihl centers on relentless product development via the largest and most advanced handheld outdoor power equipment design and engineering facility in the world. Today, each new generation of product is designed to be fuel efficient, environmentally responsible and easy to use, without sacrificing performance. As important as customer service is, it will not compensate for less than top-quality products.

Selecting your retail channel partners carefully, and not jumping at near-term volume-building opportunities, is critical to building lasting brand success. The Stihl value proposition has remained unchanged since 1926 and has stood the test of more than three U.S. recessions since 1974. Other brands have seen similar success by staying true to their heritage.

Add to the purchase experience
"The car" is certainly at the vanguard of what makes the Mercedes-Benz brand unique. However, the entire purchase experience -- before, during and after the sale -- adds so much more to the overall brand promise of driving a car unlike any other in the world. The company builds on the trust you placed in them with your purchase by extensively training their dealership technicians to ensure you receive the best service experience possible. Harley-Davidson has also become the undisputed leader in its industry because of the company's commitment to customer relationships and feeding brand enthusiasts online, en mass, in-store and on the road.

Proprietary research revealed that Stihl was perceived among many homeowners as being sold at mega-stores such as The Home Depot and Lowe's, stores that do not offer on-site technical-service departments to maintain the products they sell. This customer perception was not surprising when looking at the lawn-and-garden equipment category and the preponderance of brands that are sold in the mega-stores. Naturally, people simply assumed that Stihl was sold there, too.

The challenge we faced was how best to combat this perception, given the dominating share-of-voice and media-exposure values of mass merchants. We needed a provocative message on a national scale to educate end-users and raise awareness for servicing Stihl dealers.

Our solution was the Stihl "Why?" campaign, which communicated the benefits of purchasing Stihl products exclusively through servicing dealers by raising a curious question: "Why is the world's No. 1-selling brand of chain saw not sold at Lowe's or The Home Depot?" This campaign was supported predominantly in national newspapers such as USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, online at and in conjunction with specific PR support.

Leveraging the size of The Home Depot and Lowe's against themselves proved more effective than we could have imagined. Unsolicited accolades, in some cases from people who blatantly stated they were not even interested in outdoor power equipment, poured in, via the internet and snail mail, saluting us for taking a stand against the Goliaths. We really touched a nerve among people who had grown tired of the impersonal experience of warehouse stores in general, regardless of product category. The campaign was covered in The Wall Street Journal, among other news organizations, in a story titled, "Too good for Lowe's and Home Depot?"

Be multi-dimensional
More-recent research reveals that we have reversed the trend of customer perceptions about Stihl through this campaign and other communication initiatives. Our dealers and distributors, especially in a down economy, are more invested in our advertising programs than ever. By showing our support for them through national campaigns, they in turn feel even more inclined to support Stihl marketing and training initiatives regionally.

Why be one dimensional when it comes to telling your company's story? Though building an international brand relies on fundamental product superiority and comprehensive customer service, it takes far more creativity to communicate those strengths to customers. Stihl takes great care to align the brand with people and organizations that complement our core messaging. We work with personalities that are well known and respected in their fields, such as Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and award-winning conservationist, and P. Allen Smith, a master gardener, TV host and best-selling author.

At the same time, return on marketing investment permeates the marketing department here at Stihl and stretches across and through each of the agency partners. We measure anything and everything we can through third-party sources, internet analytics and anecdotal feedback from our retail-distribution channel that will quickly let us know what is working and what is not, and we adjust our strategies as needed to compete for long-term top-of-mind awareness among our target audiences.

Even as we look toward the future of marketing communications, including social networking, the pervasive influence of mass media cannot be ignored for national brands. "American Idol," with its weekly viewership of more than 20 million people, is a prime example. And the sponsorship sophistication of brands such as Coca-Cola within, and connected to, that program allows for product visibility that transcends a basic time buy. In the same way, producing a TV event such as Stihl Timbersports gives Stihl mass exposure to an audience with a predetermined interest in our products and has led the televised series to become ESPN's longest running program, next to SportsCenter.

While the landscape of marketing communications is shifting quickly into the digital realm, the axioms of targeting, visibility, dominance, integration, message relevance and frequency remain vital, regardless of medium. And let's not ever forget that providing consistently superior products, and extraordinary customer service, through a disciplined retail channel, will ultimately deliver the long-term results any product manufacturer desires.

Ken Waldron is national marketing manager for Stihl.
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