Evolution of a brand

It started 15 years ago with a three-line, $3, three-day classified ad I placed in The Chicago Tribune to sell my used IBM PC. I sold that computer to the first caller, and the phones haven’t stopped ringing since. What began back then on my kitchen table is today CDW-a $1.7 billion, Fortune 1000 company with more than 1,600 employees.

Growing so fast, we focused on our core business: serving customers. We strengthened our customer service model, honed our operating efficiencies, developed CDW University to train our account managers, and created what we think is one of the strongest business models in the industry. From our infrastructure to warehouse automation, every improvement we’ve made has had the same goal: to enhance customers’ buying experience.

Certainly, we are successful today because of our Circle of Service core tenet and the customer relationships we built as a result. But while repeat customers represent more than 80% of our sales, we found that many customers and potential customers didn’t know CDW or have an accurate perception of what we bring to the table. We were so focused on serving our customers that we missed the opportunity to market CDW, the company-the brand.

We have been hesitant to talk about our business and our strengths. Part of the reason is that we have never been comfortable talking about ourselves. We also didn’t want to share too much for fear that competitors would try to copy or duplicate our strengths. For many years, we were happy being the computer catalog industry’s best-kept secret.

We also faced another branding challenge: CDW is not a manufacturer. You won’t walk into our distribution center or one of our showrooms and see CDW-branded products lining the shelves. Instead, we offer customers the best brands in the business, and we use these branded products as building blocks for customized computing solutions. So while CDW brings these solutions together, our name is not on them.

For companies like ours, the key to increased awareness and understanding was distinguishing between a product and a brand.

The value of a brand To maintain our competitive advantage, we needed to brand CDW and refocus our marketing efforts to promote the company, not just the products we sell. But we didn’t immediately see the need to alter our marketing efforts. In fact, for years we thought that putting our logo on product ads was enough. It wasn’t.

Additionally, overcoming our fear of sharing what makes CDW special-our people and our knowledge-was difficult.

The launch of Microsoft Windows 95 helped open my eyes. At first I didn’t understand the product’s slogan, “Where do you want to go today?” “What does that have to do with product, quality, or speed?” I asked. Then it dawned on me: Microsoft is about more than products, quality, and speed. It’s about enabling people to achieve their goals.

This was perhaps the first time I truly understood the value of branding. It’s about strengthening the image or perception your company has in the marketplace. Putting your logo in an ad isn’t branding. It’s what that logo and that ad say about you that creates brand perception among customers and potential customers.

What’s in a name? By 1997, we recognized the need to brand CDW and strengthen its marketplace image. Our market share was 1.2%, which meant we had a lot of room to grow and huge market potential. To reach our potential, though, we had to understand our customers’ perceptions-or misperceptions-of our company.

The root of many misperceptions was our d/b/a (“doing business as”) name: Computer Discount Warehouse. According to focus group research,that name didn’t support our competitive advantage of superior customer service. In fact, according to some of our research, this name did the opposite, promising competitive prices without conveying other key CDW benefits, such as custom configuration and personalized expertise. So we decided to go back to our incorporated name of CDW Computer Centers, preferring to be known as CDW.

But changing our name wasn’t enough to ensure that we were known for our one-on-one advice, service, and support. What’s more, while our roots in the catalog industry are strong, and while catalogs are and will continue to be an integral part of our business, our marketing mix now includes the Web, telephone marketing, and e-mail. We needed to redefine our identity to include these marketing channels, just as we needed to more clearly differentiate CDW from our competitors. And so, in light of the research findings and our own increased self-awareness, we decided to take a page from our own handbook, CDW’s “Philosophies of Success,” which says, “What’s right yesterday may not be right today.”

Bridging the perception gap Last year, we set out to take control of our brand and redefine our identity. We kicked off a comprehensive branding campaign to help customers, employees, media, and shareholders understand who we are today and to build a bridge between our mail order roots and our next-generation capabilities. Essentially, we wanted to close the gap between perception and reality.

Our new tagline sums up much of our brand identity. Formerly our tagline had been “The right price. The right advice.” Now, to communicate CDW’s forward-looking confidence and emphasis on creating solutions for our customers, our tagline is “Computing Solutions Built for Business.”

Every organization has a critical point of contact that can make or break a customer’s buying experience. At CDW, our business model depends on the 1,600 employees, or co-workers, who go the extra mile to exceed customers’ expectations. So when we revitalized our brand, we started with our co-workers, who support the brand promise.

Last October, before the external launch of our logo and branding campaign, we created and launched an internal branding initiative to foster co-worker participation in the campaign, create awareness and understanding of the brand, empower co-workers to “live” the brand, and ensure that the company communicates with one voice, externally and internally. By putting co-workers first, we not only increased their involvement, but we also ensured that they understood the brand and would communicate it on launch day and every day thereafter.

Our brand-the logo, positioning messages, and graphic identity-surrounds and supports our Circle of Service tenet. Our aim is to create top-of-mind awareness for CDW and convey a consistent message in the marketplace. Consistency means making certain that all marketing and communications-including advertising, public relations, and direct marketing-are integrated.

Now, more than six months after we kicked off our branding campaign, we know we are just beginning our journey. We know CDW won’t become a household name overnight. It has taken companies like Coca-Cola and IBM many years to build their brands. And in our business, we don’t have “swoosh” emblems on every product we sell, like Nike, or the legendary golden arches on every street corner.

As direct marketers, we rarely see our customers face to face. But we connect with them in many ways. And each “touch” must support and enhance our brand. The key to our branding isn’t on store shelves; it is within our people and the relationships they build and strengthen with our customers.

At CDW, we believe people do business with people they like. By taking care of our customers and by having a team of likable, skilled, knowledgeable people, we are fulfilling our brand promise. Today’s companies can no longer compete on price or product alone. Through branding, we are simply communicating what we have known all along: At CDW, it’s people who make the difference.

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