How to Brand Your Managed Services Business, Part II

In part 1, I described how you can line up vendor money to pay for your branding efforts. Here in part 2, I explore a specific case study: In late 2007, Trailhead Technologies Inc. was a managed services provider without a clear brand -- and without Web site.

Trailhead turned to local marketing agencies for help, but the agencies didn't understand Trailhead's business and the concept of managed services, according to company president Erik Johnson. In December 2007, Trailhead began to find some branding answers during an Ingram Micro Seismic conference in Dallas.

Here's how the branding story played out, and some key lessons for other MSPs to consider.

After the Ingram conference in December 2007, Trailhead set up a meeting with Dennis Crupi, group manager for Ingram's Channel Marketing Services -- which Ingram positions as a "full-service channel marketing communications agency."

"It was quite clear from the beginning that Ingram understood what small VARs like Trailhead do," says Johnson. "We already had a solid identity package but had trouble putting the words to our practice. We knew we did it well, whatever it was."

Discovery Day

After a few phone calls, Trailhead and Ingram team members in February 2008 held "an intense half-day discovery session," recalls Johnson. "They asked all the right questions to expose our true business model in what was truly a fun and entertaining meeting. It turned out we wanted more than a web site, we needed someone that would write all of the content, too. That was the obstacle that kept us from having a site up years ago."

Internally, Johnson concedes, Trailhead did not have the time to devote to writing. "We are too busy out billing our clients," says Johnson.

After several follow-up conference calls, Ingram's  team presented Trailhead with several "mood boards" and various wording options from which to choose. Check out, and you can see the final design, imaging, branding and terminology that Trailhead chose.

Quick Observations

A few things worth noting:
  • Nothing Too Flashy: I'm tired of slow-loading Web sites that are filled with multimedia, take too long to load and lack clear messaging. Trailhead's simple site design and menu system eliminates all of those concerns.
  • Put Your Brand Front and Center: The site reinforces Trailhead's brand -- rather than technology vendor brands. It's not cluttered with logos from networking companies, software companies and so on. The site is about Trailhead's customer focus -- rather than certification logos.
  • What Do You Stand For?: Trailhead's About Us page positions the company as an environmentally responsible neighbor. And the history section tells just enough about Trailhead's experience without getting bogged down in empty, lofty claims.
  • Green With Envy: Notice the site's colors? Green and earth tones reinforce Trailhead's focus on being environmentally conscious and socially responsible.
  • Find Some Quick Praise: A Client Stories page includes two quick customer snapshots, including the customer's name, title and company. Many MSPs never get around to finding client testimonals because they think the testimonial will require writing a fancy four-page case study. Trailhead proves all you need is a quick paragraph from a customer to tell your story. Site visitors will appreciate seeing real customer names rather than generic "IT manager, Retail Company" statements.
  • Contact Us: The Contact page includes a real phone number, real email address and a real street address. This is so basic, but so many MSPs offer no contact info and instead force readers to fill out an annoying online form for help.
Concludes Johnson: "Eight months prior we were ironically a high-tech company without a web site. Our goal was a basic informational web site that further legitimized our now seven year old business. We got our web site, but more importantly we got the right consistent words to use when talking about our business. We also got valuable new visual elements and design standards to use on all of our materials."

Well, that's a screaming endorsement of Ingram. But I have to concede: I don't know what the project cost. And I also know many MSPs are slow to open their wallets for marketing help.

Make Your Move (Now)

Still, MSPs need to include marketing in their budgets for 2009. Check in with other local businesses -- independent retailers, independent restauarants, etc. -- to find out who developed their logos, web sites and marketing materials. At the same time, check in with your distribution and vendor partners to see what co-marketing or complete creative services they offer.

Do the discovery work now, and your new brand could be ready for launch in early 2009.
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