Should operators consider branding their companies? Before dismissing the idea, you should realize the very nature of branding has changed over the past few years. Once associated with only big business, branding is now a priority for firms of all sizes and industries.
Over the years, some bulk pioneers have made efforts to brand their companies. The owners went through the expense of signage, logos, slogans and unique rack configurations to give their machines distinctive looks. Some operators have benefited, finding placement for racks in locations that traditionally didn't welcome bulk vending. They found that corporate locations, chain restaurants and shopping malls are comfortable with brands. These trailblazers have also added value to their companies should they decide to sell. And, as any first-year MBA will tell you, a brand builds familiarity and loyalty among customers.
For generations, the bulk vending machine has been a ubiquitous feature of mom-and-pop stores, supermarkets and big box centers. If the name of the operating company appears at all, more often than not it's made known with a business card or modest decal near the display card in the front of the machine. As for the machines themselves, the typical small to midsize route is quite often made up of a patchwork of styles, colors and machine models. Some machines are inherited through route acquisitions or purchased because they're cheap -- over years, even decades. It is not uncommon for operators, unwilling to update "perfectly good equipment," to boast about several generations of machines on their routes.
Many vending company names don't easily lend themselves to branding. They see themselves exclusively as a business-to-business outfit. Classic names, like AAA Vending, were chosen with alphabetical placement in the Yellow Pages in mind.
Is the branded route the next step in bulk vending evolution? It may be. It is not unusual to see retailers consisting of only one or two stores investing in branding efforts through signage and logos, uniforms and packaging. A bakery I recently visited was furiously trying to build a brand with a logo printed on everything from bags and boxes to hats worn by employees and t-shirts offered for sale to patrons. One of the owners actually had a tattoo of the logo. The owners see the effort as a way to build customer loyalty and attract investors.
Some young people starting careers are building themselves into brands through Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. They are very much the "Brand Me" generation, the ultimate in micro-brands. They see social networking as a way to promote and position themselves for the next career opportunity. As one of these young go-getters recently told me, "Only an idiot keeps that picture from college with a beer bong up on their page." In many ways, this is not all that different than the "dress for success" trends of past generations.
For a large percentage of bulk vending operators, branding will never matter, or merit the expense to implement. However, for an increasing number of operators seeking out even small chains or upscale locations, branding will become an essential element in the future. I envision a bulk vending industry in which an increasing number of operators either build their own brands to land accounts or move nimbly to adapt machines and merchandise to fit the location brand. We have already seen some of this, and there's no reason to believe the trend won't continue.