In 1996, after many quarters of losses and being named one of the Wall Street Journal’s “Worst 10 Companies,” International Truck and Engine Corporation began a journey to focus its business strategy around a strong, viable brand. While the business was undergoing an internal transformation, International began to take steps to dust off a dated brand image with customers by telling the story of the “new” International.
This story centered on the company’s new brand promise: International listens, understands, and delivers the best ways to move our customers ahead. On the road and in their business. International reached a milestone in this journey in February 2001, when it launched its first new line of trucks in more than 25 years—the first product series to fully deliver on the new brand promise. Customers embraced the series.
But shortly after the launch, the truck market experienced its worst downturns in 30 years. Like other players in the industry, International faced 2001’s “perfect storm: rising fuel prices, tightening credit, dropping shipping tonnage and sinking used-truck values combined, all at once, to bottom out the market.
Major competitors scrambled with changes in leadership and struggled to keep their promises of service and support to customers. International saw an opportunity to take advantage of these competitive vulnerabilities and go after business owners who searched for a solid, stable, business partner. However, many of these same customers regarded the International brand as outmoded and did not consider it in their purchasing decisions.
To win them over, International reached out with a value story to demonstrate how it could increase customers’ business profitability. The strategy required International to move beyond the sales precedent of selling on price and product features and focus, instead, on showcasing the relationship International offered these targeted customers.
Meeting the challenge, International armed its sales force and independent dealer network with the strategy, tools and conviction to capture the hearts and minds of conquest customers. Creating opportunities for conquest customers to hear and experience the power of the brand, International sold the performance and stability of the entire enterprise. The efforts culminated in a series of quick-strike events, the President’s Dinners, to aggressively pursue large conquest customers by building their confidence in the International brand, the company’s business strategy and its leadership team.
Challenge and Opportunity
International did not meet the challenge of the market downturn with knee-jerk, deep discounting. International was challenged to adhere to the brand strategy and go to market in a way that would allow it to collect for the value it offered. It was also challenged to align the organization in the belief that the International brand has the power to change minds and drive customer purchasing decisions.
Out of the market turmoil, a pivotal opportunity arose. Because International was convinced its entire offering provided greater value to customers, the time was right to convert the competition’s vulnerable accounts through powerful brand events—the President’s Dinners. In the span of just three weeks, Matha MacDonald LLC’s greatest hurdle was aligning executives, regional staff and dealers to deliver the right brand experience to conquest customers and transform a traditional sales dinner—historically meant to sell trucks—into a total brand experience that sold the company’s commitment of solid partnership to customers. The competitive landscape and customers’ desire for real business solutions provided the entrée. International’s conquest efforts “closed the deal,” proving its value story and brand promise resonated with customers.
We rooted the planning and execution for the customer events and sales strategy in the International brand promise. We drew upon the extensive arsenal of brand research to understand how customers perceived the International brand; what experiences made the brand special to them; what were our shared values with customers; and, how could we create a palpable brand experience that connected with customers.
Additional research was needed to guarantee success of the President’s Dinners. To prepare executives for the event, we researched the individual customers’ businesses to understand the industry dynamics that impacted them most. This research helped executives engage customers in conversation that was meaningful to their specific business interests.
Build alignment behind the brand strategy and tell a value story that resonates with customers and generates sales.
Create experiences to change customers’ impressions of the International brand by showcasing the “new” International as the right business partner.
Help drive bottom-line business results by increasing profitable market share and meeting specific short-term sales goals.
The brand promise dictated every customer outreach to demonstrate how International listens, understands and delivers. For each event, we had to guarantee the brand promise would jump off the page and become a reality for attendees. To do that, we involved senior leadership in creating the strategy, developed messages and tools grounded in the brand promise, coached speakers and structured the follow-up communications to drive alignment. We also guided the events’ formal and informal communication opportunities through a concise message platform to ensure that all the International participants spoke to customers with one voice.
We set out to change perceptions. We aimed to sell a company, not a truck. The key elements of our strategy were 1) create encounters with customers that deliver the brand experience by listening to them and learning about their businesses; 2) align International participants to deliver that experience; and, 3) showcase International as the right business partner, offering stability and real value.
For example, the President’s Dinners were not intended to be sales meetings or flashy extravaganzas. Instead, they provided a forum for the executive team to increase International’s credibility with targeted customers, build business relationships, and change these customers’ purchasing considerations. All conquest efforts were designed to drive business results in the short-term and lay a foundation for future market share growth.
With the February launch of the new series in Las Vegas, we focused on telling the story of the product through the brand. Customers could feel the power the vehicles with a Ride N’ Drive event, but more importantly, they could feel the power and performance of the entire company. For its November launch of the new severe service vehicles in Garland, Texas, International adopted the same approach as in February, with the creation of a high-impact event that allowed customers to experience not only the muscle of the vehicles, but the strength and business savvy of the company behind them.
Launch events were matched by the creation of Field Value Selling Teams. These teams focused on listening and understanding conquest customers and their businesses. The teams took the time to understand their unique needs and put together a package of services and support tailored to deliver value. Again, these teams concentrated on building customer relationships versus competing for the business on price.
The launches and the field value selling efforts crested in the President’s Dinners, where International extended a personal invitation to conquest customers to meet the company’s leadership, and learn about the “new” International. In advance of each of the four dinners, we prepared International representatives to understand their accountabilities for the events. We provided a briefing package that included an overall meeting flow, key messages, anticipated question and answers, as well as information on the target audience. In addition, we conducted coaching sessions with the executives and regional sales teams.
The events kicked off with a social hour before dinner. Each executive was assigned “ownership” of a specific conquest customer at the event. The executives were encouraged to get their customers to talk about themselves and their businesses. Key messages were provided to International representatives to ensure that their customer interaction remained consistent and focused on the brand experience.
Steve Keate, president of the truck group, welcomed and introduced customers to the International brand promise, awakening them to the “new” International with a high-energy video (see attached). He followed with a brief overview of the company, focusing on the three core elements of the brand promise: listen, understand and deliver. The presentation emphasized the complete package of products, support and services International provides to help customers make more money. This message and customer focus reverberated throughout the events.
After the presentation, the floor opened up to candid discussion and a question-and-answer session. International executives closed the events by asking customers for a follow up interview at their businesses. The executives presented a money clip to their assigned customers with the message: “Give us the chance to fill this money clip.” Each customer also received a takeaway package that included a personal thank you letter from Keate, the International brand promise, and personal contact information of the International representatives.
Our campaign continued after all the events with communication to dealers and regional staff outlining expectations for follow-up with customer attendees: accountabilities, suggested actions/ideas for follow-up and available resources. We also conducted individual debriefs with International attendees to refine the ongoing effort.
The power of the International brand to change minds is demonstrated in bottom-line numbers. Post February launch, International’s market share soared from 38% to 50%. The Garland launch resulted in 20 new customers placing orders for 160 vehicles (costing anywhere from $40,000 to over $100,000). In the few short months of the Field Value Selling Teams’ existence, they have created 123 new customer accounts and have secured more than 150 truck orders.
The President’s Dinners generated the clearest successes. At every dinner, Keate made a simple request of the attendees: “Let an International team call on your business and learn how we can make you more money.” One hundred percent of the attendees granted that request. But that was only the beginning.
International established a clear metric to judge the success of the campaign: sell 100 trucks by August 31, 2001. We tripled that sales goal. As of that date, 305 trucks were sold as a result of the impressions made at the President’s Dinners. At last report, regional sales indicated that they are moving towards closing deals on another 500 units. In terms of reported sales, the events paid for themselves several times over.
The immediate sales and share results are important, but the true power of the customer outreach is in the foundation laid with the conquest customers. The business relationships seeded at the different events and by the Field Value Selling Teams will continue to grow and pay off. The success of the President’s Dinners and the Field Value Selling Teams have made them among the core elements of 2002’s marketing communications strategy to earn business with key conquest accounts and gain profitable market share—proof that International brought to life its brand promise in 2001.