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I recently had the opportunity to sit in on a panel of MSPs for a session of frank sharing of experiences and best practices, and the curt comments of one participant struck me particularly hard.

In order to differentiate yourself, this MSP argued, you have to – his words, not mine – “brand the snot out of everything.”

His argument: every point of interaction with the customer, from marketing collateral to how your technical people dress and talk when they’re on-site, to phone support, to invoices, all need to share the same message and the same look-and-feel.

Most managed service providers are small businesses themselves, and they tend to serve small businesses. And branding is one way for a small MSP to look like a much bigger presence, particularly if larger competitors are trying to lure your customer base.

It may seem obvious, but it probably bears repeating anyway – the brand that you “brand the snot out of” should be your own brand. Too often, solution providers’ Web site and marketing collateral leads with a major vendor brand and not with the solution provider’s own identity.

There are a lot of reasons for this – for smaller MSPs, doing unique and compelling marketing is difficult. And vendors are quite willing to provide the help they need to get the word out and close some business. But they’re going to do it with their own message, and their own story. Sure, they’ll talk about the importance of valued local expertise provided by solution providers like [YOUR NAME HERE]. But in the end, the message being delivered is the vendor’s message, and not yours. And if you’re turning to a vendor-produced marketing campaign to deliver your message, don’t you think your competitor down the street is likely turning to the same campaign or a similar one? Where’s the differentiation?

Of course, branding is not all marketing collateral and Web site design. Branding your customers’ experience goes beyond that to how your people dress and conduct themselves, how your help desk addresses incoming calls, and how you follow up on action items.

And while at its most basic level, branding may seem very generic, very cut-and-dry, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the best branding can be something that’s a little out of left field, but makes sense given the circumstances.

Consider, if you will, the tale of Cell-a-net Printer Services, a managed print services provider out of Mississauga, Ontario. As a result of a personal passion for hybrid vehicles on behalf of the company’s owners, Cell-a-net’s fleet of field services vehicles now consists entirely of Toyota Priuses, all wrapped with the company’s logo and look-and-feel. Not only do the wrapped hybrids provide “free” advertising for the Cell-a-net brand, they mean that customers can tell as soon as they hit the parking lot when their MSP has come to visit. And it provides a conversation-starter that is directly in line with one of Cell-a-net’s own value propositions – the car is “green,” and the promise to better manage printing at the company-wide level is not only a cost-savings argument, it’s a green discussion as well. It’s a personal passion that is now a corporate passion – the green-related cost-savings of managed print are directly and adeptly tied into the green-related cost-savings of operating the hybrids.

What sets your business apart, and how can it be presented to your customers and the market at large in a way that’s just a little bit above and beyond the everyday?

What have you found works in terms of branding? What sets you apart from the crowd of your peers out there? Which branding efforts add value, and which ones just absorb time and money for no return? Sound off in the comments below – we’d love to get your thoughts!