Is Distribution Part of Your Marketing Strategy?

When I see many organisations defining their marketing activity, I find that their definition is often limited to two areas, Promotion; and the incorrect definition of marketing as sales.

As I have discussed in previous blog entries, marketing strategy involves a far wider mix of subject matter.  The extended marketing mix has seven elements which affect all aspects of your business; Product, Price, Promotion, Place, People, Process and Physical Evidence.

When you consider distribution, you are dealing with the fourth of those elements, Place.  If you are a retailer place would include the location of your shop premises.  But the vast majority of businesses are not retailers.  For them Place has a different definition.  For non-retail businesses Place refers to distribution and supply networks.  It is the relationships you develop with suppliers, logistics firms, wholesalers and retail chains such as supermarkets and department stores.

Often achieving commercial success isn’t only about the relationship you have with consumers; the end users of your products and services; but about how frictionless and efficient are your distribution channels.  That is why such channels are often called ‘marketing channels’.

Good distribution channels and strategies can contribute strongly to developing strong links with your customers and help build your competitive advantage.  Distribution channels are an important part of your value delivery network.

To build strong distribution channels you need to build strong relationships with key suppliers and resellers.  This extends marketing functionality beyond your customer base.

Marketing channels include your upstream and downstream partners, your suppliers, your logistics contractor, your wholesalers and your retailers.  Your downstream partners are the vital link between your firm and your consumers.

The term supply chain is limited.  It implies that raw materials, production inputs and factory capacity should be the starting point for marketing activity.  Many businesses decided to use the term demand chain instead.  It was felt that demand chain was a better fit to the serve and respond view of markets.  It emphasised the process of identifying consumer needs and the response of producing a chain of resources and activities which produce customer value.

However, today the term demand chain is also seen as limiting.  It limits marketing channels to a step-by-step linear model of purchase, produce and consume.  The term now used to define distribution channels is Value Delivery Network: a network of suppliers, distributors and ultimately customers who partner to improve performance of the entire system in delivering sustainable customer value.

Few manufacturers sell goods directly to the end consumer. Although direct sales are more common in industrial markets and increasingly thanks to the internet.  In the majority of markets, manufacturers need to develop strong and reliable channels as the effectiveness of their distribution activity will affect every other aspect of their marketing mix.  Pay too little attention to your distribution channel and your distribution partners and you can cripple your business.

Your distribution network will be affected by retailers.  You will have different distribution arrangements and expectations if you work with discount retailers compare to working with luxury retailers.  These differences will affect the price of your products.

Innovative distribution can create strong competitive advantage.  Why do you think Amazon is investing in drone technology and truck manufacturers are looking at self-driving and convoy vehicles?

Creating strong distribution channels takes long-term commitment.  It is far easier to adapt your product range or to change your promotional strategy than to build strong distribution channels.  Building reliable channels cannot be done overnight.  Channels have to be built not only with regard to current practices but with one eye on the future.

So how do strong marketing and distribution channels add value?

  1.  Information:  Your distributors and resellers are critical to the gathering and distribution of marketing information.  They are the direct contact between your firm and your consumers, your competitors and other market actors.  Their knowledge of market forces are critical to business planning and exchange.
  2. Promotion: Your distribution partners are often a crucial messenger for developing and spreading persuasive communications about your products and offers
  3. Contact:  Your distribution network are a good way to find and communicate with prospective buyers.
  4. Matching:  Distributors can help to develop your products to meet customer expectations through activities such as packing and product bundling.  They may be involved in the assembly of your products e.g. most cycle shops need to  part assemble and test a bicycle before it can be ridden by the customer.
  5. Negotiation:  Often members of your distribution channel are given the ability to negotiate with customers on issues such as price and timescales for delivery.  They allow ownership and possession of products to be transferred.  Remember, in law, a price indication is an invitation to treat, not a contractual offer.
  6. Physical Distribution:  Obviously, your distributors are responsible for the physical movement of goods and components.
  7. Financing:  Often your distribution partners are crucial in acquiring and raising funds to cover the cost of the channel.
  8. Risk-Taking:  Often the risk of carrying out the distribution network is, in full or in part, transferred to the distribution partner from the business core e.g. in franchise models.  Often critical decisions need to be made as to who carries out certain distribution channel activities.  It is a question of who carries out that work, not that the work needs to be done.  The shifting of tasks from a manufacturer to intermediaries can lower costs and increase profitability.  Channel intermediaries may have more technical expertise than a manufacturer.  Distribution channel partners may increase your productivity and efficiency trough their knowledge and resources.

The following factors must be taken into consideration when selecting distribution channels:

  1.  Market Factors:  Your buyers may expect your products to be sold in a particular way.  A failure to meet buyer expectations through the way you organise distribution will have serious consequences for your business.  Often consumers need product information such as technical specifications and installation advice.  Often the provision of this information is the responsibility of channel intermediaries.
  2. Geographic Location:  Are you remote from your customers.  Do you need to employ territory agents to sell and distribute your products in distant locations?
  3. Producer Factors:  Do you lack the resources to carry out all channel functions?  Do you have the finances, skills and other resources?  Do you make a wide range of products that means distribution activity can be brought in-house?  Or do you make a single product and therefore rely on others as direct distribution is cost ineffective?  How much control do you want or need over your distribution channel?  Levi’s jeans are a good example.  Levi’s has very tight control over the distribution and reselling of their clothing.  they even control how their products are displayed on the shop floor and the type of retailer they want to sell their products.  The retailer is part of Levi’s brand image.  As a result, Levi’s fought a long legal battle with Tesco over the supermarket chain’s purchase of ‘parallel import’ clothing for sale in its supermarket.  If you make hazardous or bulky products you may have no option but to develop direct distribution to end users.  Retailers may not want to stock your products as they are difficult to display.
  4. Competitive Factors:  You may operate in a market sector where your competitors own or control the major distribution channels, through vertical integration or market power.  Often you may have to disrupt the distribution channels through the use of alternative technology.  Much of the disruptor activity is driven by new distribution technologies.  We live in the age of the digital download and soon 3-D printers will be common domestic appliances.  My father recently needed a small plastic plumbing part for a DIY repair.  He bought it over the internet.  In a few years time he will purchase the computer code for the component and print the part himself.

Distribution channels are a critical part of your marketing strategy and planning.  They should be a central part of your SMART marketing objectives.