by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

I'm regularly impressed by the brand marketing acumen of local businesses. It must have something to do with their size -- perhaps smaller, more collaborative and integrated management than larger companies -- or their hands-on accountability for sales results.

Take Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops, a company headquartered outside Chicago.

Merlin was founded in 1975 as a muffler & brake shop...the sort of place you bring your ailing vehicle for one of the nuisance replacements, especially after your local dealer stopped carrying parts for your aging model. Mufflers and brakes tend to crap out from wear-and-tear most commonly (and regularly), so I assume it was a profitable concern. It franchised about 70 shops.

Then, in 2006, it changed the company name to "Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops." And it was a stroke of genius.

In one fell swoop, the branding hit the head on a real customer need. Sure, drivers have problems with their vehicles and stuff brakes down, but the underlying, real customer need is to keep the vehicle running for as long as possible. Fixing stuff is the tactic to achieve a greater strategy, which is to avoid monthly payments on a newer vehicle.

Merlin proceeded to revamp all of its communications to focus on the goal of getting vehicles to run for 200,000 miles. Same garages, mechanics, and wrenches, but a different purpose: not just fixing cars, but ensuring that they keep from breaking down.

This is a brand that needs no creative slogan, no artsy rendering, or any sort of explanation. You get it as soon as you read it and, unless you're commuting in a leased luxury car, the brand is relevant to your life. Immediately. The company gives you a simple explanation for what it does, and doing so forms the context for you to consider visiting...not just when something breaks down, but to help ensure that something doesn't.

Call it preventative healthcare for your car? No, that's too cute. Call it Merlin 200,000 Mile Shops.

Contrast that elegant simplicity with some of the far reaches and vague associations that pass for branding in the big leagues of consumer marketing. I wrote yesterday about the equation that should reveal the impact of brands on businesses, and tried to translate Anheuser-Busch’s amazing "iconic brands" into a computation of something tangible. I failed, of course, though Bud certainly has great awareness.

The equation for Merlin 200,000's brand? I bet you could actually assign a dollar value to it. And you could make a decision on whether to invest in a company franchise.

And, perhaps most importantly, you might want to bring your car in for one of its check-ups, just to see how much of a chance you have of getting to 200,000 miles.

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