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9 TVs selling: Bing Lee

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At the heart of the truly memorable brands and business has been a unique marketing strategy that makes the operation stand out from the crowd. Seth Godin, the US marketing expert calls it a ‘purple cow’ strategy. Bing Lee is such a purple cow.

Even if you’ve never stepped into one of their stores in New South Wales, you can’t help knowing their jingle that was inspired by the singing exploits of Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, with their “I like Bing Lee” song.

The lateral thinking in using this song which, when sung by Idle, was called “I like Chinese”, is typical of what Edward de Bono tells us is at the core of high-achieving business people. The Lee family from grandfather Bing, through to father Ken and son Lionel are classic outside-the-square thinkers and that’s one part of the story of how they have created an enduring retail brand.

Understand market demand

It all started when Lionel’s grandfather and dad purchased an electrical repair business in Fairfield in 1957.

“Bing and Ken saw a future in the electrical business, particularly with the release of television in 1956,” he explains. “That, plus they saw the ambitions of the waves of migrants and that suggested to them that the demand for electrical appliances would be strong for many years to come.”

The location for the first business showed that Lionel’s family understood market demand.

“Fairfield was right in the middle of the hostels housing many of the migrants when they first arrived in Australia,” he points out. “As migrants themselves, both Bing and Ken understood how migrants would want to improve their lifestyles, and along the way take advantage of the many benefits of household electrical appliances.”

The early phase of growth was conservative, with Bing keen to stay close to the migrant community. As those communities moved beyond Fairfield to places like Merrylands, Villawood, south to Wollongong and west to Blacktown, Bing Lee moved with them.

When Bing died in 1987, Ken became more expansionary. “We began to open stores in places that were not necessarily migrant strongholds, but more mainstream,” Lionel recalls. “Between 1987 and 2007 we’ve opened more than twenty stores between Canberra in the South and Port Macquarie in the north. With that expansion came a brand development program taking us from our Chinese/Hong Kong roots to a mainstream brand with a distinct Chinese flavour.”

Start-up businesses that quickly achieve an impressive growth story have to have a competitive advantage. So, what was Bing Lee’s?

“Its original competitive advantage was providing credit to migrants who couldn’t get finance through regular sources,” Lionel reveals. “Bing and Ken trusted the migrants. The migrants trusted them and that mutual trust was the core of the business in the early days.”

And while Bing Lee has achieved the corporate achievements that a publicly listed vehicle would be proud of, it remains a family business. And this could explain its success.

“Essentially, the business has grown of itself over the years,” Lionel says quite honestly. “It’s still a family business. We treat the business as a family. Our staff are family. Our customers are family. If you’re not a part of the family, you’re not really Bing Lee!”

Lionel’s younger brother Greg runs the Carlingford Store and his cousin Gary is the company’s whitegoods buyer. But his breeding was designed for family business from a very young age.

“I attended my first Board meeting with my father when I was 10 years old,” he says proudly. “It was during the school holidays. Mum put me in a suit and tie, and when dad and I arrived, I was put under the board table and told to be quiet, sit still, and listen.

“I finished my HSC in 1983 on a Thursday, started with the business on Friday and I became CEO on the death of my father in December 2007.”

Typical of businesses built to last, Bing Lee has had the security of a leadership team of six, who have run the business with Ken Lee over many years, which means the operation sits on solid foundations, despite the untimely death of its inspirational co-founder.

Importance of great marketing

And while the retailer has carried the brands that sell themselves, a big part of this success story has been the marketing of Bing Lee with only two advertising consultants in the business’s entire history.

“The first was Wayne Bell, who took us into the ‘Kung Fu man’ territory with ‘The best prices this side of Hong Kong’ punch line,” Lionel says. “In those days it was right for Bing Lee, using our Chinese heritage and focusing almost entirely on price, it positioned us correctly within our then limited geography – mainly migrant suburbs – and stockholding.”

After Bing’s death, as Ken began to expand the business rapidly, the marketing as well as advertising changed to reflect this.

“Firstly, we began to stock a lot more brand leading products and secondly, we started working with big brand suppliers to enhance our mutual interests,” Lionel explains. “Thirdly, we had to move away from straight price advertising and competition, because price alone could send you broke.

“And fourthly, we had to become more mainstream, appealing to all Australians.”

To do this they engaged Barry Anderson, the head of Grey Advertising.

“He’s taken us down the ‘Best advice/best price’ and ‘Everything’s negotiable’ routes,” Lionel says. “He’s also instilled family into the advertising, first with Ken and now with Yenda in Sydney and myself rurally. We use the electronic medium to position and get us on shopping lists. Press and catalogues are about selling.”

Bing Lee started advertising on radio but really didn’t take long to dive into television commercials with their first ads broadcasting in the late-70s.

Both mediums have been and still are important to the brand’s development.

And while the retailer has all the apparent professionalism of the big retail names, the management team has always preferred a family approach, even when it comes to its externally-sourced marketing.

“Largely, we don’t like big agencies,” Lionel emphasises. “We prefer to work with people and those people become part of the Bing Lee family.

“Our two consultants in more than 30 years have both been part of the family – although as consultants they’ve had the objectivity to tell us when we’re wrong. Quite simply, Barry is our ‘Brand Guardian’.”

What about the famous song?

“I think it’s more than 25 years ago that we started using it and it was a piece of genius at the time, though at odd times over the years we’ve changed our approach,” Lionel says. “However, there’s a lot of equity in the tune as well as the words and I don’t believe anyone else in the world uses the tune like we do.

“In the past I have negotiated with Eric (Idle) directly but now it’s handled by his agents.”

Lionel says they have options to move away from the tune and the words, but it won’t happen in the near future.

“It has worked well for us and its value to the business has grown substantially with its use,” he adds.

And don’t forget that this has been created inside a hotly competitive market with big names such as Harvey Norman, JB HiFi and The Good Guys to name but a few. However, in business, as in sport, you don’t become a champion playing in B-grade.

If you’re looking to work on your business rather than being stuck in it, book in for a complimentary business assessment today with Switzer Business Coaching.

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

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