Yellow Pages, Typewriters, Encyclopedias — A Lesson in Brand Identity and Positioning

Phil Davis

Branding & Naming Expert President of Tungsten Branding

A couple of days ago, the Wall Street Journal heralded the death of an era with this headline “Extinction Threatens Yellow-Pages Publishers.” There was a time, and not so long ago, when I could only get a phone rep for my yellow page ad revisions, since my few hundred dollars a month didn’t warrant a live person coming to my place of business. The demand for yellow page space was at a premium, and services from lawyers to plumbers jammed the books with full page ads. But those days are gone and it might not be long before the companies that publish them are gone as well.

So what happened?

What happened is what happens every day in business and life, things change. But what’s critical here is our response to change. And our response depends on our identity.

The yellow page companies thought they were in the publication business. Even in the WSJ article they are referred to as “publishers.” But they were never in the publishing business. Sure, they printed millions upon millions of books, and distributed them to millions upon millions of homes. But that was their delivery method, not their core value.

They were really a search engine. They connected people to resources.

Think about it. People now use Google to do many of the same things that they used to do with the yellow pages. The need has not changed, (and they rarely do,) just the form of their delivery. And here is where many, many companies get confused. They believe they are in the business of the product or service they provide, when the product or service is just a means to an end. Who ever really wanted a five inch thick book in on their dining room table?

The same thing can be said for typewriters, and encyclopedias, and film cameras. The needs are still there but the delivery methods have changed. Yet when you ask most business owners what business they are in, they answer by identifying with some delivery system.

“We’re in the software business.”

“We’re in the construction industry.”

“We’re in telecommunications field.”

Do consumers really want software? Or construction? Or telecommunication?

Of course not!

They want the end benefit of that those services provide. As obvious as this may seem, it’s amazing how many times we identify and attach ourselves to the current delivery system of the benefits we provide our clients. If instead, we identified ourselves by the end benefit, we would feel less threatened, and respond more proactively, when the delivery methods change.

I used to believe I provided clients with names, tag lines and logos. Now I realize I provide them with clarity — clarity about who they are and what they truly provide. And that clarity might take the form of brilliant names or brilliant insights. It might take the form of a clearer picture of who they are and who they serve. The need for names comes and goes, but the need for clarity remains consistent. Who doesn’t want to be clear?

So what are you really selling? Yellow pages or the ability to connect people? Typewriters or the ability to store thoughts and ideas? Encylopedias or a source for current knowledge?  What is your true benefit and how aligned are you with this attribute? It may seem like a trivial distinction, but it can have a tremendous impact in terms of your future relevance.

Research it for yourself, industries are constantly changing. Just look it up in any good encyclopedia… if you can find one.

About the author: With over twenty five years of company naming and branding expertise, Tungsten founder Phil Davis is a marketing and advertising veteran, having personally named over 250 companies, products and services worldwide. As a sought after branding expert, Phil has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal,, Businessweek, Entrepreneur, and Newsday.

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