At the heart of every truly memorable brand or business has been a unique marketing strategy that makes the operation stand out from the crowd. US marketing expert Seth Godin calls it a ‘purple cow’ strategy.
Bing Lee is such a purple cow. Even if you’ve never stepped into one of its 40 plus stores in NSW, you can’t help knowing the firm’s jingle, the ‘I like Bing Lee’ song, inspired by the singing exploits of Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame.
The lateral thinking in using this tune, which when sung by Idle was the ‘I like Chinese’ song, is typical of what Edward De Bono tells us is at the core of high-achieving businesspeople.
The Lee family, from grandfather Bing through to father Ken and son Lionel, comprises classic outside-the-square thinkers, and that’s one part of the story of how it has created an enduring retail brand.
It’s also a pretty impressive business.
“For the 2009 fiscal year, revenue came in just under $490 million,” chief executive Lionel Lee says. “We have 41 stores, approximately 900 staff through a mix of 13 franchise stores and the rest company-owned.”
It all started when Lionel’s grandfather Bing Lee and dad Ken purchased an electrical repair business in Fairfield, in Sydney’s southwest, in 1957.
“Bing and Ken saw a future in the electrical business, particularly with the release of television in 1956,” Lionel says. “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 the Lee family understood market demand. “Fairfield was right in the middle of the hostels housing many of the migrants when they first arrived in Australia,” Lionel says.
“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. When Bing died in 1987, Ken Lee became more expansionary. “We began to open stores in places that were not necessarily migrant strongholds but more mainstream,” Lionel says.
“Between 1987 and 2007 we’ve opened more than 20 stores between Canberra in the south and Port Macquarie in the north.”
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 says. “Bing and Ken trusted the migrants. The migrants trusted them and that mutual trust was the core of the business in the early days.”
While Bing Lee has reached the heights that a publicly listed vehicle would be proud of, it remains a family business. This could explain its success. “Essentially, the business has grown of itself over the years,” Lionel says. “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 was destined to be part of a family business from a young age. “I attended my first board meeting with my father when I was 10 years old,” he says. “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 for many years. This means the operation sits on solid foundations, despite the death of its inspirational co-founder.
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 history.
After Bing’s death, as Ken Lee began to expand the business rapidly, the marketing as well as advertising changed to reflect this.
“First, we began to stock a lot more brand-leading products; and, second, we started working with big-brand suppliers to enhance our mutual interests,” Lionel says.
“Third, we had to move away from straight price advertising and competition because price alone could send you broke. And, fourth, we had to become more mainstream, appealing to all Australians.”
To do this they engaged Barry Anderson, 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 its first ads broadcast in the late 1970s. Both media 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.
“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?
“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.”
And don’t forget that this has been created inside a hotly competitive market with big names such as Harvey Norman, JB Hi-Fi, The Good Guys and Clive Peeters, to name but a few. However, in business, as in sport, you don't become a champion playing in B-grade.