Reaching today’s customers requires new – and old – strategies.
By William Atkinson
There was a time when marketing in the precast industry meant sending some mailings to existing customers and prospects, scheduling plant tours and showing up at trade shows. Certainly these strategies can still be effective. However, today’s customers and prospects are deluged with so much marketing and advertising information that most of it ends up being a buzz or blur in the background. Advertising agencies are fond of telling clients that their campaigns will help to “break through the clutter.” However, in most cases, the campaigns simply add to the clutter.
Today, according to some in the precast industry, marketing success is more about identifying key prospects and customers than sending them targeted messages. “Our overall marketing strategy is to educate the market on who we are and what we can do,” says Kimberly Wacker, director of marketing and business development for Spancrete Group Inc., Waukesha, Wis. “In fact, the most effective marketing strategy in the precast industry, and the majority of other B2B industries, is understanding the value of relationships and then building those relationships.” In other words, according to Wacker, everything you do needs to be mindful of the customer and being the best partner that you can be. “You especially need to deepen relationships with key customers,” she emphasizes. “For this reason, one-on-one meetings with customers are very important.”
As the industry grows increasingly dynamic, Wacker believes it is also important to keep all customers abreast of new product developments, new technologies and new skill sets that you acquire. This can create a number of new opportunities. “For example, any time you conduct a plant tour or send communications to customers, you need to be sure that you are showcasing your newest skills and technologies,” she says.
In order to make sure that these two strategies work (targeting key customers and keeping them updated on new products and services), Spancrete (www.spancrete.com) emphasizes interdepartmental teamwork. “It is very important to work with other departments,” she says. “We are very collaborative here, and we meet on a frequent basis.” In that way, sales, marketing, production, field and all of the other departments are pointed in the same direction.
A tactical approach
For the past 25 years, Wilbert Precast Inc. in Spokane, Wash., used its catalog as a primary marketing tool. “We put a lot of money into it to make sure all of our drawings are up to date and that we have current pricing,” says Scott Erickson, chief financial officer. “While it is very helpful to all of the contractors who are out in the field, it is even more helpful to the engineers, architects, landscapers and designers who can actually specify our products into their projects.” Wilbert now offers the catalog on CD, which makes it easy to view on a computer.
These days, however, the catalog represents only a portion of how the company markets. “We have a Web site , and we are constantly tweaking it and updating it, especially with photographs of unique or large projects we have done,” says Erickson.
Mailings represent another portion of Wilbert Precast’s marketing strategy, but the company has developed more of a tactical approach by inserting a company flyer along with Precast Solutions magazine, an NPCA publication that profiles various precast installation projects. “The flyer highlights one of the projects we are working on or have just completed, which goes in conjunction with some of the articles that are in the magazine,” says Erickson. “In other words, we target our flyers to the focus of the particular issue of the magazine.”
Erickson says his company also tries to get its name out into the community by getting involved with “Extreme Yard Makeovers,” which are similar to “Extreme Home Makeovers” except they focus on the home’s exterior. “We go into a joint venture with two or three other companies, such as landscapers, and donate our landscaping products such as Redi-Rock materials, he says. “We also set up at home and yard shows, showing some of the products we produce. We do about four or five of these a year.”
Other marketing efforts by Wilbert include lunch tours for contractors, a golf tournament for architects, engineers and contractors, and even fishing excursions for its larger customers.
The marketing philosophy at By-Crete, Lebanon, Pa., takes the Wal-Mart approach, which means supplying contractors with everything they need, according to Jeff Long, plant manager. “Manholes, gaskets, flow lines, castings and everything else in between,” he says.
“We have done a lot of advertising, but our most successful event is an open house that we have every two years,” he adds. “We have done about six of these so far. We invite more than 1,500 people, and usually anywhere between 200 and 400 will show up.” Plant tours are an inherent part of a By-Crete open house and include pouring demonstrations and videos. “We also try to unveil something new that we are working on.”
Over the years By-Crete (www.bycrete.com) has picked up some very good accounts through its open house program, Long says, but the company has a number of other different and innovative ways to add people to its contact list. “We have acquired names of people from municipalities around the state of Pennsylvania, often from their Web sites,” he says, adding that they have picked up additional names from the Yellow Pages and have even taken names from the sides of trucks while driving down the road.
Currently the company is working on a “green” marketing strategy and has had several employees attend classes on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and “green” buildings. “We also put signs out at our job sites noting that the work is being done with “green” concrete to publicize that we can provide these products,” says Long.
Sign of the times
For C.R. Barger and Sons, Harriman, Tenn., effective marketing involves a strategy that integrates the old with the new, the traditional with the innovative. However, some might agree that the use of one particular “old” marketing method that Barger uses is actually innovative: Barger has a billboard (old style) on the highway, which, among other things, prominently features the company’s Web site address (new style).
The billboard is in place along Interstate 40 in Tennessee between Nashville and Knoxville. The idea came about when a survey indicated that, despite that the company was the second-oldest septic tank producer in the area, 75 percent of installers had never even heard of the company. The billboard announces the company’s name and Web address (www.BargerAndSons.com) to upwards of 50,000 vehicles a day.
Eric Barger, president, designed the billboard on his computer. “It really got a lot of people talking, if for no other reason that it is unusual for someone to advertise septic tanks on a billboard,” he says. “The day the billboard went up, traffic increased on our Web site by 25 percent. “We have received quite a few inquiries based solely on the billboard.”
Barger was actually an early adopter of Internet marketing. The company created its Web site in 1997. “We offer key content on the Web site,” he says. “Our main goal is to educate, not sell. We feel that if we educate people, they will end up purchasing from us anyway.” The Web site features drawings and specifications as PDF documents, so that engineers can quickly and easily download them and add them to their specs.
The Web site also provides technical white papers, and the company works on getting these into the hands of decision makers. It doesn’t focus on trying to sell its products in these white papers, as they are strictly educational tools. “We make sure they are short and concise so they don’t take readers a long time (to read),” says Barger. “However, we also make sure they are very thorough and detailed. We spend an average of 30 hours on research before we even write these papers.”
Until the company launched its radio advertising campaign, about 25 percent of its new business came from the Web site. While some might consider radio advertising to be passe, it has been a bonanza for Barger. “TV didn’t pan out for us, but radio has been incredibly effective,” he says. “Our phones do not stop ringing.” In fact, according to Barger, business has increased about 300 percent in the past two years since advertising on the radio.
The key to effective radio advertising, according to Barger, is to do enough spots each week and remain consistent with the program for a year or more. “One or two spots a week won’t cut it,” he says. And, he has found, it’s not that expensive. “Around here, a typical campaign might run $50,000 to $100,000 a year.”
While virtually all precasters engage in some type of marketing, few could likely compare to the depth and breadth of Hy-Grade Precast Concrete, St. Catherines, Ontario. The company created a formal marketing budget in 2006. Gina Lathan, who is the company’s North America sales manager, has found that most precasters tend to focus on production and other operations but not so much on marketing. One reason is that most of them have a niche market, so most people already know what they do. Most of the precasters for whom she has worked over the years, though, have come out with new product lines, become diversified and/or wanted to expand their markets. As such, it was important for them to focus on marketing too.
When Lathan came to Hy-Grade, she brought with her an understanding of the value of marketing. “We look at our sales each year, determine what we want our growth to be, then determine the appropriate marketing budget,” she explains. “We have a plan for every month of the year in terms of shows, presentations, tournaments, etc.”
The company manages a number of effective marketing strategies:
• Business development position. Lathan now has two salespeople and the new business development representative reporting to her. “One thing she does is find new leads and make cold calls, getting to a certain stage, and then the salespeople pick it up from there,” says Lathan.
• The company’s Web site (www.hygradeprecast.com). “We revamp it every couple of years to keep it fresh,” she says. “We get ideas from customers on how to make it more useful and user-friendly.”
• A new logo with new literature. “We had done literature in-house before,” she explains. “Now that we have a budget, though, we decided to have it done professionally.”
• Fewer bulk mailings. These turned out to be very costly and time-consuming, and never seemed to get much of a return. Instead, the company now uses e-mail campaigns. “We also have a monthly newsletter, which we send out to our e-mail database,” she says. “This keeps people informed on the projects we’re working on and the new products we are offering.”
• Lunchbox presentations. “A lot of companies do this, and they are very effective for us,” says Lathan. The business development rep finds design firms that are working on projects that fit Hy-Grade’s product line. “We use this opportunity to get into projects ahead of the game. If we can be there to assist designers in the project, we are more likely to end up producing the product for that project.”
• Internet database. This helps keep track of every quote that goes out, every contact it has and every project it does. When top managers are traveling, they can have access to this information.
• Trade show exhibits. These are useful especially when introducing a new product line as well as for introducing an existing product to a new market. “The real key to success here is to follow up afterward,” she says.
The program has been working. “We have almost doubled our sales in the last three years,” Lathan says.
Marketing in the precast industry has been evolving over the decades, and many precasters are getting better at it by using new – and old – technologies. Education, one-on-one interface and a little creativity are proving to be good ways to break through the marketing clutter.
William Atkinson is a freelance writer who covers business and safety issues.