Name recognition of your company and products has become an important part of the entire manufacturing package.
By Carol Brzozowski
Carol Brzozowski is a freelance writer who specializes in trade journal writing.
The one constant you can always count on in the business world is that things will change, and that includes the precast concrete industry. Indeed, many precasters – in the face of competition from other building materials industries – are finding that promoting their products is just as important and takes just as much skill as manufacturing them.
Take Hy Grade Precast Concrete of St. Catherines, Ontario, for example. For the first time in her six years with Hy Grade, Gina Lathan, North American sales manager, will have a marketing budget.
Initially, the company’s marketing efforts consisted of phone calls to customers or following up after job quotes. Now Lathan is coming up with an acceptable percentage of the operating expenses that should be geared for marketing. Though she’s been in the precast industry for 15 years with three different companies, she is finding that marketing plans take time to build.
Lathan points out that some larger precast companies have full marketing departments and do extensively more than her company. “But mid-sized precasters like us are just starting to realize marketing is important to regular sales and putting quotes out there and a way to set yourself apart in some way from your competition,” she says.
Although the precast industry has existed for a long time and is quite diverse, an inherent technological evolution speaks to the need for precasters to market themselves, Lathan says. “It really is our job to get out there and talk to designers and owners to let them know that precast is an option, whether it’s changing a wood or block pump house building to precast, or cast-in-place to precast.”
Lathan says that some designers just use “cookie cutter” facts when considering materials, or they conduct business the way they have always done it. “But if we market and teach them that there are other options and advantages, maybe they would use precast because it would better fit their needs.”
Joan Gavin would agree. She’s the office manager for Crest Precast Inc. in La Crescent, Minn., and although Crest Precast is an industry veteran, growing competition from the metal and fiberglass sectors necessitates ongoing marketing efforts, Gavin says.
Depending on the product, the company will spend from 10 percent to 15 percent of its budget on marketing efforts. The usual expenditure for most other small to mid-sized companies is a much smaller percentage of their operating budgets on marketing.
For a lot of these precasters, it is not “business as usual.” Many precast operations have been around for years, but these days, longevity doesn’t necessarily pay the bills.
“The market isn’t there forever,” notes Jeff Hoffman, owner of Flemington Precast & Supply LLC in Flemington, N.J. Hoffman has changed his company’s marketing philosophy in that “we don’t want to sell septic tanks anymore – we want to sell septic systems,” he says. “Toward that end, we’ve become involved in some on-site treatment systems that we are selling along with our septic tank products in such a way that they don’t compete with each other, but augment each other.”
Hoffman does targeted marketing to contractors and engineering firms “because they’re the ones who get your company onto the blueprints,” he says.
Flemington Precast also has catered to niche products that larger companies don’t want to deal in, such as light pole bases, piers and slabs. “We are a rather small company and have some big competition surrounding us, so by going for certain niche products, we have more often than not found them to be profitable,” Hoffman says.
One of Flemington Precast’s marketing strategies is offering a warranty on its products. The company vacuum tests its products and has established a three-year warranty for watertightness and structural integrity. “We just started that this year in order to combat alternate materials for those products such as plastic or fiberglass,” Hoffman says. “It’s been a little slow to be embraced, because nobody wants to spend more than they have to for a product. There’s an upcharge for the premium product, but they get the peace of mind knowing the tank has been tested.”
Quality products usually speak for themselves, giving some precasters of niche products the ability to market successfully – even without a budget. Just ask Armen Alajian, owner of Arto Brick California Pavers in Gardena, Calif. While Alajian jokes that his impetus for marketing is “Fame and fortune – to make more money and be well-known,” he adds that the real reason is to protect the company’s bottom line. “Unfortunately, in our company, we do everything on a shoestring,” he says. “If we had the money to spend, I’d do it, but I have to give money to my employees, who in turn make better products.”
As such, Alajian says his marketing budget is about $45 a month, which pays for Web site hosting. Even so, that’s a huge advantage over what was available 40 years ago when his father started the company. The modest marketing effort at the time was the simple motto “Rustic Elegance since 1966.” Simple can be successful, however, as Alajian recently discovered from his discussions with a Coca-Cola marketing specialist, whose conversation focused on the sensory aspect versus the product. “So our focus is rustic elegance,” says Alajian, who is continuing with his father’s original motto on the company’s literature and Web site.
And Alajian is a big Internet fan. He got on the bandwagon when Web marketing first started taking off. His company’s site is a testament to its experience and longevity, and it gets a lot of hits. Key words bring Arto Brick near or to the top of any Google search for his sector of products. For instance, the key words “thin brick” brings up Arto Brick first. “Patio tile” produces similar results. That’s quite a feat for a search that fetches a list of 5 million results.
“In essence, the Internet prequalifies customers, because they are looking for something that’s related to my key words versus an ad campaign,” says Alajian.
There are other efforts aside from target marketing and Internet marketing that precasters also find effective. Such efforts include golf tournaments, sporting events and plant tours, targeted-audience direct mail, product displays at trade shows or in dealers’ stores, press releases, networking and just letting word get around that you have a reputation for manufacturing quality products and providing good service.
Getting to clients through their stomachs also has been a successful marketing strategy. Hy Grade Precast hosts lunch box presentations, a “Lunch ’n’ Learn” through which company representatives will give PowerPoint presentations designed for a specific audience. “Very rarely do you ever leave one of those without plans for a job in your hands,” Lathan points out. “We’ve compiled a large list of current customers or designers we work with or to whom we’ve given presentations on a monthly or bimonthly basis,” says Lathan. “We send out an electronic newsletter to them highlighting new products or projects.”
Lathan has found bulk mail the most ineffective marketing tool. “We mail things only if we can follow up with a phone call,” she says. “Bulk mail can be a waste of money. Instead of mailing 1,000 pieces, we will mail out 50 and call 10 people a week for five weeks.”
A similar concept to the mailout is the press release. Rather than sending directly to buyers, press releases are sent to trade and consumer publications. They are often underestimated as a potentially powerful marketing tool that puts your name and products into the hands of a lot of readers. And they cost nothing if you send them via e-mail.
Alajian says he is assertive in sharing positive information about his company with trade journals and other publications in an effort to get publicity. “You don’t want to be a braggart, but you want to tell folks what is going on,” he says. “That’s what we started doing from day one on the Web site, but a few months ago, we started doing press releases and that’s already coming back.”
He figures that not only are trade journals a good source for press releases, but so too are major metropolitan newspapers, since they all publish home and garden sections and business sections.
Getting your name out into the mainstream and providing first-rate products and service are important factors that lead to word-of-mouth marketing. Word-of-mouth marketing has always been the most personal, and it costs nothing in dollars, time or effort.
In fact, it was through word of mouth that Arto Brick recently came to the attention of Home & Garden Television (HGTV), when those shopping for remodeling components eyed the company’s tiles. Alajian hit a marketing gold mine when his products were featured on two HGTV programs: “Urban Outsiders,” which deals with exterior decoration, and “reDesign,” which showcased a kitchen flooring project.
Assessing the effectiveness of any marketing effort is a key factor in ensuring a company isn’t pouring money into an effort that isn’t reaping benefits. And just as important as it is to be cognizant of what is effective, it’s also important to know what is ineffective.
In determining the effectiveness of Crest Precast’s marketing efforts, Gavin says her company tracks the source of phone inquiries – whether they were generated by the Web site or from print ads, for example.
Lathan continuously assesses the effectiveness of marketing efforts. Hy Grade’s Web site hosts give reports on the number of hits it receives. The Web host also offers a report on how many of the e-mails her company sends out are opened and how many e-mail recipients clicked the link to the company’s Web site. “If those numbers start dropping, then we’ll change something about the way the Web site looks or the opening line of the e-mail,” she says.
Another successful strategy: association involvement. Not only do Hy Grade Precast employees get involved in precast trade associations, but they also affiliate with other trade associations that may offer potential work, such as parks and recreation or landscape artist associations.
And competitors can come together for a good cause. Lathan, for example, points out that she’s seeing the forest as well as the trees: She’s heartened by what she views as more cooperation than competition within the precast industry. “It’s nice for everybody to come together to promote precast as a whole, because in the end it helps everyone,” she says. “I think that definitely is a trend unique to this industry compared with other industries.”
Case in point is the Mid-Atlantic Precast Association, says Lathan. “They have done a superb job of all different types of campaigns, plant tours, project portfolios and tons of lunch box presentations to promote total precast systems throughout the Northeast,” she says. “People are getting the idea you can build an entire building with nothing but precast. A few years ago, it wasn’t even considered.”
Working together for the good of the industry is a distant goal; self-development is a more immediate goal. “Make a good product, deliver it on time at a fair price and don’t be shy about it,” advises Alajian. “Make it, and they will come – and tell them that you make it. I don’t think there is anything simpler than that. People complicate things a lot. Just be part of the vibe in the community.”