By Kirk Stelsel
In 1896, a young Henry Ford was encouraged by his employer to continue his side work on a gasoline engine-powered vehicle called the Ford Quadricycle. Ford was an employee of the Edison Illuminating Company at the time and the encouragement came from Thomas Edison.
It would be another 12 years before the introduction of the Model T, and to successfully grow his company, Ford, just like Edison and every entrepreneur before and after, had to make many hard, strategic decisions.
As discussed in the previous two parts of this series, a lot of considerations go into diversifying and growing any type of company, including: developing a proper mindset; plenty of internal and external research and assessment; sound and well-planned staff and infrastructure investments; overcoming learning curves through education, advice and experience; an understanding of wants versus needs; and much more.
You’ve surpassed the early hurdles and are now standing at the precipice of growth. If you take the plunge, the work doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s just beginning. No level of research, planning or investment will ensure success without ongoing leadership, training and a focus on quality and efficiency. Lastly, it’s going to take a sustained effort to connect with both prospective and established customers. The best product in the world is doomed to fail if nobody knows about it or how it will benefit them. You need to engage in marketing.
The four P’s of marketing are product, place, price and promotion. The great thing about precast is you already hold a competitive advantage, because it’s built into the product in terms of quality, durability, efficiency, and many other attributes. Your place is defined by where you are located, and your current distribution range – barring a licensing situation – and price are dictated by your costs. Now you just need to project that message out.
At the very core, a customer needs a reliable, money- and time-saving product that meets the unique needs of the project. Your job is to show that product is precast. It sounds easy, but it’s not. If it were, precast would be used nearly every time. Sometimes the specifier has a different product in mind. Sometimes competing materials manufacturers get their marketing message out first. Sometimes your product isn’t even on the radar. Whatever the barrier is, marketing can help overcome it.
The NPCA Marketing Task Force was established in 2012 to help members engage in meaningful and effective marketing and achieve industry-wide recognition of the benefits of precast. The first step was the Marketing Toolkit launched at the NPCA 48th Annual Convention last year. To learn more about the toolkit and how you can get one, visit precast.org/education and click on the “Take a New Look at Precast” icon. The task force will be undertaking additional tactics in the coming months to raise awareness of precast on a national level.
Henry Ford recognized the power of marketing all those years ago by reaching out to newspapers with stories and ads about the Model T and using local dealers to spread the word. As a result, the Model T became synonymous with exploration, reliability, freedom and the American dream.
Now it’s your turn to make your company and products synonymous with whatever attributes you choose. To provide you with some ideas, members of the NPCA marketing task force and their co-workers have shared a few of their thoughts. Our panel includes:
- Greg Stratis, plant manager, Shea Concrete Products, Amesbury, Mass.;
- Greg Roache, president, and Cyndi Glascock, sales coordinator, Gainey’s Concrete Products, Holden, La.;
- Brian Leary, senior vice president, and Shannon Tokarsky, assistant vice president of specifications and marketing, Reading Rock Inc., Cincinnati; and
- Chris Hindley, marketing director, A.L. Patterson, Fairless Hills, Pa.
Q: What does marketing mean to you?
Shea: Marketing means increased company awareness. In order to compete, especially when times are slow, you need to let people know you exist and what services you offer. The payoff is usually not immediate, so it’s an ongoing, never-ending cycle. You must be proactive.
Gainey’s: Marketing is the fuel to your company’s long-term sales growth. You could be the best precaster with the highest quality imaginable and ground-breaking products, but if you don’t tell anyone, what good is it? Marketing helps tell your company’s unique story and sets you apart from the competition.
Reading Rock: Marketing drives our business development team and positions the company properly in the marketplace. It separates your company from the competition and provides you the opportunity to showcase your company in a professional manner.
A.L. Patterson: At the core, marketing is your opportunity to outwardly represent your brand and offering. Without marketing, you are leaving your prospective customers to make their own assumptions on who your company is and how your products perform. These assumptions are often influenced by your competitors and incorrect information in the market. Effective marketing will allow you to establish your company’s identity and build awareness of your products.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face in the marketplace when it comes to marketing your product?
Shea: Budget. Once you have determined a budget, you need to have a plan, review the plan constantly, and implement and measure the results. You can spend almost anything, but spend only what you can afford. If you are unsure or are new to marketing, then start off small. If you get good results you can always increase the budget.
Gainey’s: Concrete products and construction aren’t the most glamorous – we say “sexy” here at Gainey’s – subjects to everyone, so finding new ways to make precast appealing and exciting is what we focus on every day. We focus many times on the people behind the products.
Reading Rock: There are so many vehicles to market companies and products in today’s market. It’s imperative you choose the one(s) that your target audience utilizes. It will vary from architects to specifiers and contractors and end users.
Q: How do you overcome a specifier set on a different product or misinformation about precast products?
Shea: Rather than focusing on what the specifier is using and trying to compete, you should focus on what the specifier needs. What would be the characteristics of the ideal product? What is important to the precaster may not be important to the specifier. Always stand by your product. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be selling it.
Gainey’s: You can’t slander the opposing material, because it only comes across petty and close-minded. Instead, we try using examples and case studies to prove the superiority of precast. Personal visits or workshops often help us. NPCA’s new marketing campaign, where we communicate the features and benefits of NPCA and its member companies, should help greatly in coming years.
Reading Rock: We stick to the facts and provide examples of how our products address known and unknown challenges during design, installation and upkeep after the job is complete. We also reference jobs that had a competitive spec and were flipped to our product – emphasizing what drove the change.
Q: Shea places a fair amount of emphasis, time and money into online efforts. How has that benefitted the company?
Shea: Whenever anyone wants to buy something or research something, the first step is always to go to the Internet. The world has become paperless with the use of laptops, smart phones and tablets. By having a well-organized online presence, Shea Concrete appears in the top rankings online. Therefore we are usually one of the first to be called.
Q: How have you expanded your use of electronic marketing? Do you feel there has been adequate return on investment?
Gainey’s: Mainly, we create and edit our electronic marketing in-house with user-friendly tools such as iMovie, Microsoft Publisher and our new GoPro camera. We know that electronic marketing works, because it never fails to create a buzz when you get a little creative. Also, we discovered that for less than half of the expense of a professional, we could purchase a time-lapse camera (GoPro) and edit the videos ourselves with limited time and energy. We use marketing interns to provide daily energy to these powerful marketing tools.
Q: Reading Rock prides itself on selling aesthetics – color and texture. With such a visual emphasis, how does the company use marketing to sell what it has to offer?
Reading Rock: We utilize the standard product brochure, website and other forms of electronic media. Good photography is essential, and we also focus on showing our product in actual settings.
Q: How has marketing changed over the years, and what tactics do you think precasters should use to have the biggest impact today?
A.L. Patterson: The most significant change is how people acquire information. Customers spend a significant amount of time online searching for what they need, and you want to make sure your company is the one they find. Your website must provide relevant content, represent your company correctly and provide a good user experience. At Patterson, we have spent a great deal of time on this, even giving our customers the ability to order online. Developing a strong web presence is an investment, but it is one that precasters should seriously consider.
Q: What does Shea Concrete do to market the company and its products?
- Keep the website updated and fresh
- Use social media
- Pay per click advertising
- Online videos
- Lunch & Learns
- Plant tours
- Offer classes for some of our product lines
- Place ads in local magazines
- At least four trade shows per year
- Giveaways to customers and engineers
- Maintain a pristine fleet (delivery trucks are our billboards)
- Stencil logos on all our products
- Local radio station ads
Q: What tactics have you found to have the most impact with customers?
Reading Rock: Direct contact, solving their problems/challenges, and showing pictures and case studies of how Reading Rock solved challenges with one or multiple products.
Q: How important are Lunch & Learns in your marketing equation?
Shea: Engineers are always interested in learning. Lunch & Learns are a great way to do this. There is nothing better than being invited to a firm to discuss your company and services, and then during the Lunch & Learn they ask you questions about a project they are working on. That is a home run and it happens every time. You then become a go-to person for any questions they have in the future. I still feel that face-to-face contact is important, even though we have a big presence online. People need to trust you in order to use your product, and it is hard to trust someone you have never met.
Q: Talk about the engineering conference you established and how it has worked so far.
Gainey’s: You can only go see so many people per year, but if you can get them to come to you, then you have a captive audience and can set yourself up as the expert and go-to reference. It has been an amazing marketing tool for us! The conference establishes our credibility and competence, and sets us up as major players in their eyes. We spend time researching what our local engineering community needs and work to fill that void through education and outreach.
IN-HOUSE VERSUS OUTSOURCING
Q: Your company has two people on staff who work on marketing. How have those internal resources helped the company both in good and bad economic times?
Reading Rock: We consider marketing to be part of business development and therefore it’s essential to not lose momentum during down times. The projects and opportunities we support are always in the future. If you cut marketing in the down time it will take you twice as long to recover when the market returns.
Q: What are the benefits of using an agency versus doing the work in-house? How does the relationship work?
Shea: I used to do everything in-house, but I did not have the time to bring it to the next level. I had two options: hire someone or hire an outside firm. I felt that an outside firm would be the best since they usually have multiple people (brains) that could contribute, and they already have the experience in marketing. I use the agency to maintain our online presence, create videos, create trade show booths, create brochures and sometimes create paper ads. The hardest part is having an agency understand the precast industry and our audience. Just like an employee, it takes time to have the agency be able to take on tasks with little input from me. We meet two times per year face to face to go over our marketing plan, to discuss strategies and success. We also communicate almost weekly over the phone and/or email.
MARKETING’S ROLE IN GROWTH
Q: How do you use marketing to open the door?
Reading Rock: Our marketing materials are tiered first at the corporate level showing the breadth of product we offer, then more specific at the division. The corporate message is “products on projects” and “solution providers,” and there are specific product messages. Our long-term goals are to keep the Reading Rock brand known and active in the markets and promote the multiple product solutions we provide. Shorter-term goals evolve around new products, services and territory expansion.
Q: How has marketing played an important role in the evolution of A.L. Patterson?
A.L. Patterson: At Patterson, our offering has grown significantly in the past several years. Marketing has been crucial for building awareness of these products in the industry. Our products are backed by lots of test data and specification, and all of this information needs to be presented and promoted correctly. Similarly, as precasters develop and grow their offering, they need to actively market as well as strategically present the advantages of their solution.
Q: Tell me about the role of the visual identity you have established for Gainey’s Concrete.
Gainey’s: We learned the importance of branding and how precious keeping consistency is within your marketing. We created written guidelines that address all areas of our visual identity including typography, logos, rules and exact colors to be used – and not used – in marketing pieces. No marketing pieces are released until we review and ensure we stay in compliance with our usual identity guidelines. We are proud that our visual identity is representative of our company’s fun culture and commitment to quality. When people see pink, they now think Gainey’s.
Q: Coming from a marketing background, what do you think are the top advantages for precasters who actively engage with marketing?
A.L. Patterson: One of the largest advantages for precasters who spend more time on marketing is brand recognition. Marketing isn’t just your outward effort, it’s also your brand identity and messaging that sits within everything you do. Precasters with more sophisticated marketing have the advantage of consistent messaging and brand. People naturally form opinions based on the brands they see. A well-executed, relevant brand can greatly influence how people perceive your company as a whole.
Kirk Stelsel is NPCA’s director of Communication and Marketing.