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Flexing your specs

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Vendors marketing to contractors and construction companies face a tough sell this year, as this target audience continues to struggle with slashed budgets and reduced employee counts.

“There’s talk of a soft recovery in the economy in general, but most of our construction clients would say, ‘What recovery?’ They’re just not seeing it,” said Matt Ferguson, senior partner of the Charlotte, N.C., office of Eric Mower and Associates, a marketing agency with several clients in the construction space.

Matt Sonnhalter, president of marketing agency Sonnhalter, said many construction industry clients cut spending severely—or altogether—last year. “Banks still aren’t lending, especially in the commercial construction market, so contractors aren’t getting as much work and, in turn, they’re not buying as many new tools and products,” he said. “Distributors aren’t stocking as much inventory, so manufacturers aren’t selling as much. It’s a whole trickle-down effect.”

Though popular marketing wisdom holds that a downturn presents an opportunity to gain market share, Sonnhalter said, clients are still reluctant. “At the end of the day, if they’re not selling, they’re not spending [marketing] money.”

Recovery act rolling out slowly

Plus, though the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included funding for infrastructure projects, construction companies aren’t seeing a significant uptick in business yet, Sonnhalter said. (Of the $787 billion to be distributed, $275 billion is allocated for contracts, grants and loans; of that $275 billion, only $109 billion, or 40%, has been paid out so far, according to Recovery.gov, the U.S. government’s official site for the act.) Still, the funding is presenting some opportunities; and, in the meantime, Sonnhalter client Molex Inc., a supplier of electronic interconnects, has tied campaign messaging to the recovery effort with its “Rebuilding America Together” program (see case study, page 27).

The goal for marketers in such an environment, Ferguson said, should be to get in on every bid and to make sure they’re properly differentiated from the competition.

Ferguson recommended that marketers go after specific segments of the industry that are growing—or at least that aren’t doing as badly as other segments. “There’s not a lot of private sector activity out there on the residential and commercial side; but there’s a lot of infrastructure [activity] going on, or at least the promise of some, with the recent stimulus package,”
he said.

For example, to take advantage of opportunities in the alternative energy space, Eric Mower client Nucor Corp. has created ads focusing on the fact that its Vulcraft Group supplies its steel joist and steel deck products to facilities that make equipment for wind turbines, Ferguson said. “It’s about going where the business is,” he said.

Campaigns that communicate how a product or service can help a contractor do more with less, incur a lower total cost or achieve “green” benefits or LEED certification can also be effective, Ferguson said.

Where to reach them

Over the past three to five years, construction industry marketers—like their counterparts in many other verticals—have been shifting their marketing dollars to online vehicles, Sonnhalter said. Still, he noted, traditional media are an important part of an integrated marketing plan. “Print is still one of the most effective ways to generate awareness quickly in a specific vertical,” he said.

As in other industries, online video is popular in the construction vertical, Sonnhalter said, because it allows a marketer to demonstrate product features easily and effectively. Demonstrating products and connecting with customers in person—at smaller distributor events and “lunch-and-learn” seminars, for example—is also very effective with this audience, he said.

Construction industry marketers are also using social media to connect with customers and prospects. Knaack, a provider of jobsite storage equipment, is exploring social media by using Twitter to send out media announcements and YouTube to distribute videos, said Neil Brown, chairman of the Construction Marketing Association, whose partner agency, Construction Marketing Advisors, Naperville, Ill., created an integrated campaign for Knaack. “Clients are moving resources and activities to social media,” he said.

Though social media sites are garnering a lot of headlines these days, Sonnhalter said, marketers should view them only as more tools in the marketing toolbox. “People glom onto social media because it’s a hot topic; but successful marketing campaigns are going to have a blend of different vehicles,” he said.

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