Snap-on's magazine a custom fit

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Snap-on, the Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based tool manufacturer, uses a distribution system that resembles the old-fashioned methods of the milkman. Perhaps it's fitting then that Snap-on is using the traditional medium of print to communicate with the auto, truck and aircraft mechanics that make up its customer base.

Snap-on last month debuted a quarterly custom publication called Tech. The company's more than 4,000 dealers will hand deliver the free publication, which is produced with the help of High Velocity in Racine, Wis., to 1 million mechanics.

"It's so nice to do something for them [Snap-on's customers] without having them open their wallets," said Chris Pfaus, the company's VP-marketing. "It's another way to get very close to our customer, the technician."

Snap-on's marketing proposition is built around its dealers, who pay regular visits to garages in their territory with Snap-on vans full of goods ranging from spark plugs to wrenches to sophisticated diagnostic equipment. In their book, "Radical Marketing," authors Sam Hill and Glenn Rifkin described Snap-on's marketing approach this way: "Since its founding in 1920 in Milwaukee, Snap-on has followed a simple two-pronged strategy: Make the very best quality tools, and make them as accessible to the customer as possible."

Pfaus said he believes the custom publication can deepen the relationship between the dealers and their mechanic customers. He said it's an extension of the natural conversations between dealers and mechanics that extend well beyond tools. Tech doesn't discuss the benefits of Snap-on tools; it's a lifestyle publication.

More than tools

"Our dealers visit customers every week, and there is more to the relationship than tools," Pfaus said. "Dealers and customers talk about family, vacations, hunting, fishing, NASCAR, hot rods-even financial planning and career development."

The first issue of Tech includes:

  • A journal-style story of a motorcycle trip in British Columbia.
  • Outdoorsman Joe Bucher's advice on catching spring bass.
  • A look at the Snap-on chopper motorcycle built on Discovery Channel's "American Chopper" program.
  • A tour of Richard Childress' RCR racing shops and an examination of how he builds his NASCAR Nextel Cup cars.

The idea of supporting a distribution network with a custom publication is not new. Rex Hammock, chairman of Nashville-based Hammock Publishing, a media company specializing in custom publications, said Moline, Ill.-based Deere & Co. started publishing The Furrow, a custom lifestyle publication aimed at farmers, beginning in the 19th century.

The magazine still exists and, like Snap-on's Tech, The Furrow is distributed through dealers. "What is old is new again," Hammock said.

Tech accepts advertising. Marketers appearing in the first issue include Georgia Boots and Diamond Cut Jeans. Pfaus said he hopes that Tech can attract enough advertising to pay for itself. "We want this to be a self-liquidating proposition," he said.

The goal is to avoid siphoning off dollars from Snap-on's other marketing efforts. The company advertises its wares in trade publications such as Advanstar Communications' Motor Age. It also is an associate sponsor of racing teams, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. in NASCAR, and also backs teams in drag racing, Indy racing and champ car.

"All forms of racing use our tools, and we try to back different manufacturers like Toyota, Ford, Dodge," Pfaus said.

Snap-on is part of a growing trend of marketers' embracing custom publications. Corporate spending on custom publications totaled $35.5 billion in 2004, a 17% increase over 2003, according to the Custom Publishing Council.

Pitney Bowes' `Priority'

Jane Ottenberg is VP-membership at the council and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Magazine Group, a custom publishing house that began producing a magazine for Stamford, Conn.-based Pitney Bowes in 2003. The magazine, called Priority, goes to 750,000 small-business owners. Its editorial focuses on strategies for running a successful company.

Associations, too, produce custom publications. Chicago-based Imagination Publishing began publishing Forward, a magazine for the Metals Service Center Institute, last year. The bimonthly is designed to be a thought leadership magazine for the sector; its first issue included a long piece on trading with China.

As with Tech, the strategy for Priority and Forward, is to build relationships rather than generate leads and sell more products, at least in the short term.

"Custom magazines should, first and foremost, solidify your relationship with your customers, and secondarily be designed to make money, instead of the reverse," Ottenberg said.

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