Big Ass Fans Keeps Its Cool as It Moves Into Consumer Market

Q&A With CMO Al Barlow on Taking a Page From Nose-Tissue Marketing and Why That Name Isn't as Silly as It Sounds

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He used to market Puffs Plus. Now he's marketing Big Ass Fans.

Al Barlow
Al Barlow
Such is the adaptability of Al Barlow, chief marketing officer of the Lexington, Ky.-based industrial-size, 100% U.S.-made ceiling-fan manufacturer. And if overseeing marketing for a company with such a provocative moniker (and donkey logo and mascot named Fanny to boot) didn't make his life interesting enough, he's now overseeing the company's new push to sell to consumers.

It's familiar territory for the Procter & Gamble alum, who held marketing management roles there as well as at Kohler and American Tool prior to joining Big Ass Fans a couple of years ago.

In fact, he's taking a page from his P&G days as he crafts efforts to sell the $3,000 fans directly to individuals seeking to cool their homes. "Obviously P&G has always done a very good job of listening to its customer, and that's something anyone could learn and apply. You need to understand what their unmet needs are, and the way to do that is to talk to them, incessantly. And that's what we do, and I've pushed that here at Big Ass Fans."

Now about that name. Back in 1999, selling in the industrial market, it existed as HVLS Fan Co. -- short for "high volume, low speed." Then a funny thing happened to CEO Carey Smith. Out on sales calls with commercial clients, he repeatedly heard prospective customers say, "Man, that's a big-ass fan."

"He said, 'You know, our customers are naming our company for us. Let's just call it the Big Ass Fan company,'" Mr. Barlow explains, adding that in 2002, the company sent out one of the first mailers under the new name, and a post office in southern Kentucky or northern Tennessee refused to process the mail. "That's how Carey knew, 'That's it, that's the name.' That convinced him we made the right choice.

"Certainly we had our share of people who don't like our name, but the majority like the name and get the humor in it, and it's obviously a term that's used to call something very large," Mr. Barlow said. "Most people get the humor in it, even churches. We're in a lot of churches around the country. Some have asked us to take the name off of it, but most haven't."

The company, which made more than $50 million this year, up 40% from last year, works with Black & White, in Louisville, Ky., for creative, but also handles much of its creative in-house. Gotham, New York, handles media.

It launched its residential fan in May and is currently in the middle of its Australian launch. Mr. Barlow chatted with Ad Age recently about the challenges and opportunities of moving into the consumer market, the weight of "American made," and why that silly name is serious business.

Ad Age: Why did you go residential, selling directly to consumers?

Mr. Barlow: We've been somewhat pulled into that space from the very beginning but we really didn't have products that were appropriate for someone's house. We started getting more requests from consumers asking us for fans like the ones they see in [restaurants and other commercial buildings]. So we said, "You know what? Let's give it a shot. Let's make an effort in this, let's do it right." We picked national newspapers, large regional newspapers and magazines to explain the product. People need to understand this is not like your grandmother's fan.

Ad Age: What have sales been in the residential market?

Mr. Barlow: They've been more than successful for us. It's gone from zero to close to 5% or 6% of our total sales, which we're very happy with. People buying this product are buying essentially the same product we'd put into a restaurant or church. We do a good job of listening to our customers. That's no different than the great consumer companies of the world.

Ad Age: How are you talking to them?

Mr. Barlow: We have a fairly active Facebook and Twitter account. Magazines such as Elle Decor, Garden and Gun -- that has done very well for us -- down to Texas Monthly, New York Times, USA Today, have been very good for us.

Ad Age: No TV?

Mr. Barlow: Not yet. We've looked at it. One of the things we've learned about this fan is that when people walk underneath the fan, they get it. That's it, you're done. Just telling them about it isn't as effective. That's why we've shied away from radio. If people can't see, they don't get it. TV might help, but until we get some "feelavision," it's not as effective as actually seeing one in person. So that leads us to make sure we have locations where people can actually experience it in a commercial setting. That doesn't stop us from trying to educate consumers about it through advertising.

Ad Age: Why don't you sell at retail? Like at Home Depot?

Mr. Barlow: Hunter and Emerson have a pretty good hold in that world and we don't have a fan that can go into an eight-foot-high ceiling. The upper end of the market is more lighting stores, and that's where we think there's an opportunity for us. Our products are roughly 10 times the cost of fans sold in Home Depot and Lowe's. Right now they probably aren't interested in them because the velocity and size probably isn't as attractive to them -- it'd be difficult for them to devote enough space to our fans to make it worth it for them.

Ad Age: What weight does "American made" have these days?

Mr. Barlow: What we find is it's a deal-breaker in our favor. If people are on the fence as to whether or not to get it, once they find out this is made in the U.S., that puts them over the edge. Is it a main driver? No, but it is more important than you'd think. Our owner thinks that as long as we can find the quality and type of assemblies we need, we will continue to make it in the United States.

As people are more aware of the tenuousness of manufacturing jobs and things like that, I think it has come more to the forefront. At the same time, people need to be able to afford things. If we can make it here, we should make it here. It's up to us as manufacturers to make it affordable.

Ad Age: What is your main competition?

Mr. Barlow: We really don't have competition. If anything, it's share of wallet. The people who are buying our fans are homes with larger spaces, like larger great rooms or those that have a patio, so there really isn't any competition in that space.

Ad Age: Might you go smaller?

Mr. Barlow: That's an option for us. There's a limit to where this technology can go. We're working on it. That's on our radar.

Ad Age: How has the recession changed business?

Mr. Barlow: We had a little impact in 2009, a single-digit reduction in our sales. But we're going to be up around high double-digit growth this year across all categories. It has probably kept us from growing as fast as we would like to grow in the residential business, but going from zero to where we are -- there's no way of measuring what that impact might have been. But we're not cutting back on marketing.

When our sales were slowing down last year, we increased our marketing spend in the double digits from where it was the previous year. We don't believe in being timid when things aren't going as well as you'd want them to go.

[In marketing during a recession,] essentially what you're doing is laying the pipe without turning the water on. We're now spraying the water on the lawn when everyone else is digging the hole, and we do believe that has helped us this year.

Ad Age: What was it about the name's irreverence that made sense?

Mr. Barlow: If we were selling [something] that wasn't delivering on the promise, this would have died a long time ago. We know that with a somewhat sly name you've got to have a serious product. You've still got to have fun in your life and with your product, but delivering on the promise of the product is key.

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