The Do-It-Yourselfers Are Back in the Market, Ready to Be Inspired

Attachment to Home Endures, and Ads Can Appeal to That Emotional Connection

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Remember when home improvement was everywhere? Then came the crash. Almost overnight, home values plummeted and foreclosures soared.

For millions of American homeowners who had borrowed heavily to overhaul a kitchen or bathroom or add a room, the drop in real estate prices and home sales was frightening. Marketers watched their home-related products sit on store shelves as the idea of investing in upgrading a home looked like the worst way to spend a tight family budget.

Many pundits have concluded that the days of home investment and improvement are over, with owners happy just to maintain whatever value is left. But the reality is that no housing bust, no matter how severe, can break the bond that Americans have with their homes. Owning a home has been a part of the American ethos at least since the Homestead Act of 1862, through the creation of the 30-year fixed mortgage under Franklin D. Roosevelt to the postwar development of Levittown. 

A recent survey that our firm conducted for the Meredith Corp. showed that 85% of all owners agree that , despite the downturn in the U.S. housing market, owning a home is still one of their proudest accomplishments. And more than two-thirds of nonowners agree that owning is one of their important goals. This intensity cuts across generations, from baby boomers to millennials. More than three-fourths of each age group agree that a home not only has powerful emotional appeal but also is a good investment.

What does this mean for marketers? We can expect the freeze to start melting on the home-improvement marketplace. Our study for Meredith found that 40% of consumers plan to spend at least $500 over the next six months on projects such as decorating, painting and gardening that they said "offer me affordable ways of getting emotional satisfaction from renovating and remodeling."

Clearly, to get consumers to spend on home-improvement products, campaigns must focus on the personal value of a house as a residence rather than on its financial value as an item in an asset portfolio. 

Consumers will respond to marketers -- whether a major home-supply retailer or a shop on Main Street -- that speak to them about why they are choosing a certain paint color, about what it means to them. Are they looking for something that reminds them of a vacation they once took or of their favorite room as a child? 

Social media can be a key tool, as it enables users to let others know why they liked a product and to share experiences with friends and family. This conversation is driving the new do-it-yourself marketplace. Marketers must sell inspiration, not simply materials. The Home Depot Facebook page, which has nearly 500,000 followers, focuses on helpful hints and tools. Featuring entertaining video and photography, the Facebook page sparks conversations that get shared and discussed.

Other marketers are receiving the message. ACE, for example, recently introduced a product line that combines primer and paint in one can. ACE wasn't first, but its marketing of the affordable products under the Clark & Kensington brand evokes images of warmth, friendship and families enjoying time together. ACE smartly chose evocative color names, such as "Waterview" and "City Nights."

Radio Shack, Sears, Home Depot and Walmart Stores stores have begun emphasizing how consumers can make their homes reflect of what matters in their lives -- whether it's raising a family or entertaining.

Digital offerings at Moen, known for faucets and fixtures, include suggestions for using paint and other decoration in bathrooms and kitchens to create a unique look. Potential changes can be shared to get feedback from friends and family before you step into a showroom or pick up a brush.

Though smaller home projects may seem to lack suitable payback for major retailers, the new DIY marketplace is the place to be. Marketers willing to listen to such consumers and provide solutions that recognize their emotional bond with their homes will find ample opportunities.

J. Walker Smith is executive chairman of the Futures Company.
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