Marketing Smarts

Experts say marketing during a down economy is a necessity. Keeping your name out there helps your customers know you’re still in business, while so many of your peers are gone. It places you on an empty stage, so to speak. And time and time again, marketing has been proven to increase market share.

However, you have to wonder if the experts are subject to the same cash flow and budget constraints kitchen and bath professionals have experienced during the last 18 months. Intellectually, we may know they are correct, but when it comes down to paying rent for the showroom, health insurance premiums or marketing – guess what almost always gets cut first?

But, marketing no longer has to be the first line item on the chopping block. Today’s kitchen and bath professional has marketing opportunities that were unavailable during the last recession, or even two or three years ago. Online marketing, coupled with traditional advertising and the ability to reach your target market with laser precision, have provided cost-effective solutions that have helped some showrooms thrive over the last 18 months or so.

Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, owner of A Kitchen That Works in Bainbridge Island, WA, actually increased her marketing four-fold during the past year. “During the year I focused my marketing efforts on launching a new Web site, including an investment in Search Engine Optimization, along with publishing articles in our local home and garden magazine. Both of these are what I consider ‘pipeline’ media – they don’t bring people to my door like a product promotion, but they promote my business, add to my credibility and accounted for landing multiple 4th quarter [2009] contracts.”

Jim Deen, president of Kitchen Kraft in Columbus, OH continued to market throughout the down economy, but at a dramatically reduced rate. “Prior to the recession, we regularly spent about 6% of our gross sales on marketing, mostly on TV and radio. Last year we spent less money, refocused and turned to our client base and pushed referrals. We found that the staples – such as direct mail and ‘call to action’ newspaper advertising promoting manufacturers’ specials – were the most effective for us.”

Sawhill Custom Kitchens & Designs in Minneapolis, MN also focuses on referrals. According to president and co-owner Tim Aden, CMKBD, “Referrals are the main source of our client base, but we don’t just assume the referrals will appear at our door – we specifically market to them. Twice each year we send out full-color traditional [paper] newsletters to past clients, we blanket neighborhoods in which we want to prospect and anyone who has visited our showroom gets a copy. Each newsletter costs us about $5,000 from start to finish, and while I can’t tell you we have gotten a specific project as a result, each time we mail them, we have past clients calling about new projects. Let’s just say we are not willing to stop the process.”

Aden also points out that the firm markets through showroom events such as progressive wine and food pairing tours for consumers and designers. “Creating events that bring our clients as well as other allied professionals’ clients to our showroom is a win-win-win for everyone.”

In addition to the referral market, a large portion of the Sawhill marketing budget is spent on showroom seminars. Lead designer Sarah Michalowski, CKD is the point person for the seminars. “Many showrooms hold seminars strictly for the consumer; our approach is a “Lunch and Learn” program for interior designers and other allied professionals. These have generated new working relationships and jobs we would have never known about. So far, they have paid for themselves.”

McCabe conducts seminars, as well. “I taught a class on sustainable entertaining that was well attended. It gave me the opportunity to meet with potential clients, many of whom I maintain contact with throughout the year.”

As an adjunct to more traditional forms of advertising, many kitchen and bath professionals have been quickly adapting online social marketing as a way to promote themselves. Facebook and LinkedIn seem to be the platforms of choice. According to the Web site Inside Facebook (www.insidefacebook.com), an independent service dedicated to providing news and market research to the Facebook platform and social gaming ecosystem, the fastest growing segment of the population to join Facebook is women 55+. In addition, over the last four months, Facebook has grown over 165% among both men and women ages 45-54.

Christine Ellis, AKBD, manager/designer at Colorado Kitchen Designs in Denver, CO puts the bulk of her firm’s marketing squarely on the Internet. “We’re using free forms of advertising such as Facebook and LinkedIn. I am mobile, so I have the flexibility to access both our Facebook and LinkedIn pages at any time and I make it a point to update every couple of days. I add photos on a regular basis, and although I cannot point to a sale yet, in the few months we have been aggressively using Facebook, I am averaging one or two prospects per day.”

“In addition to our page, we are advertising on Facebook,” adds Ellis. “It is very inexpensive. We spend sixty cents for each click-through, or about $3 a day, plus we can control our spending in real time.”

McCabe adds, “Although I can’t tie an individual sale to Facebook or LinkedIn, I participate in LinkedIn discussions that have led to requests for interviews as well as for submissions to a variety of magazines, and that again adds to my credibility, enhancing my value to potential clients.”

Kevin Telaak, v.p. at Artisan Kitchens and Baths in Buffalo, NY has been using Facebook aggressively for about eight months. “Our Facebook page is a supplement to our overall marketing strategy. It is something we can control in house. We can add new projects and make instant changes without relying on our webmaster, we can offer exclusive specials and events to our fans and we emphasis the ‘social’ aspect, making our fans feel a part of the Artisan team. We have close to 800 fans, and recruit them through our TV commercials and other more traditional media we use.”

In addition to social networking, some kitchen and bath professionals are turning to Google’s AdWords to drive traffic to their Web sites. Linda Gridley, president of Gridley Company with locations in Soquel and Campbell, CA, has been using AdWords for the past six months. “We have definitely gotten some business from our AdWords campaigns, but just as important, AdWords typically doubles the number of hits to our Web site. And, I am comfortable that our site does a good job selling the company. Getting traffic is half the battle – if AdWords can fight that battle, we’re in better shape.”

Hillsborough, NJ-based Royal Cabinet Company owner Paul McDonald adds, “AdWords is a great program. We have employed it for a couple of years now. It allows me to control my marketing budget in real time and drives traffic to my site. However, don’t expect an AdWords campaign to drive sales directly, as though you are selling widgets. We’ve tried numerous incentives, promotions and exclusive landing page programs created to stimulate direct sales, to no avail. But AdWords will drive traffic to your site. Invest in making your Web site the best it can be and let it sell your services.”

Search Engine Optimization, or making sure your Web site is more easily catalogued and found by Google and other search engines during a query, returning you near the top of the list of results, is another marketing investment the industry is embracing.

“Because Search Engine Optimization is an ever-changing and confusing specialty, we outsource this form of marketing,” says Deen. “It’s time consuming and not something we specialize in, so our IT company handles it for us. I know that we can associate about $150k in sales to online searches compared to a minimal investment, so it is a marketing expense worth keeping.”

According to Gridley, “I understand enough about SEO to know that Google ranking is very competitive, with ever-changing rules, and to be competitive, we need to stay on top of it. We hired a consultant to help us. I would like to see faster and better results, but our Google ranking has gone from a two to a three, and people are finding us, so something is working.”

In addition to focusing on the Internet for low-cost marketing, the industry has reverted back to tried-and-true marketing venues, including direct mail, manufacturer incentives, yard signs and personal interactions.

Aden says, “My partner Sue still sends hand-written notes in Thanksgiving cards, and usually receives half a dozen phone calls in direct response. The Internet is great, but nothing takes the place of the personal touch – in fact, one client was so impressed that Sue had taken the time to write a note and actually remembered her project from 15 years ago that it resulted in another project!”

Amanda Harolds, AKBD, of Oklahoma City agrees with the old fashioned approach with a personal touch. “After a project is completed, I send the client a hand-written ‘thank you’ letter. It only costs a stamp and a few minutes of time, and the return is typically a good referral. One satisfied residential client referred three of her friends to our showroom in one year!”

She continues, “The fax machine, believe it or not, is still a viable marketing and communications tool. We work with a number of builders and fax our sales announcements to them. I can fax about 100 builders in an hour and typically get at least one sale.”

“Yard signs are still great,” says Deen. “You’re in the neighborhood; the neighbors see your sign day in and day out, you will make an impression. When the neighbor is ready to begin a project, he’s going to think of you first.”
Deen adds, “We still participate in home shows, too. There are five throughout the year in the Columbus area, and we are at them all. For an investment of about $15k, those shows account for close to one million dollars in sales. It may be old fashioned, but they are just a great way to meet and greet your clients face to face while they are shopping for your services.”

Ellis has made a special effort to network with the HBA and Remodelers Council. “Our name is becoming known by the other members, many of whom now turn to us for cabinetry. A smile and handshake still create the bond that the Internet can’t duplicate – yet. However, I love the Internet marketing sites, too. Remember, our next generation of consumers is all about Twitter, blogs, Facebook and YouTube – so in addition to traditional marketing, we need to be prepared to keep up or retire. I feel like the choice is ours.”

The marketing concepts that are working run the gamut from the tried-and-true to the latest and greatest. But the most successful kitchen and bath professionals are those who remain true to marketing their businesses, put an innovative twist on their programs, embrace the newest online tools and are willing to take chances.

McDonald notes, “As soon as the financial crisis hit in late 2008, we put all of our traditional advertising on hold – which had been a very successful image campaign. With fewer dollars to spend, we reallocated the remaining budget to the Web, feeling that serious prospects would still find us there as they researched cabinets for their projects. For the time being, the days of image advertising are over, and we need to be where the serious shoppers are – and I believe that’s the Web.”

Artisan Kitchens & Baths’ Telaak took a similar approach. “As the recession hit, we changed our message and advertising from what I would call generic image, to place greater focus on who we are and what we do. People always thought of us as the high-end showroom – and that was fine back in the day, but we needed to redefine ourselves as high quality, yet able to work within the client’s budget. We have not cut our marketing budget, but we have changed our message and we have embraced social networking to help make us more accessible to everyone. I would encourage my peers to maintain their marketing budgets as best they can, but review their messaging – and most of all, get creative with how you spend those marketing dollars!”

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