Marketing for All Seasons

If you ask kitchen and bath dealers and designers how business is right now, their responses will likely be all over the map.
“Business is great!”

“We are having the worst quarter in years!”

These are real comments from kitchen and bath professionals in different parts of the country, and both are representative of today’s economy. Despite conflicting notions that the economy is great, or awful, or on the verge of recession or boom, your kitchen and bath firm may be seeing business to the contrary. After all, just as there’s no “one-size-fits-all” design, neither do all firms experience the same business conditions at the same time. That’s because a kitchen and bath firm’s business conditions can be impacted by a huge array of factors, only a few of which it is able to control.

Consider some factors beyond your control that affect your business: new construction, housing starts, existing home sales, interest rates and weather conditions.

Now, consider two different kitchen and bath firms located a few miles apart in a community where housing starts and existing home sales are down, interest rates are still favorable and the area has not been hit with floods, fires or hurricanes lately.

Alice’s Kitchens and Baths is in great shape, with projects booked five months out. By contrast, Kitchens by Bill is seriously considering going to work for Alice.

The difference between the two firms can be as simple as their marketing plans.

Let’s say Kitchens by Bill traditionally works with builders and markets directly to them, while Alice’s Kitchens and Baths targets the consumer. This is a key difference, because the conversation at the consumer’s house is likely to be something like this: “We really can’t afford to move, houses in our neighborhood just aren’t selling. Maybe we should stay here and renovate. Besides, I always loved this place; it just needs a new kitchen!”

By contrast, the realtor is quite likely telling the home builder, “They’re just not selling at the price you want. I’d hold off on beginning that new development.”

A few years ago, the conversations were just the opposite. That’s why who your target audience is can have as much to do you with your success as the overall economic climate.

However, even with all the factors you can’t control, there are still some you can: your business model, staffing, location, salesmanship and marketing. Marketing includes defining your audience and how best to reach them, regardless of who they are or the current economic conditions.

Because there is no such thing as a “magic bullet” that will effectively market every kitchen and bath firm, the kitchen and bath professionals who shared their experiences for this article have varying opinions based on what works for them, their business model and target markets.

A Budget and a Plan

Setting your budget and determining a marketing plan is the first step toward putting your firm in the best possible position for success. Despite the economic conditions around you, if you are consistently and effectively marketing yourself, you will make an impression in your market. As your brand permeates, you will become known to your potential customers and they will continue to walk through your door.

Scott Duncan, owner of Duncan’s Creative Kitchens in Bradenton, FL, says, “Our target market is the high-end consumer, and we typically spend 5-7% of sales in marketing to them. While we feel fortunate to get almost two-thirds of our jobs from referrals, we maintain a presence in our local newspaper to keep our name out there.”

Artisan Kitchens & Baths in Buffalo, NY “sets a budget of just over 7%. We have recently hired an agency to help us develop a marketing plan to spend that money more effectively,” states Kevin Telaak, v.p., Artisan Kitchens & Baths.

Traditionally, the first thing business owners do in an economic slump is cut back on marketing and advertising. Marketers and advertisers will tell you not to do that, and with good reason: Maintaining consistency regardless of the economy is key to keeping business flowing.

Ed Cholfin, president of Advanced Kitchens in Marietta, GA, takes the approach of instituting a fixed budget for marketing to maintain consistency. “Typically, we don’t change our marketing or advertising plan to fluctuate with economic conditions. It is important to always drive home your message to your niche market, even in ‘bad’ times.”

Telaak agrees that “marketing budgets should be sacred. We cater to the consumer and generally don’t change our budget based on the economy. Consumers need to be reminded we are here and ready when they are.”

Old Dominion Cabinet Company in Richmond, VA, targets both builders and consumers. Managing partner Linda Buchanan says, “Our budget is set based on a percentage of our sales, and we make adjustments as dictated by economic conditions.

We’ll scale back on things like print ads aimed at the consumer, but we never cut back on anything that would jeopardize our relationships with the builder market. The most effective marketing, in my opinion is building long-term relationships, whether with your clients or your vendors – mutual support and benefits go hand-in-hand.”

According to Duncan, “We will cut our budget somewhat during a slowdown, but we tend to get more creative with the dollars we have. For example, things are a bit slow currently, so we have created a presentation on kitchen design trends that we are offering to civic groups. Our hope is to build brand awareness, while positioning ourselves as the kitchen and bath experts, all at very little cost.”

Buchanan agrees: “One of our most effective marketing tools has been to create and market consumer education programs.”

In Ontario, Canada, Mike Roy operates five Bathworks locations. “We try to keep our marketing budget at 5% in all economic conditions. During slowdowns, however, we will adjust our marketing methods. We look at the media mix and the message – we have been known to change our focus from remodeling to new construction if the economy dictates we should.”

Investing Wisely

Regardless of the approach, everyone is looking for the best return on their investment. That means making wise investments with your marketing dollars, taking into consideration your firm’s greatest strengths, geographic area and client base.
Although the results vary based on countless variables, many professionals feel that an effective Web site is among the best marketing investments they have made.

Peggy Mackowski, CAPS, of Quality Design & Construction in Raleigh, NC, says, “We have a professionally designed and maintained Web site that works incredibly well as a selling tool. Not only do we receive inquiries from potential customers, but we are able to use the site as an interactive tool with our clients to get a better feel for their needs. And, when we have our initial meeting, I feel as though they already know us and are comfortable that we can do the job. It helps move the process along, shortening the selling cycle.”

Cholfin talks about investing in “SEO,” or “search engine optimization.” He explains, “Our Web site has been designed with search engine optimization in mind. That means that, through the words on the page, the titles, the coding behind the site and other ‘tricks of the trade,’ our site comes up fairly high on Google, Yahoo! and other search engines. We get a tremendous number of hits…and we supplement with direct mail.

We find that to be very effective.”

In addition to the Internet, newspaper and other print advertising proved to show a positive return on investments.

“Print [is very successful for us],” says Roy, “especially newspapers. Our weekly ads allow us to show a wide variety of products, reach a large market and provide us the flexibility to make changes on a weekly basis.”

Nicole Jackson from Taylor & Stevens Cabinetry in Pelham, NH, is also a proponent of newspaper advertising.

“Newspapers give us a great return on our investment. It is so important to keep our name in front of people, and the number of jobs we’ve gotten based on the cost makes it a great investment.” Jackson continues, “I would recommend, however, that you vary your medium. Work with other publications, for example, to reach as many people as you can.”

Telaak points to public radio as what he has found to be the best return on investment for Artisan Kitchens and Baths. “On a public radio station you only get maybe 15 seconds to talk about your company. We say who we are, what we do, where we’re located and send the listener to our Web site. We are supporting a station that the listener also supports – making an instant connection with our potential customer. It’s a great way to bond with clients.”

Getting Started

One of the greatest advantages to having a definitive marketing plan is the fact that it offers strong benefits, regardless of the economy. When the economy is strong, it will boost the number of jobs you get and allow you to cherry pick the most profitable ones. When times are less than good, it will keep you in the forefront of consumers’ minds.

Additionally, since many people think about remodeling for months or years before committing to it, the marketing you do now may well pay off for months or years to come.

Getting your marketing program started, according to Kevin Telaak, “begins with deciding how you want to position yourself in the marketplace and focusing all of your efforts to reach that target market.”

Roy suggests that your first step should be “to take the time to research your market, looking at the target base and the factors that influence their buying decisions.”

Cholfin advises, “You must have a message with an offer, and it needs to be clear and concise. It should conform to your unique selling proposition.”

So, a key function of getting started is looking at who you are, what makes your firm unique and how you want your clients to view you. Defining this will help to define not only your consumer base, but your product mix, best marketing avenues and strategy for continued success.

The advice that Scott Duncan provides is “to remain consistent. Decide on the image you want to project and make sure that image is what gets across in your marketing.” He continues, “Be willing to try new marketing venues. Sometimes I will try something that I think will be a great marketing tool and it will fall flat. Other times, an idea that I began only halfheartedly turns into something great.”

Because marketing can be time intensive, in many cases an outside marketing firm may be beneficial. That firm can assist in defining your target market, creating your brand, designing a marketing program, researching and establishing a media plan and fulfilling the whole thing, leaving you to run your kitchen and bath firm.

Duncan says, “I learned that effective marketing is a specialty. I expect people to come to me for my expertise in kitchen design, so why wouldn’t I go to the marketing experts when I am in need? I recently engaged the services of an outside marketing company. It’s too soon to gauge the effectiveness, but based on our discussion, I have high hopes for the future.”
Telaak concurs, “I never realized how much of my time was wasted running our marketing. Now, we do what we do best and our marketing company does what they do best…and we benefit.”

Whether you liken yourself to Alice with business booming, or to Bill wondering where your next project is coming from, take control of your marketing. In a world where so many variables dictate influences upon you, marketing can be all yours. As Linda Buchanan concludes, “Listen for new ideas, but adapt them to your own organization and circumstances.”

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