Led by a management team packed with engineers, James Hardie was the only manufacturer in the world that maintains an R&D center devoted to fiber cement technology for siding. The resulting products were revolutionary.
Unfortunately American builders couldn't have cared less.
Despite Hardie's running ads throughout the trade press for a half dozen years, sales were stagnant. "We didn't make any appreciable impact on the siding industry," admits Marketing Manager John Dybsky.
The building trade is one where personal relationships matter far more than advertising. So, none of Hardie's competitors had focused much energy on their ads. Their creative wasn't inspirational -- and anyway, copycat campaigns rarely work.
So, the team were forced to look outside of the siding industry for ideas -- and found it from b-to-c campaigns run by Corian and Intel. Why not invest in a campaign targeting the end-consumer? While consumers wouldn't buy siding directly because the builder is the gatekeeper of the account, consumer demand could pressure builders into offering Hardie siding.
What sort of campaign would work best? Management's initial idea was to take the technical info to the consumer -- explain about the fiber cement technology and put a big fat picture of a siding-covered house in every ad.
But the marketing team worried. If you focus on tech specifics, then you open the door to a competitor coming along singing the same song. "What's Corian made of? People don't know. They just know they want the stuff and it's the greatest stuff ever."
How do you convince millions of consumers that your brand is the greatest stuff ever, and they should demand it from their builder? CAMPAIGN
The budget would only go so far -- advertising to every possible homebuyer in America was impossible. So, Hardie's marketing team started with a research effort to pick a specific consumer niche.
Turns out the most influential consumer for Hardie was a 42-year old woman actively seeking to purchase a "step-up" home. It wasn't an audience the mostly male engineers and sales reps had gut-level knowledge about. So before working on creative, they launched a multi-pronged research program.
-> Investigating overarching consumer trends of the future
No one on the team expected the campaign to result in dramatic sales growth overnight. It takes years to grow a consumer brand. So, the brand's key messaging would have to have emotional impact for years to come. To find out what would be hot years from now, they turned to research from Faith Popcorn's Brain Trust.
Dybsky says, "I didn't know Faith Popcorn from a bucket of paint, but the research was brilliant."
Popcorn's research said that home buyers would soon be deeply interested in "neotraditionalism." Women would want to buy new homes that felt slightly historic and filled their soon-to-burgeon need for safety, security, and low maintenance.
However, only 2% of the current homebuyer market was purchasing neotraditional homes. Would Hardie be limiting its sales by advertising to this small group?
"I got a tremendous amount of push-back from management," says Dybsky. "I heard, 'It's too niche, it's too narrow.' We said 'No way. That aging baby boomer may not buy a home with neotraditional front porches, but they will still aspire to it. If we can take a little of it and put it in our siding ads, we'll show those desires manifested through our brand."
-> Proving assumptions by talking directly to consumers
To convince themselves and management the brand direction would be on track, the team hired a market research firm specializing in one-to-one consumer interviews via phone and in-person.
Why not a focus group instead of one-on-one? A group can be dominated by a few members, so you may not get as true a result.
Also, if you're videotaping results to show to management back home, it's a lot more powerful to show consumer after consumer saying the same thing over and over again, than to just show one person saying it and everyone else chiming in with a "me too" or a simple head nod.
The team started with telephone interviews to get a quick lay of the land, then ran in-person interviews, and then doubled-checked results with a final round of telephoning. This combined the power of qualitative and quantitative research somewhat.
-> Checking with builders themselves
The team didn't forget their end-customers during the research process. They asked builders what they thought consumers were looking for, and asked builders how they would feel about a radical new advertising campaign.
Interestingly they found builders' marketplace perception didn't always match reality. So the videotaped interview results were very handy to help soften the ground for the campaign.
"When you have a builder saying, 'My customers will take whatever siding I give them, and you play the tape with consumer after consumer saying 'vinyl siding looks cheap, cheap, cheap,' the builder goes 'Wow.'"
Next the creative team got busy developing both consumer campaigns and new b-to-b campaigns to support them. (Link to samples below.)
-> Key elements of the consumer campaigns
The ads were designed around emotions. Instead of focusing on product features the copy addressed consumers' feelings about the concept of home. Instead of picturing nothing but siding, photos featured people with houses in the background.
The ads felt more like warm and fuzzy wine commercials than ads for siding. Sample headline from Hardie's consumer Web site:
Someday we'll commute across oceans to work,
we'll take our vacations on the moon,
and we'll still love the feeling of coming back home.
"The ads were anything but typical. You see a little girl with her wagon walking down the street from her home.... That took a big leap of faith for us. We struggled to mix the emotional versus the rational message. We continue to struggle," notes Dybsky.
"If you had a pie chart to articulate it, you'd want 50/50 emotional versus rational in an emerging market where they won't understand the promise delivered. It's an 80/20 percentage in a mature market. But, you have to reach out and grab them - there has to be an emotional element regardless of where you are advertising."
The creative team adjusted ads to match geographic regions, because home buyers in different places are used to different types of siding -- stucco, wood, brick, etc. About 20% of the space ad spend was in national media, with 80% going to local to optimize impact.
60% of spend was conducted as a co-marketing campaign with local authorized builders. Initially this was a tough sell -- how do you convince a builder they have to change the way they advertise in their market? Dybsky went on the road to meet with as many builder customers as possible, a practice he continues to this day.
Aside from magazine space ads, Hardie began to sponsor as many dream home contests as possible on both the national (such as HGTV) and regional level (such as Southern Living), hoping that contestants would be in the perfect frame of mind to consider siding options.
Each contest was run differently, but whenever possible, Hardie requested some lead generation as part of the media buy -- such as receiving a list of consumers who'd checked a special box to indicate specific interest. Since Hardie never sells direct, they set up a Web-based system to funnel leads to authorized builders quickly and efficiently.
During the market research stage, the team had noticed whenever a consumer was handed a sample siding chip during an interview, the consumer wanted to hold on to it. "They would become transfixed by the chip," says Dybsky. "So I asked, 'How often do we include a chip with the model kit to help builders sell our products?'" Turns out the company didn't -- so he quickly instituted that change. (Now four years later, sample chips are one of his biggest budget line items.)
Every chip and magazine ad featured both the Web URL and phone number for Hardie Siding.
This was a boldly unorthodox move for a b-to-b company that doesn't sell direct. However, Dybsky felt it was critical because:
o Consumers research major purchases online these days, so you have to make sure your Web matches your offline presence anyway. And if they are going to get to your site, they'll find your phone number and use it.
o Authorized builders would be thrilled to receive even more sales leads.
o Monitoring in-bound calls not only helps you measure campaign impact, but also serves as an ongoing market research effort to supplement knowledge gained from the initial research campaign. So Dybsky's been able to cut back on the consumer research budget.
-> Key elements of the trade b-to-b campaigns
Hardie's new trade ads also included an element of emotion, rather than simply factual information.
Dybsky explains, "The only time you don't need emotion is when you're selling to robots. There's got to be an emotional position in everything. However we have a different brand execution in trade press. It's all about how we make their jobs easier."
As the consumer campaign took off, the ads trumpeted how well-known the Hardie brand was in the marketplace. To make the campaign feel personal, accompanying photos showed siding close-ups, but also included part of a carpenter's body as they presumably installed the siding.
-> Tactics to measure impact
The team rolled out the consumer campaign very carefully one region at a time and invested in measurement every step along the way. "We did a rather extensive, expensive qualified study on what reaction to the initial ad campaign was."
But in the end what really mattered was what the field sales team thought. "Our president got on the phone with the our regional sales manager where the test market was and said, 'I'll give you two options - either lower our price or maintain the ad campaign. The manager said, 'Keep the campaign!'"
James Hardie's siding sales went from 400 million board feet per year in 1997 to 1.8 billion board feet in 2003. Dybsky says catching the right trend helped. "Everything came together in a perfect storm. I just saw an article in a trade magazine that neotraditional homes will be over 55% of the market in 2010."
However, the emotional impact of the ad creative also played a significant role in sales. Hardie saw sales growth and significantly increased builder interest within three-to-six months of the test campaign's launch.
And, just two years after launch a Sunset Magazine tracking study ranked James Hardie ads being the third most effective ads the magazine carried (only ads from Dodge Cars & Trucks and Land Rover Discovery has greater impact.)
In 1998, only 7% of builders chose James Hardie over its entrenched competitors such as Alcoa and Georgia-Pacific. By the end of 2002, Hardie had the largest slice of marketshare at 28%.
Could marketers from other tech-driven companies copy this success? Dybsky says getting buy-in from your management team is critical. "I give all credit to my senior management to allow us to break out of the mold and to take a long-term perspective on things."
It's not enough to have the most technically advanced product on the marketplace, you have to have the most powerful marketing campaign too.Useful links related to this article:
Creative samples of both Hardie's b-to-b and b-to-c campaigns
Sawyer Riley Compton - Hardie's ad agency who led the research, creative execution, and media planning for both b-to-b and b-to-c campaigns in all media:
Faith Popcorn's Brain Reserve
Deep Blue Insights - the market research firm that moderated focus groups and consumer interviews for Hardie
BuilderOnline -- the trade site that handles Hardie's lead management backend getting leads to builders