Marketing: my favorite topic! I was a marketing major in college, and I started my business career as an entry-level marketing person for a building products company. The rest is history.

My very first marketing professor, a retired Procter & Gamble exec, asked us on the first day of class to define the word “marketing.” Everyone gave it their best shot. Most defined it as some form of advertising/sales/public relations and the like, but no one defined it quite the way Dr. Dillion envisioned it.

His definition may not be found in a textbook, but this is what he said: “Marketing entails everything you do in business from the time a product is produced through the time you make a sale.”

Sounds simple enough…or so I thought.

What lies in between manufacturing and the sale? Just about everything (except accounting). How you package your product; how you answer your phone; your logo; font styles; your letterhead; business signage; business cards; literature; displays; samples; merchandising materials; price lists; website; social media strategy; direct mail; company tagline; product positioning strategy; brand awareness strategy; market research; truck graphics; building signage; and how you portray your company, just to name a few.

With hardwood flooring, like most every other business, how you go to market and position your product line will make you or break you. The best products in the world don’t sell themselves. And unfortunately, some not-so-great products seem to fare quite well almost solely as a result of great marketing.

First and foremost, hardwood flooring is a visual, fashion-oriented product. The buyer wants to see not only what the product looks like, but what it looks like in a particular room scene. And when you make pre-finished flooring, watch out: there are so many colors and fashion issues involved, success depends greatly on your marketing strategy. So my best advice is to start with a marketing plan! It should be no longer than a 3-year plan, with major emphasis on the first year. You will always be able to revise your plan to make adjustments for market and economic conditions as you continue executing.

First thing out of the gate, set three to five marketing objectives with respective annual marketing budgets. This would be the big picture stuff. For example:
  1. Increase market share by three percentage points within two years, and five points by the end of the third year.
  2. For a manufacturer, add six new product offerings, three in solids and three in engineered. Simultaneously, drop low-selling or non-profitable products or brands. For a distributor, add one new major product line each year for the next three years, and drop the least profitable line(s).
  3. Add six new distributors each year for the next three years, or add five new builder accounts each year for the next three years (manufacturer and distributor, respectively).

Notice that the common elements for your key objectives are that they be quantified in some manner and have a specific time frame to complete execution.

Once you complete your key objectives the next step is to develop marketing strategies to achieve each objective.  Usually it will take several strategies to meet each objective. For example:

1. Marketing Strategies to Achieve Objective No. 1 (above):
  • Add three outside sale representatives, one per year for three years.
  • Hire a new advertising agency to refocus and re-direct our overall marketing activities to help us achieve our objectives.
  • Introduce a new Dealer Display program complete with new dealer incentives and performance based available co-op funds.
Then repeat this process to developing marketing strategies for objectives No. 2 and No. 3.

The third section of the marketing plan involves establishing programs and schedules to execute each strategy. This is where the creativity and budgetary factors really kick in. It’s important to have an ambitious plan, but it’s even more critical that your marketing programs and time frames are set within your realistic budgetary capabilities.

Companies usually fail when they either don’t set aggressive marketing strategies when they can afford to do so, or they set unrealistic goals that simply are beyond their financial and physical reach. The following are some hypothetical examples of programs and schedules that will execute the marketing strategies set forth above to meet Objective No. 1:

To Achieve Strategy “a”:
  1. Place an ad in trade journals or online (or hire a recruiter) to find an outside sales rep for the Southeast territory by June 30. Hire a second rep in the third quarter and the third one by the end of the year.
  2. Marketing manager will interview three capable ad agencies over the course of the next 45 days. The new agency is to be onboard in two months, and will present marketing and advertising programs as per plan within 60 days after coming onboard.
  3. The agency is to direct development of dealer display program. Designs and costs will be presented by the third quarter.
  4. A new co-op program will be developed to coincide with the introduction of a new display program. The agency is to assist in this project and quantify costs. The most exciting part of marketing hardwood flooring is to “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” It is so easy to romanticize the product line in all of your merchandising activities. But I am amazed how so many companies in this industry are so “industrial strength” in their marketing efforts.

    It’s important to not lose sight of who your customer is and what will make them buy your product. Decorators, designers, builders, architects, and discerning homeowners are the ultimate decision makers, and they are very visual in their decision making process. Of course you have to provide the specs, warranty information, disclaimers, and other specific details. But that stuff belongs on the back pages of brochures or on the flipside of a tote board.

    Marketing is an all-encompassing art and a science. It takes a lot of thought, planning, creativity, and strategic thinking to do it right. The most successful companies in the hardwood flooring industry got to where they are by out-marketing their competition.

    So take a long hard look at your marketing programs and ask yourself if you are doing the best job you can to make the customer want to buy your product. There is no better time than today to create a new or improved marketing plan and set sail on a new course to growth and success.