Why bother selling to architects?

Should I continue advertising to and calling on architects? My products have gradually become commodity items and aren’t very different from my competitors’. So even when architects specify my brand, they usually accept any substitutions contractors propose. Wouldn’t I be better off targeting contractors and dealers, the people who really make the buying decisions?–F. O., general manager

Generally, your sales and promotional efforts should concentrate on reaching those most likely to benefit from your product’s unique features or sales propositions. Promote special performance characteristics, for example, to building owners or the architects who represent their interests. Promote installation advantages to contractors and installers. If your product is essentially similar to your competitors’, you must make it attractive to dealers and contractors by offering favorable pricing, availability, terms, packaging, promotion, and service. But even in this instance, you may still be justified in directing some of your marketing attention toward specifiers.

Even with commodity products, getting specified does increase your product’s likelihood of being used on a job. Being named in the specification helps to grease the product submittal path. Contractors try to follow the path of least resistance while doing a job. If a Heckmann wall tie is specified, it is usually easier to call Heckmann for a price than to figure out who else makes a similar product. Even if the contractor knows of an acceptable alternative product, the potential that the substitution may require extra administrative effort will get factored into the contractor’s view of the substitute’s cost advantage.

Most contractors also figure in the extra risk they assume by using a substitution. Overall, there are fewer problems when the job is built using specified products. And if the contractor uses a substitution, he assumes some of the designer’s liability for ensuring the product is fit for its intended application.

Also, consider the alternative: Would you be concerned if your brand name was replaced by a competitor’s brand in construction specifications?

Brand name awareness
It may be frustrating when specifiers name your brand even though they obviously have no intention of rejecting substitutions. Architects often do this when a brand becomes a convenient synonym for a product type. But that doesn’t mean being specified has no value.

A trademark like Dryvit, for example, is easier to use and possibly more recognized than the generic term, “exterior insulation and finish system.” Hilti is simpler to say than “powder-actuated fasteners.” Though they must guard their intellectual property rights to their brands, I suspect that Dryvit and Hilti are delighted whenever their names appear in a specification. For even if your brand is used as a generic term rather than a specification, your name is still in front of contractors and distributors who make the purchasing decisions.

One building product manufacturer I know calls specifications the best form of advertising he can get. Inclusion in a specification is a form of testimonial, reinforcing your image as a leader in your product category and implying that the design community has confidence in your product.

Beyond the link between specifications and sales, there are other strategic reasons for marketing to architects. What is the real nature of your business? Does your long-term success, for example, depend solely on how many units you sell? Or do building and maintaining market access and brand identity also contribute? At some point, most businesses replace existing products with new ones. New performance features may require missionary work to convert specifiers. Product introductions will be easier if you already have an established presence in the specifier’s office.

There are other long-term reasons to maintain marketing contact with architects. Dealing only with contractors and distributors may isolate you and prevent you from recognizing design trends that may be important to your product’s future.

Sometimes, promoting to specifiers may be the only remaining cost-effective way to grow your business. For example, if you already have the lion’s share of sales among contractors, each new customer you pick up costs marginally more than your existing customers. But promoting your overall product category to specifiers can increase the overall demand for your product type.

An example of this is the concrete block manufacturer who sold more than his local competitors. The cost of winning over additional masonry contractors and building materials dealers reached a point of diminishing returns. So the firm initiated a marketing program to persuade architects and engineers to use concrete masonry instead of wood framing and other building materials. While its competitors also benefitted from the firm’s investment, the firm gained most from the rising tide because of its dominant position in the market.

Such advertising can also make your firm more valuable to your distributors. What would it do to your dealer relations if your specifier advertising generated attractive leads that you passed along to them?

Reality check
Consider this when deciding whether or not to pitch to architects: Can you afford to overlook any part of your marketing environment? In industrial sales, you wouldn’t ignore engineering or operations just because the purchasing department signs the order.

Though working with specifiers is sometimes frustrating, they do influence what products get purchased. They play a crucial role in negotiated work, often deciding who gets invited to the table. Design projects often move quickly, and contracts may be awarded before news of the job hits the street. By keeping in touch with specifiers, you can often have a job in the bag before your competitors even know it’s out there.

An established relationship with a specifier also can lead to more cooperative attitudes when problems arise on a job. Specifiers are in business for the long haul and can generate repeat business for the vendors who service them well.

You complain that architects don’t enforce their specifications, but are you presenting your features and benefits in a way that would motivate specifiers? A plastering accessory manufacturer I am currently working with initially claimed that its product was pretty much like the competitor’s. But we have been able to identify a long list of unique characteristics that may be attractive to specifiers. Getting these characteristics written into the specs will go a long way toward leveling the playing field by pressuring competitors to match product features and costs.

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By Michael Chusid
Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, Copyright © 1993