Measure your market in metrics

This is an encore of an article Michael Chusid wrote 20 years ago. At the time, many assumed the US would make a complete transition to metric. It hasn't happened. However Federal government projects are designed and built in metric, and US firms working overseas have had to become proficient in SI. 

Lead the way in the conversion effort and customers will follow you.

The current move toward metrics adds a new dimension to construction product marketing. Many manufacturers already have integrated metrics into their operations, while others see conversion as a stumbling block. Successful marketers will not only adjust, but will use the transition to create new competitive advantages.

Metrication will immediately benefit firms who are expanding into international markets. A uniform system of measurement will allow those firms to move toward more consistent products, packaging, and standards worldwide.

International trade, however, is just one area in which marketers can capitalize on metrics. Opportunities lie in areas ranging from customer relations to product positioning.

Pave the way
By being the first in your product category to embrace metric, your firm gains a "first- mover" advantage. If you strongly link your products with metric, customers will continue to bring you their metric requirements even after other players have entered the game.

Being the first mover does, however, entail added costs. Some manufacturers, particularly those that do not target public work, may prefer to wait until demand for metric-dimensioned products is more firmly established. But the public relations opportunities and the chance to define the standards for your product category may be worth the effort. In the short run, your customers face a period of uncertainty as they become familiar with the system and they learn how metric-dimensioned products work together. This is an opportunity to position your company as a resource. Your customers, still shaky in their own grasp of metric, will generally prefer suppliers who exude confidence over those who don't know a pascal (the unit of pressure) from a joule (the unit for energy or work). Reassure customers that you understand their situation and can provide the products and services they need.

Make sure employees who deal with customers are fluent in metric. Your salespeople and customer service reps must show that your firm is experienced with the metric system, not only to assist customers but to respond appropriately to those who do. Hold training programs for those employees and provide them with electronic or slide-rule calculations. And don't overlook the value of the calculators as advertising specialties or premiums.

Your printed materials also should signal your move to metric. Whether or not you resize your products to round metric units, you can incorporate metric equivalents simply and inexpensively the next time you reprint your product literature and labels. To attract attention, mark new catalogs with a logo or a banner proclaiming that metric dimensions are included.

For existing products, list the English measurements first, followed by metric units in parentheses. For example: 30 Btu/hour (82.9 watts). For new products designed to metric standards, list metric units first, followed by English equivalents in parentheses: 1,000 kg/m (1,488 plf).

New government standards require that contract documents and shop drawings be drawn to a metric scale. Floor plans, for example, can be drawn at 1:50 instead of the customary 1/4"= 1'-0". Manufacturers who provide tracing details to architects may want to publish two sets of details during the transition period. However, most computer-aided drafting programs can plot details at any scale desired. Shop drawings should be prepared with the same dimensioning system used in the contract documents.

Hard conversion
Merely listing the metric equivalent of a product is called a "soft" conversion. That's the easy part. A decision about whether and when to undergo a "hard" conversion, on the other hand, will probably be the most significant marketing issue you face. Hard conversion involves redesigning a product or construction method to metric dimensions in whole numbers. For example, 4x8- foot plywood, which measures 1,219.2x2.438.4-mm panels.

New products should be designed in metric from the start. It may be necessary for you or your distributors to maintain inventories of both metric and non-metric sizes during the transition. Eventually, specialty businesses may emerge to provide old sizes for use in renovations.

Though previous attempts to convert the construction industry to metric have failed, other U.S. industries have successfully made the switch. That fact, plus burgeoning international construction trade, will likely stimulate a slow but persistent momentum toward metric building products in the united states. The only remaining question, then, is the pace and extent of change in your section of the industry. I can only offer the adage. "Don't overestimate how much will change in five years or underestimate how much can change in 10 years."

Have a question you'd like us to answer?
Send an email to 

By Michael Chusid, Originally published in Construction Marketing Today, © 1992