Marketing for Manufacturers
Marketers from the Manufacturers Alliance peer group share their best practices
A sort of master class on marketing for Minnesota manufacturers meets on the second Friday of every month. But the sessions, which look at effective strategies, emerging tactics and frank reports on efforts that failed, are not taught by professors, consultants or researchers.
Instead, it’s a peer-led gathering of the 17 Twin Cities members of the Manufacturers Alliance Sales and Marketing group. The meetings rotate among the manufacturing companies where there are sales and marketing directors.
“We get together to make sure we are always reaching higher levels in performance,” says Kirby Sneen, the Alliance’s vice president, who facilitates the group. “We benchmark against each others’ best practices. We’re looking to improve products, people and processes.”
While participants represent multiple industries, they share a common purpose. They’re all in the hunt to court and claim new customers and retain existing ones.
“They have to know, where are the customers’ eyeballs? Do they reach more customers and maintain those relationships with email marketing, or on a LinkedIn group or another social media platform?” he says.
Sneen is seeing more manufacturers posting online video to boost their ranking in Google search criteria.
“They can send them out to promote a new product or application. The video can be repurposed in an email to customers and go on the company website,” he says. “Manufacturers have to find the right producing partner — the finished videos have got to be cool, edgy, short and have a tight message.”
The marketing tool box that manufacturers rely on has expanded to include social media, blogs, white papers and webinars. The 2017 Content Marketing Institute’s annual survey of manufacturers found that 85% use content marketing, defined as a strategic approach that creates and distributes “valuable, relevant, and consistent content.”
Developing such digital content lays the groundwork to make an early impression on customers; in the Internet self-serve era, many customers want to do their own research to educate themselves on products and prices before they ever approach a sales team.
But face-to-face interactions remain pivotal for sales and marketing peer group member Phil Allen. He is the sales and marketing director at Lowell Inc., a Brooklyn Park contract manufacturer that develops and produces components for implantable medical devices.
“We work with companies of all sizes, but we like the startups that are just getting rolling and the midsize ones that have landed VC or private equity financing,” Allen says. “They’re likely to get bought up by the big companies and we come along for the ride.”
Allen finds that attending trade shows favored by physicians, engineers and entrepreneurs is a place to initiate valuable introductions and referrals.
“People say trade shows are dead — I would argue with that. Relationships are more important than ever, and trade shows are where everyone you want to meet is in the same space.”
Allen’s B2B marketing strategy promotes Lowell as a leader in machining complex implants; the company has written white papers, placed banner ads in online medical journals and ads in printed medical device publications to get in front of potential customers.
“We also follow engineers who’ve worked with us in the past. They will leave one company and go to another or start their own. If they’ve had a good experience, they will use us again when they move,” he says.
Cultivating such connections allows Lowell to deepen its value to its customers by becoming their collaborators.
“We try to solve the pain points these engineers might be dealing with. We understand the complexity of their problems,” he adds.
Allen relies on a local PR firm for web-based content work and uses an ad agency for print buys.
“The bigger companies have internal resources to do that work. We’ve found it makes better sense to hire those experts and the Twin Cities is blessed with a lot of excellent marketing communications companies,” he adds. “Money can’t buy everything, but you would be surprised what it can rent.”
The marketing team at the Oakdale-based manufacturer Hearing Components does double duty to promote its in-ear personal audio products. It employs a B2B strategy and also markets directly to consumers.
“Our Comply brand ear tips use a patented memory foam that softens when it’s exposed to body heat. Everyone’s ear canal is different, and your left is different than your right,” explains Steve Trinter, director of sales and marketing for Hearing Components and another member of the Manufacturers Alliance marketing peer group. “Our in-ear tips give every user a custom and comfortable fit.”
Spun out from 3M 26 years ago, Hearing Components today clocks annual gross revenues of $10 to $20 million. Its patented products are manufactured in a factory in the east metro, then shipped to more than 80 earphone companies, from small audio startups to the big names — Sony, Pioneer, Sennheiser, Jaybird.
“On the B2B side with our brand partners, the product markets itself. We’re an established name and we provide them with a premium accessory that adds value to their product,” adds Gary Wong, who oversees global marketing and e-commerce. Hearing Components stays in front of its customers with face-to-face visits to their headquarters and with booths at audio trade shows and the industry’s biggest show-and-tell, see-and-be-seen events, the annual Consumer Electronics Shows in Las Vegas and Shanghai.
Recently, the company took a big step to break through to mass market retail channels.
Comply tips are now packaged in stand-alone units. The in-ear tips are on the rack at electronics and music shops, big box stores and available to consumers shopping at online retailers like Amazon.
Trinter remembers paying multiple visits to the Richfield headquarters of Best Buy with his sales team to make the pitch for the Comply tips to be sold in their hundreds of stores.
“We got in front of the team that decides what they carry in the audio accessory category,” he says. “We made the case that we’re becoming mainstream, no longer a niche product for high-end audio enthusiasts, and they agreed.”
Since moving into the consumer arena, social media has taken on a bigger role, with more cross-promotional marketing with brand partners.
“The most important part of our consumer marketing is that we’re consistent with branding and messaging,” Wong explains. “From day one, we’ve been a premium accessory and that’s key in everything we do.”
In many manufacturing companies, sales and marketing are linked and that’s no accident — the right targeted marketing campaign can find customers and seed sales.
“All of their existing methods are under scrutiny,” Sneen says. “Today marketers can measure the return on their investment — how many new leads were generated, how many deals closed. We have to stay on top of what’s new and what’s changing.”
Marketing to Next Generation Employees
Today, manufacturers must also use aggressive marketing tactics to find prospective workers. Both the demand for skilled employees and the competition to attract them are intense.
The 2017 State of Manufacturing Report by the nonprofit Enterprise Minnesota found a persistent worry across the sector about the adequacy of the pipeline that is preparing the next generation of workers to step in for retiring baby boomers.
“Attracting and retaining a qualified workforce” came up as a top challenge for what what might negatively impact future growth.
The companies that are successfully connecting with new workers are investing in consistent outreach. It can mean a long courtship.
“In June, I heard from a number of companies looking to hire our students when they graduated,” says EJ Daigle, Dean of Robotics and Manufacturing Technology at Dunwoody College of Technology. “I told them, you’re too late; 100% of them are spoken for already.”
Dunwoody students working on two year degrees in engineering design, automation and electronics, machining and welding are in high demand almost from the first day they step foot on the Minneapolis campus.
On “Focus Friday” at Dunwoody, local manufacturers come to meet students face-to-face. Each Friday, one company gets the chance to set up in a high traffic area where they can introduce themselves and begin the wooing of the technicians-in-training.
Representatives from the featured company arrive on campus, put their company drape over a table, fill up a bowl with candy bars and start handing out cards to students passing by.
“They’ve really stepped up their game; this past year we saw companies bringing fresh baked cookies and doughnuts,” Daigle chuckles. “A few local companies donate gear to the school to get their name in front of students.”
Companies often use the meet-and-greets to target and select students for paid internships.
“These companies can tell the student, I’ll pay you twice what you’re making at McDonalds or Home Depot, I’ll flex your hours, you earn while you learn in the field you’re studying,” Daigle explains.
The introductions can turn into a part-time job, a co-op or an apprenticeship for students.
“The internships get the students in their doors,” Daigle notes. “The companies hope that if they treat the students right, they’ll stick around and turn into full time workers when they graduate.”
Kicking the bucket with a rebrand
The manufacturers of RADIA Products take great pride in the longevity of the paint shakers and mixers that come out of their production facility in Plymouth.
“Our customers see our paint mixer as their work horse,” explains RADIA marketing manager Kayla Trevino. “They can last 20 to 30 years. There are some that have been out there since the 1950s, still running like a champ.”
Although those older machines carry the Red Devil logo, it’s a name that’s kicked the bucket.
In January of 2016, Red Devil rebranded its mixers and shakers as RADIA.
“Our family bought the company in 1992, so the name change wasn’t due to a sale,” says RADIA president and CEO Karin Gessner, who
began working for the company 14 years ago.
“We’re a grown up business and it was time for us to get away from the devil. It doesn’t represent who we are today, and who we are becoming,” she continued.
The company hired a marketing firm to guide them through the process of selecting the new name. Gessner rejected hundreds of options before Radia was pitched.
“We liked it because it starts with R and it has a mathematical base, like the radius of a circle,” Gessner says. “It was like a wedding dress; when you put the right one on, you just know.”
Since then, Gessner has “carried the family flag” with customers to assure them that nothing about the products was changing but the name.
RADIA shakers and mixers are constructed with a gear-driven system, making the machines simple but durable. Top sellers include a one-gallon mixer that neighborhood hardware stores favor for DIY customers buying a bucket to update their living room walls, and gyroscopic mixers that simultaneously blend five gallons of paint for contractors who buy 500 buckets at a time.
The Minnesota-made machines are a staple in big box giants like Lowe’s and Home Depot as well as in paint shops, under the Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore and Pittsburgh Paint banners.
Gessner anticipates the new name will help the company with its strategic goal to move beyond its traditional niche. Although 90% of RADIA products are used to mix paint, the company is broadening its reach.
“We have tasked our new market researcher and our industrial designer to come up with applications for our products that could open new markets for us,” Gessner says, noting that cosmetics, chemical and food companies are now using RADIA shakers to blend their product ingredients.
“We’re consulting with new customers about how to use our products and we are becoming a resource to them,” she adds.
To communicate the name change, representatives of RADIA Products have done everything from staffing booths at trade shows to buying print ads in industry publications to changing the way phones are answered at company headquarters.
“We say ‘Red Devil/RADIA’ when we say hello so they don’t hang up,” Trevino says. “We ran into that at first. Just answering as Radia, callers thought they had the wrong place.”
Despite the ongoing efforts, retail customers often only learn of the rebranding when they contact the company to replace their equipment.
“It’s a very traditional industry. Especially the owners of the smaller paint and hardware stores aren’t interested in e-mail marketing,” Trevino says. “When customers hear it’s the same people making the equipment and the quality is the same, they’re good with the changes.”
Karin Gessner has advice for any company thinking about switching their name.
“Making the change will take twice as long as you expect. You think you’re through it, but the customer will lag behind you,” she warns. “That’s the journey.”