Signing up for battle
How do you claw back market share when the product you make is facing an onslaught from low-cost, international brands?
Add value, with a squad of uniquely Kiwi characters, of course.
Kiwi plastics manufacturer Marley has been making building supplies in New Zealand for almost 60 years.
In 2015, it had the largest market share in one particular product sold to the electrical industry – flexible conduit, or ‘flexi’. An essential – but not necessarily passion-inspiring – corrugated plastic tubing used by electricians to protect cabling running through buildings.
The tubing was typically sold in plastic-wrapped coils with snooze-fest functional labels stating the manufacturing material, diameter, length and item code. The type of thing tradies would always have a couple of rolls of in the back of the van, but couldn’t say which brand they’d picked up.
So, despite its strong position, over the last 30 years Marley has seen the flexi market starting to become commoditised.
With low barriers to entry, it’s been facing an onslaught of competition from low-cost and imported product.
Not only was there a flood of imitation flexi on the market, customers could barely tell the difference between one brand and another.
With little or no product differentiation from one plastic-wrapped coil to the next, Marley’s customers – electrical merchants – and their customers – electricians – weren’t seeing the value in buying the brand. This meant the Kiwi manufacturer was being forced to increasingly compete on price rather than on value. And as the market leader, Marley was the most affected as new competitors entered the market.
But the Marley marketing team knew it still had some strong footholds.
It was the established leader in the industry. And despite the fact that industry was conservative, and generally resistant to change, not to mention flat out busy with the Christchurch rebuild and the Auckland construction boom, that was no reason not to try.
“It is very easy to become complacent but also resigned to the fact that there is no way back for products that have become ‘commoditised’ and be drawn into a price war where ultimately no one wins,” they say.
But in the face of even Marley staff saying customers only cared about price, the marketing leaders were defiant.
“It’s blatantly untrue and as a marketing team we have refused to accept this often widely held belief … There will always be ‘price-fighter’ products but I have yet to see a product or service that truly offers no other value, and that is where the battle should be fought.”
It was time for Marley to put the gloves on.
Choosing the squad
The first step was a big category review. No stone was left unturned – Marley held qualitative interviews and surveys with its customers, the electrical merchants and with its end users, the electricians.
It found that people couldn’t say what the benefits of one brand over another were.
They thought the products looked identical, and couldn’t even really distinguish between products.
Back at headquarters, the marketing team got to work on their first objective – differentiating the goods.
Marley sells three types of flexible conduit, each with benefits for different uses. So, in an innovative move for the piping category, the team decided to trash functional descriptions of the piping in exchange for benefit-based names.
Exit Light Duty, Medium Duty and Heavy Duty became SUPA, EASI, and SOLA.
The new names reflected the benefits of each pipe, and actually helped educate the market about what was best to use. SUPA for tight jobs needing more flexbility. EASI for everyday jobs. SOLA for heavy duty jobs requiring UV resistance.
With the new names Marley had a basis for developing unique packaging for each of the products.
It knew its audience didn’t like fluffy marketing, and appreciated a touch of humour. It also knew its audience was too busy getting on with business to bother with subtle marketing messages.
So Marley developed a marketing platform that revolved around three ‘stereotypical electricians’ illustrated as toy characters – one for each product. The Wallaces & Gromits of the electrical piping world, you might say.
These blobby-eyed, likeable characters were united as the Flex-Force team – almost, not-quite super heroes. SOLA is your typical Kiwi bloke in stubbies, with a cricket bat, EASI is your ready-for-anything type, laden with gear including pie and a Red Bull, and SUPA is a lanky sportsman with accessories that accentuate his flex.
Marley unified them for the campaign under the theme ‘FLEX-FORCE IS ON THE JOB’.
The use of characters allowed them to introduce a heap of personality into what had previously been undifferentiated products.
The marketing team says while this approach may be commonplace in other categories, it was “almost unprecedented” in the regulations-driven electrical category where a functional approach is mostly taken.
The next challenge was making sure all stakeholders were on board.
Meetings were held with sales, manufacturing and distribution internally. But Marley also held planning sessions with its customers – electrical merchants. As well as planning the transition of stock to the branches, it also allowed Marley to map out a schedule of activity to engage branch staff and promote the product to end customers.
“We knew we were on to a winner when the feedback from merchants was ‘why hasn’t anybody done this earlier?’” Marley says.
The new branded stock was pushed out to 300 merchant branches nationwide over four months.
It was backed up by the Flex-Force campaign: splashed through magazines, merchant catalogues, online display ads, industry email mailouts, promotion, with life-sized models of the Flex-Force at point of sale, brochures and banners.
Marley also engaged the Master Electricians association to explain its plans, which led to an education campaign through the Master Electricians e-newsletters, and sponsorship of its annual conference.
Marley also encouraged a Flex-Force dress-up competition, which went surprisingly well, considering the audience.
Laying the smack down
The all-out assault on commoditisation by the Flex-Force worked.
Despite already being a market leader in the very mature category, Marley’s campaign saw it grow.
While the overarching goal of the campaign was to protect Marley’s share of the flexible conduit market, and to stop the decline in sales caused by the low-cost competitors, the Flex-Force achieved much more.
To date, Marley has seen its sales increase by double what it had hoped. It’s also had some interesting wins in the piping subsections.
From its initial customer research, Marley knew electricians were identifying solar installations as being a growth market.
This led the company to make sure electricians and merchants knew which product was best for solar installations, through its new marketing, with Marley even naming the product ‘SOLA’.
As a result, Marley saw its quarterly sales in SOLA spike. The product went from taking a disproportionately low segment of Marley’s sales, to now accounting for more than twice its previous share of Marley flexible conduit sales.
Marley has also enjoyed seeing electricians learning more about which piping was best for certain jobs. Through its relationship with the Master Electricians network, and its new branding, Marley has started to see electricians refer to the piping by the Flex-Force names.
The plastics manufacturer has also strengthened its relationships with electrical merchants.
Where one merchant had adopted a multiple supplier strategy, buying in the cheapest product, they began to see the Flex-Force as a product range – you’ve got to have them all.
Marley also held an in-store promotion with this merchant, and now not only is Marley its preferred flexible conduit provider across the full range, but comparable period sales are up hugely.
Looking back, the Marley marketing team now considers the Flex-Force campaign a perfect validation of the strategy of adding value, rather than battling on price.
“We aim to drag value back into the conversation for some of the most commoditised products in the building industry, and in doing so restore profit and share for Marley.”
In a business to business environment, successful customers are always seeking value because that in turn constitutes the building blocks of their own sustainable competitive advantage, they argue.
“Even the most commoditised products have value – you just have to know where to find it.”