In just four years, Stihl has added a suite of new products, started targeting the residential market, changed its approach to comms and vastly improved its retail network. And now it’s reaping the benefits.
Four years ago, Stihl was known as the preferred chainsaw for logging contractors and tree-felling companies. It was seen as a tool the professionals used, and the homeowner segment felt its tools were better quality than they would ever need for their backyard chores. With a target audience this defined there was no need to put double-digit growth figures in the business plan.
But the family-owned parent company Andreas Stihl AG & Co was looking for growth. It understood that growth funds innovation, creates better products and builds greater customer loyalty. It also understood that while its competition was feeling the fiscal squeeze and reducing marketing expenditure, it was the perfect time to put the foot down because maintaining its brand profile during the leaner years would pay them back handsomely when the economy recovered.
The global financial crisis was not especially kind to the outdoor power equipment industry. And when everyone is being forced to be careful with a dollar, the ‘big box’ retailers, with their bottomless pits for budgets and their endless full-page Saturday newspaper advertisements, are very difficult to ignore. They typically offer chainsaws for under $200 when a comparable Stihl chainsaw retails at $995, or a linetrimmer for $119 versus a Stihl for $295.
Being the most expensive brand on the market when everyone wants to pay as little as possible is not a comfortable feeling. Most ‘Weekend Warriors’ were happy to drive down to Bunnings and buy the cheapest tool they could find. If it failed in a few months then it was simply a matter of putting it in the bin and driving off to buy another. Their impression of Stihl was further reinforced by the fact that you could not buy the brand at Bunnings, or any big box retailer. You had to drive to an out of the way dealer, who was not only hard to find, but not likely to be open for you on the weekends.
A large research project confirmed Stihl’s suspicions around what consumers thought. So, making the brand accessible to what it called the Weekend Warriors was the solution. It identified its core conquest target, and then expended all its energy winning them over.
DDB was appointed as its communications agency to give the brand a fresh perspective, to get better strategic thinking and creative output and to try and change those engrained beliefs. And to justify the brand’s price premium, client and agency agreed to focus on the quality, ruggedness and durability of the products; their ability “to keep going no matter what”.
A new television campaign was decided upon as the best way to reach homeowners and a commercial was produced that was provocative enough to appeal to the market, yet still ensure the brand continued to embrace professionals. The first TVC showed the patriarch of a family on his deathbed. His last dying wish, which he delivers quietly to his younger son, is that the boy “looks after his mother”. When the older brother asks the younger brother what dad said, he replies: “He said I could have his chainsaw”.
The dark humour in the commercial meant it was the second most complained about advertisement in 2009 according to the Advertising Standards Authority. And the volume of complaints would have got the better of most companies. But Stihl held its ground for two reasons. 1) it was convinced a Stihl chainsaw does create that level of lust. And 2) it knew those who were complaining were not its customers, because they would love the irreverence of the commercial and the overall message of the advertising.
It wasn’t just about convincing consumers, however. 103 stores in the Stihl dealer network also needed to buy into the programme, not just because they help fund some of the regular retail advertising activity, but because they had to understand that if the plan to target Weekend Warriors was successful, then an entirely new type of customer would be arriving on their doorsteps. These people would need more attention and advice and they would also be hoping for a better retail environment and more amenable opening hours and keener prices. So, alongside the new approach to advertising, it completely overhauled the Stihl distribution network.
It had been decided as far back as 2003 that instead of selling the best quality brand from filthy, greasy old mower shops, a progressive and well-presented chain of stores carrying the Stihl Shop banner would be created. This was not a cheap exercise but one that was necessary if discerning customers were going to be brought across. As the Stihl Shop network reached critical mass, a separate television, print advertising and catalogue campaign was created to drive foot traffic into the new retail stores.
Four years into this journey, Stihl is a revered brand across all customer segments. And proof that what it has done has worked is the recent announcement by Reader’s Digest that showed Stihl was the number one most trusted brand in the DIY Power Tool category and the number two most trusted brand in the Gardening Equipment category (after Masport).
Stihl’s sales figures are confidential, but it has grown at more than five times the rate of the overall outdoor power equipment sector since 2008. It’s also transformed the image of its brand and store network and, importantly, future-proofed the business by selling a much bigger range of products and diversifying its customer base into the residential market. And it did it all without alienating the professional users.
Stihl formulated a plan and stuck to it. And it was confident it would work. It knew its products had been engineered by skilled German technicians to last forever and that most consumers know that quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.
For Stihl, the success of this transition has reinforced its belief in human nature, because if you put a convincing argument to someone as to why one brand costs more than all the others, it can be very effective at winning new customers. And for other marketers, it shows that if you can maintain brand presence in the lean times, the return on investment when the economy recovers will probably be manyfold.