Every year, architects and interior designers specify millions of architectural products and building materials, representing billions of dollars in sales. Getting your products on their preferred list requires a deep understanding of how they think, how they work, what they value and how your products fit into their world. If you want to have a part of this billion-dollar industry, you must understand who is specifying and why.
If you want your product to be successful, it’s crucial for it to be positioned correctly in the marketplace. You’ll need to know which aspects of your product and brand are most valuable to your target market so you can fulfill their needs. But giving your audience what they want might not be as straightforward as you think.
That’s where this guide can help. We’ve worked both sides of this industry—helping architects and interior designers grow their businesses, as well as helping companies like yours get their products specified. After years of observation, we can tell you that the building and architectural product companies that understand this unique audience and tailor their marketing efforts to them become industry leaders.
They are artists, first and foremost—tactile beings who not only utilize form, function and beauty in their work, but also appreciate these characteristics in the rest of the world.
These creatives are also problem solvers. Whether they’re envisioning the ways in which patients flow through healthcare environments, developing processes for sustainable community growth, or contributing to institutional and social change by, for instance, reimagining a classroom for the 21st century, architects and designers seek a marriage of form and function—and that’s exactly what they’re looking for in the products and materials they specify.
To successfully market building and architectural products to these architects and designers, it’s imperative to understand them as professionals: who they are, what they value, where they go to discover new products, who their key influencers are, and where specification is vulnerable in the sales chain.
Access to technology has both eased the process of design and increased accountability for architects and designers. The industry is shifting towards design based on proven research, putting architects and designers under increased pressure to deliver measurable results.
This means your product stands the best chance of being specified if it can help solve a problem and deliver the data needed to prove that the goals of the project were met.
Focus has turned to outcomes. In healthcare, for example, lean and evidence-based design (EBD) strategies require architects and designers to have an intimate understanding of staff operations and patient experiences. By reducing the number of steps it takes for a nurse to reach supplies, time available for patient care increases. Quiet, comfortable rooms allow for faster patient healing while reducing the need for pain medications.
Clients now expect additional deliverables beyond specs and drawings. BIM software allows architects to produce datasets that facility management teams can use to prove the efficiency of buildings before they’re even built.
Buildings have become data generators as the era of the Internet of Things (IoT) has moved in. Thermostats, refrigerators and a growing number of other building components are now connected to mobile devices. Now that building performance has become more measurable, performance-based contracts have become more common.
Architects and designers fear product failure. To understand why, you must first understand the high stakes role specification plays in their professional lives.
The 2008 market crash had a prodigious impact on the design and construction industries. As a result, architects’ and designers’ career advancement hinges on either becoming a principal at a firm or starting one of their own. In either case, it’s their responsibility to grow the business, and they must do this by finding new clients or increasing revenue from existing ones.
For architects and designers, it can be years between the RFP and breaking ground on a project’s construction. Once the project is complete, it will be featured in the firm’s portfolio for years. The client will be asked to be an ongoing referral as well as a source of new projects. But these options go out the window if a specification fails. The promotional value of a past project and client can be ruined, jeopardizing years of work and future revenue.
To combat the fear around specification, your building or architectural product company must communicate with architects and designers in a way that addresses their concerns and builds confidence in your products. This is where a complete understanding of the specifier becomes invaluable.
External pressures and internal politics can majorly impact how, when and why architects and designers decide to specify a product. Building a buyer persona is a useful exercise that creates a three-dimensional view of your target. It helps define how they think, what (or who) their influencers are, and what stake they have in the sale—think of it as a field guide to your typical customer.
By identifying the common needs, wants, concerns and priorities of a collective group – in this case, architects and designers – you cultivate a rich understanding of their professional roles and, as a result, communicate with them more effectively—in a language they understand. This will not only win you sales, it will also build trust and establish your company as a reliable source of knowledge that architects and designers can turn to anytime they specify a product.
We’ve included a buyer persona for both the Architect and the Interior Designer. Both are based on a combination of real data and educated inferences, as well as a curated understanding of specifier demographics, behavioral patterns, motivations, and goals. Keep reading to get to know them little better.
Targeting more than just architects and interior Designers? Check out our General Contractor, Brand Manager, Property Developer and REIT Management Executive personas to gain insight into who they are and what they want from companies like yours.
Meet Ethan, the Architect.
A self-proclaimed Lego-fanatic, Ethan has been interested in design and construction since childhood. He’s introverted yet confident. Both left- and right-brained, Ethan is a visionary with a strong problem-solving ability. He prefers to figure things out himself, and approaches every project as a puzzle to be solved with creativity. Ethan values order, detail and sustainability. He believes his job is to design spaces that blend beauty, innovation, and functionality.
Ethan is a Millennial, a child of Google and information on-demand. This generation uses technology to build their relationships with each other and the world around them. Before they will call a rep with questions or to request a sample, Millennials like Ethan will go online to see if they can find the answer there first. They trust peer testimonials, ratings, and product reviews. They want to see images of the product in situation to give them context. They’ve got to fully grasp a product’s benefits before they can sell it to their client. The architectural profession demands that they become lifelong learners, so they value product and material companies that help them further their education.
Millennials are said to be the most creative generation yet, and one way they show it is by combining business with altruism. These passionate professionals respond to brands that deliver something greater than the product itself. Socially-conscious favorites include TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker, the glasses brand. For each pair they sell, both of these companies donate one pair of their products to someone in need.
This mindset is in step with The 2030 Challenge, issued by the non-profit, Architecture 2030. In response to the climate change crisis, this initiative challenges the global architecture and building community to make all new buildings, developments, and significant renovations carbon-neutral by 2030. Ethan feels confident that he can help his industry achieve this goal by specifying products in line with this mission.
Millennials are driven. Ethan is set on becoming a partner in the firm. In order to get—and stay—on the path to partnership, Ethan must be both an architect and a salesperson. It has become Ethan’s responsibility to help grow the firm and avoid mistakes that may hurt the firm or lead to a lawsuit. Most new clients come from seeing existing work and wanting something similar, so it’s important for Ethan to build a strong portfolio of successful projects that are free of product failures.
Ethan subscribes to trade magazines like Metropolis and Architectural Digest, but hardly has the time to read them. Instead, he relies on online resources and platforms, like Architizer, for information and inspiration. Ethan also relies on his architect-peers. He trusts their insights and recommendations and has specified products based on their input in the past.
But that’s not to say Ethan doesn’t listen to manufacturers. He’ll trust in those that clearly know their stuff. Companies that position themselves as robust sources of technical knowledge are valued by architects like Ethan, especially when it comes to information on performance factors for niche products.
Because Ethan is always tight on time, he appreciates quick, reliable communication and transparency from product manufacturers. He doesn’t want to specify a product that will later be found to be incorrect or too expensive. Ethan wishes that manufacturers would be more up front about the solutions they can provide and appreciates when manufacturers offer technical insights that can help him make the best specifying decision.
Never has enough time
Clients who think they are architects
Awkward sales pitches from vendors
Fear of failure
- Websites that make it difficult to specify products
There’s nothing Ethan hates more than a sales pitch. He doesn’t want to be sold to, he wants a solution to his design problem. (Hint: Avoid cold calls. Architects like Ethan don’t like outside pressure from manufacturers; they want to find their “ideal” product on their own.)
As project architect, Ethan is a decision-maker. He can decide whether or not your product is written into the specification documents. But he’s not naïve; Ethan is always wary of the GC value-engineering his product selections out for a cheaper product at a later stage.
To minimize the risk of post-specification value-engineering, Ethan needs as much technical information as possible from the product manufacturer. This information not only enables him to select the best product for the project, it also gives him the ammo to successfully explain and defend the product specification to his client. Once they’re onboard, it greatly reduces the chance that the product will be substituted later on.
“I don’t always get to choose the products—though if something goes wrong, I always get the blame.”
“This business still relies on word of mouth. All of the developers talk and share contacts. I need them to be as happy with our firm 10 years on as they were the day we opened the hotel doors.”
“General contractors are not detail people. It’s imperative that they are able to get products easily in case there is an error, a redesign, or simply because they forgot to place the initial order. ‘New product’ sounds expensive to GC’s. They don’t want to invest in the training and they are afraid of the installation being difficult. They always fall back on what they have done a thousand times.”
Say hello to Lucy, the Interior Designer.
Lucy has a long-standing passion for art, design, and fashion, something she channels in every project she works on. Valuing style over money and adopting trends early, Lucy lives a well-designed life.
Experience is everything to Lucy. And that experience must be beautiful. From having cocktails at a trendy boutique bar to hanging out with her friends after a spin class, she always brings a sense of effortless style to any occasion
Lucy runs with the extroverted side of the office, the ones who are having fun at the trade show party. She’s an excellent networker and is responsible for growing sales for her firm. Lucy wants to bring brands to life, and believes that beauty and style should translate to the customer experience. Like her architect counterpart, Ethan, Lucy approaches each project as a puzzle. She artfully blends beauty, form, and function to create the best possible look for the budget, location, and intended purpose of the space.
Reputation and legacy are always at the forefront of Lucy’s mind. She wants to be recognized for her talent and ability to create one-of-a-kind environments.
Because the path to partnership for interior designers is less straightforward than it is for architects, Lucy’s primary goal is to design and deliver beautiful projects—for both her clients and her portfolio. Eventually she’ll develop a focus in her career, such as hospitality or healthcare, and will likely start her own design firm one day.
Lucy is a Millennial who uses technology to forge meaningful relationships online. Like other tastemakers of her generation, she uses Instagram and Pinterest to discover and connect with cool brands. She even has a personal social media strategy so she can always convey the right image.
She’s service-oriented and expects every brand to be as robust as the industry leader. When it comes to ordering a sample, Lucy, as a typical Millennial, would rather do so online. She is a confident problem-solver who wants to be educated, understand all of her options, and see what a product will look like in situation before she specifies it.
Lucy is looking for architectural product companies that understand her need for education and are there to answer any questions she may have. She seeks expertise and reliable sources of knowledge, aspiring to become that source of wisdom for her clients and peers.
Can be overshadowed or talked down to by architects
Every detail matters; choices made must stand up to years of wear-and-tear
Product failure undermines trust between designer and client
- “I want my work to get attention for how good it is, not what went wrong with it.”
- “Architects are great for creating the shell—the master design. I bring the interior to life, and let’s face it, that’s what people remember. Every property has a branded narrative. It’s my job to tell that story.”
- “No, I’m not a decorator (but I will help you pick out your couch).
Now that you know Ethan and Lucy, ask yourself: How does my product or material help them overcome their challenges and achieve their goals? Use the answers to shape your messaging so that it reaches specifiers like them. The better you can meet their needs, the more confidence they’ll have in your products.
Why wouldn’t someone like Ethan or Lucy specify your product or material? What would their objections be? Ask your sales team. Working closely with specifiers, sales reps can provide companies with valuable insights into what problems their customers have and what questions they’re asking.
Highly effective product manufacturers position their brand and products as doing one thing, and one thing only: solving a problem. No one likes to be sold to, but everyone needs a solution. Specifiers like Ethan and Lucy are looking for solutions to their projects’ problems. It’s up to you to show that your product can be one of them.
This requires shifting from a mindset that’s focused entirely on your products and sales. Instead, your new approach should prioritize alleviating the many challenges that these personas face every day. This is how you’ll win their trust—and their business.
Many architectural product and building materials companies attempt to let their products speak for themselves, ignoring design principles in their marketing. This is the quickest way to turn off specifiers. When these aesthetically-minded creatives see outdated logos, clunky graphics, cheesy photo techniques or too much text crammed on a page, they see a brand that just doesn’t “get it.” To them, a poorly designed presentation not only reflects negatively on the products represented, it communicates that the company doesn’t share their values.
Getting your product specified depends on its presentation. The quality of your product is important, but it’s great design that will first capture a specifier’s attention. Your marketing should meet them on their level, appealing to their refined taste. The primary objective is to engage, excite, educate, and inspire your specifying audience. This is achieved with clear, consistent messaging, visual and verbal imagery, and an authentic brand voice. Specifiers value:
- High-quality aestheticsMarketing for architectural products and building materials should be as sophisticated as the specifiers who choose them. Architects and designers gravitate towards brands that are beautifully articulated. These personas respond well to elements of subtlety and want a consistent brand package: from the sales presentation to the sample kit to the content on your website, everything should work together, elegantly.
"Design plays an essential role in creating and building brands. Design differentiates and embodies the intangibles—emotion, context, and essence—that matter most to consumers." – Moira Cullen, Senior Director, Global Design, The Hershey Company
- Order + processArchitects and designers live in a world of systems. They respect and adhere to order and process, equating it with quality and strength. Building material and architectural product companies must follow their lead. Chaotic websites and disjointed sales materials are red flags that a company may be unreliable. Even unglamorous products (such as insulation or heating ducts) can be set apart from the competition using orderly design. Take a look at the consumer brands that do this well: Muji, Aesop, Field Notes, and VW. Their beautiful yet unfussy presentations show that trusted, well-loved brands can be built upon simplicity.
- Clarity.Specifiers need clarity. Since they’re often picking hundreds of products for a project, you must keep your communications to them laser-focused. Stick to a simple three-point messaging strategy: What are the top three things a specifier should know about a product? Are these three points being repeated and woven into all avenues of communication?
Another way of looking at clarity is to understand what type of information a specifier needs at each point of the sales journey. We’ll talk more about this at the end of this section.
- Efficiency + ease-of-useSpecifiers are constantly juggling multiple tasks and processing an overwhelming amount of information. They (or a junior associate) needs to be able to easily find detailed information on a website when they want it and how they want it. Make it easy for them to order a sample or get lead times. Design sample binders or kits so the missing items are easily replenished by the sales rep or better yet, by the specifiers themselves.
With Millennials moving up into positions of power, it’s important to understand how they think and work. For a Millennial, calling a sales rep is the very last resort. Everything should be planned and designed to make specifiers as self-sufficient as possible.
Tip: Try a live chat on your website. This is a great way to offer sales support in a way that Millennials are receptive to. The beauty of a live chat is that it can be turned on and off at will. If you have an in-house support team that can offer it for a few hours a day, they can attend to it at their convenience. The pop-up completely disappears when it’s off, so no one is the wiser.
"Designers can look at a product and know instantly whether they want to use it or not. But if it becomes hard or difficult—if we can’t figure out where to go or what to do next—we give up and move on to a product we’re familiar with—one that we’ve used on the last 100 projects."
By thoughtfully considering the communication gap between practical and creative thinkers, you can shape your marketing content to be more relevant, more approachable, and more helpful to your specifying audience.
When selling to architects and designers, it’s critical to match the level of product information you provide to their expectations along the journey’s five stages: awareness, familiarity, consideration, specification, and loyalty.
At the awareness stage, that means one thing: less is more. Increasingly, we’ve heard specifiers tell manufacturers that they don’t want to hear about all of a product’s details in the early stages of consideration. Instead, they want to hear about the benefits of that product.
This insight has implications not only for messaging and positioning, but also for sales tools and marketing collateral. For example, it doesn’t mean that architects and designers don’t want to hear about your product’s specs, they just don’t need to read about them during the early stages of decision-making.
Specifiers want to ease into your brand. Therefore, when you market your product, your message should be concise and compelling. It should explain clearly—up front and in “plain English”—what your product does and why it matters. This kind of approach brings a sense of familiarity and relationship-building to the awareness phase of your product’s sales journey. Trust your product or material to pique their interest. From there, you can nurture the relationship through the rest of the journey’s stages, all the way to loyalty.
To find out more about the specification journey, check out our blog post on Matching Marketing Materials to the Sales Specification Journey.
Of course, you are! Whether you’re sitting at a desk in a corporate office or standing on the floor of a warehouse, you’re still a consumer. Our mindsets don’t change just because we’ve crossed the threshold into a business setting. We’re all consumers, all of the time.
So why do most building material and architectural product company communications sound as if they don’t know this? As Business-to-Specifier (B2S) and Business-to-Business (B2B) marketers, we sometimes draw an imaginary line between the two worlds, communicating in corporate speak instead of an authentic brand voice. But in an industry that predominantly sells through personal relationships built by sales reps, talking to specifiers in a stuffy tone is deeply ironic.
Many B2S and B2B companies are making the strategic move to create authentic customer experiences on the same level as Business-to-Consumer (B2C) brands, and it’s paying off. The first building or architectural product company to adopt this mindset will have a significant edge over their competition.
Before we talk about how to create your brand’s voice, let’s look at the numbers: according to a 2016 McKinsey and Company report, B2B customer experience index ratings are significantly lower than those of retail customers, with B2C companies typically scoring between 65–85 percent while B2B companies averaged less than 50 percent. This gap will only get bigger as B2B customer expectations continue to rise.
We live in a hyper-connected world. In everyday life, consumers use apps to track spending, conduct complex financial transactions, request car rides, and curate playlists of their favorite tunes. They expect a seamless brand experience on their smartphones, two-way conversations, and easy, brand-aligned engagements.
Architects and designers are consumers too, living in the same world as the rest of us. In the age of Amazon and Uber, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re bringing the same consumer expectations to the industry of architectural products and building materials. Because of this, it's gotten harder for manufacturers to measure up.
Only adding to the difficulty is the faulty perception amongst manufacturers that all decisions about architectural products and building materials are made rationally. McKinsey and Company’s research findings found the opposite to be true:
- “Such a plurality of stakeholders also creates complex buying behaviors. Even though B2B purchases are commonly assumed to stem from rational decisions, in our experience they hardly ever do. Overall total cost of ownership is never the only decision factor. Other factors also influence decisions, such as long-standing relationships with procurement teams and the general reputation of suppliers.”
Building material and architectural products sales are different than B2C sales for many reasons:
Building and architectural product companies must market to several audiences
The decider (i.e., the architect or designer) may not be the user (i.e., the installer)
The sales chains are usually varied and complex—sometimes they include specification, sometimes they involve a homeowner, an independent showroom, etc.
But, the one thing that these situations have in common is that they are all about people. Not charts, not graphs, not data points. Just real, live, emotion-driven people.
All of this makes a solid argument to rethink your brand voice, the very heart of your customer experience. Your brand is your company’s most powerful tool for creating desire. It’s how you can inspire belief, trust and, ultimately, loyalty. A unique brand voice is the key to standing out from the competition.
Consumers want to connect emotionally with brands, especially Millennials. Leading with an emotional voice may seem counterintuitive for an architectural product or building materials company, especially in an industry that is predominantly male. But in this case, emotional means authentic, not dramatic.
Most B2C brands are like your favorite cousin: smart, good looking, witty, and always in the know of a good restaurant or an interesting documentary. They have a lot of friends and seem to move through the world with ease.
Most building material and architectural product brands, on the other hand, are like your uncle with the sensible suit that wants to know if you are putting aside enough money for retirement. You know he’s right about building a savings account, but you don’t want to sit next to him at a family dinner. Your cousin (B2C) is lively and magnetic. But your uncle (B2B)? He’s practical, pragmatic, and dry.
Fortunately, avoiding stuffiness doesn’t mean your brand voice should be silly or too casual—we certainly wouldn’t advise an architectural block company to use “LOL” or emojis on their website, for example.
What companies should be seeking is authenticity, a real voice that comes from the very core of who you are. If your company wants to capture the Millennial market (and believe us, you do) authenticity is the only way to engage. Millennials demand a real voice because they expect to build personal relationships with companies. These types of voices are successful because they:
Show a deep understanding of the customer.
Aren't afraid to connect personally.
Don't confuse expertise with boring.
Can't come from anyone else.
Losing your specification to a similar product that’s cheaper or simply offers a faster delivery time happens all the time, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Especially for smaller companies, the pain is doubled by the amount of resources it took to get the specification in the first place. Specifiers cite various reasons for changing products, from cost to lead time, but the bottom line is: your product should be irreplaceable, and to them, it’s not.
Ever tried to explain to an architect or designer why your product is special or different? Then you know how difficult it can be to overcome the commodity perception: that all products/materials are created equal and can be substituted at will.
So, what can you do?
A beautiful brand can make even a plain product rise above a sea of competitors. Case in point: Morton Salt. For years, consumers have happily spent more on a generic product. Why? Because Morton’s iconic packaging offers an emotional story that customers can imbue with their own meaning. Who is the cute little girl with the umbrella? What does the tag line “When It Rains It Pours®” even mean? The brand image for Morton allows each person to answer those questions, thus transforming something generic and plain into something desired and highly personal.
Architectural product and material companies can learn from brands like Morton. Your brand story, identity, print collateral, website, presentations, trade show booths—all present opportunities to use beauty to distinguish your product. Doing so will increase your chance of specification, even against cheaper competitors.
What is your brand, and why is it different?
Answering these two questions is the first step to building a unique brand.
A strong brand stands out in a densely-crowded marketplace. As competition creates infinite choices, it’s important for architectural product and building material manufacturers to look for ways to connect emotionally with specifying audiences, become irreplaceable, and create lifelong relationships.
Too often, companies spend a great deal of time and effort trying to look like their competition. But this isn’t the way to get specifiers’ attention. For that, you need to make your brand distinct, eye-catching, and most importantly, unmistakable.
Is this a family business? Are you coming from a uniquely green perspective? What is the inspiration behind what you do? Build a brand that can’t be imitated by another company. Sure, another manufacturer can assemble products and deliver samples the same same way, but will they look and feel like yours? Can they tell them same story as you? Deliver the same customer service—the same experience?
Set expectations and create desire for your product through unique selling experiences. Then translate this experience into your marketing by being authentic and consistent throughout all of your communications. Your product will win specifications if your brand is unmistakable, inspiring, and clearly relatable.
Interested in learning more about how to increase specifications by moving from commodity to brand? Check out our blog post “How to Sell Building Materials and Architectural Products: Beating the Commodity Trap.”
At the core of a specification-driven marketing system sit two intertwined elements: your brand and your website. Each one needs the other to survive and thrive.
Your brand is the defining factor that separates you from the competition. A brand strategy is the guiding plan that allows you to shape how specifiers and other influencers see your company.
Your website is the source of inbound lead generation. Anyone can do inbound, but it is branded inbound that consistently delivers powerful lead generation that results in specification.
Each of the points represented below must work together to create a solid brand specification system. They must be nurtured and strengthened on their own and in relation to one another. The key to making this system work is always truing tactics back to the brand.
- Branded Content.In a world filled with generic content (“7 Steps to Success”—yawn!), authentic content only your company could create delivers outstanding results. Powerful content inspires, educates, solves the specifier’s problem, and reinforces your brand. Whether it takes the form of a blog, video, or downloadable eBook, high-quality content is the cornerstone of any winning marketing system.
- Brochures and Sell Sheets: PRINT IS NOT DEADPhysical materials like brochures and sell sheets seduce specifiers with branded experiences they can hold in their hands. Effective brand strategies deliver content in multiple formats to meet specifiers at every step of their journey.
- Campaigns and Promotions.Conceptual advertising campaigns can catapult your product (and brand) into a new stratosphere. Strong campaigns raise awareness, spark emotion, and make a deep connection to the product line—in a way specifiers can’t forget. When it comes to promotional items, they should be as smart and sophisticated as the products they promote. No excuses. End of story.
- CRM, SEO, and Lead-Generation.These are the mechanics that amplify your branded content. Everything is tied into a trackable and measurable system, where all data feeds back to your CRM. We grow your rankings with SEO, while lead-nurturing e-mail campaigns are created with marketing automation that your sales team can leverage.
- Sales Materials and Samples.Impactful sales is built on a trifecta: compelling presentations, a team inspired by exciting campaigns, and impressive sample systems that can be confidently left behind in libraries. All of these elements must harmonize with your website and brand.
- Social Media.This is where your brand gets to be friends with specifiers. It’s fun, compelling, and a great platform for honest conversations. Communities like Pinterest, Instagram, and LinkedIn can all be used to nurture sales, drive traffic back to your website and grow your CRM.
- Trade Shows and Events.This is the place for a company to let its brand take the lead. In a sea of “meh”, authentic brand experiences stick with specifiers beyond raffles, brochures, gimmicks, and cocktail parties (though, we’re not knocking those). Even if you’re a quiet brand, be quietly bold. Effective trade show efforts should be measurable and connected with CRM and future lead nurturing efforts.
Your website is where your brand lives. Every element in your marketing system must true back to your brand in its digital form. And if you want your website to generate leads, it needs strong brand positioning and identity. As such, it’s important to understand not only why specifiers visit your site, but also how they engage with it and what information they are looking for.
Your first impression is most often made with your company’s website—the result of an internet search based on an immediate need. This is because modern specifiers are starting to drift from the classic methods of product discovery.
While sales reps remain the number-one force in completing specification, new channels have begun to disrupt this tried-and-true process. Millennials are now your largest customer demographic, one that validates and nurtures relationships with products and people online.
Today’s architects and designers are looking further afield from traditional lunch-and-learns and industry publications. They supplement their libraries by searching for new products through print authorities like Dwell and Architectural Review, as well as online forums. Google searches are bringing them to sites like Houzz, Pinterest, and Architizer for inspiration.
With specifiers now turning to the online sphere to find products for their projects, architectural product and building material companies need to make sure that their online presence is as strong and effective as its best sales reps. This starts with building robust websites.
If you want a powerful website, it must have your brand at its core. It must be designed in a way that fulfills your brand promise—in other words, your site should be something that your competition cannot recreate. A few simple rules to follow:
Tell your real brand story. If you have a family-owned company, infuse the story into your marketing materials. Write a brand manifesto: share who you are and why you make your product. Make it personal and real, struggles and all. Consumers are looking for something authentic to connect with. Give it to them.
- Tip: If you’re struggling to figure out ways to showcase your product, start at the very core of your brand and figure out what that narrative looks like. Once you’ve established it, use your brand’s story as the foundation for any materials you put out and go from there. No matter which format you choose, give architects and designers something that inspires them to go and do what they do best: create.
Millennials are highly educated, natural-born learners; they want to make smart choices in life. Make sure your website and sales collateral materials are focused on helping them solve a problem, not pushing a product.
For example, if you manufacture a tankless water heater, your website could include links to project galleries of laundry room renovations that used tankless water heaters to maximize space. You could also show the environmental benefits of a tankless water heater. Does it save more water? Does it save on materials used? If so, try and show the resources that you’re preserving.
Your site should serve as a place where specifiers can find useful resources. Incorporate calls to action (CTAs) for downloading premium content that helps them overcome challenges. This setup is a win-win for both of you: the specifier gets helpful information, and you get to lead them further down the sales funnel.
This is the most social generation in existence—90% of Millennials use two to three devices a day to seamlessly interact with brands and peers. They trade buying recommendations among social groups, share brand stories, and document successes and failures. According to one target Millennial we interviewed:
- "Two to three devices is becoming the standard. First your alarm goes off on your phone in the morning and you see new updates from the news or any other subscription content on your homescreen.
Then, you go to work and you are on your laptop and check your Gmail account and see promoted e-mail ads in your inbox. Later, when you’re home, you’re lying on the couch watching specially curated content through the Netflix app on your tablet, or you see targeted ads on YouTube.
Personalized content is everywhere, whether you realize it or not. A lot of times I find it overwhelming or my brain phases it out subconsciously. I feel that the surest way to break through that automatic block is by creating authentic content; content that is real and has a human element. That is the kind of content that makes me stop for a few seconds and think.”
Tip: Every piece of content that you publish on your site should either be informative or entertaining—give your audience something they can use, such as a new idea, or even just a laugh.
Millennials gravitate to companies with a strong social mission. Many building products and material manufacturers consistently donate product to organizations like Habitat for Humanity or Global Leadership Adventures, but they don’t leverage it to connect with Millennials.
There is a roofing tile company that makes its product using recycled paper. This interesting and very cool fact is buried deep within their FAQs, representing a missed opportunity for the company to connect with this progressive new generation.
One target Millennial expressed the significance of products with missions:
- “It’s like killing two birds with one stone—I get a product I need while also helping someone or supporting cause at the same time. As a generation that is going to have to figure out new ways to heat our homes and fuel our cars, we are inducing a major shift in thinking across all product categories. I believe this shift in perspective is affecting everything we purchase.”
1. High quality images of products in three different formats: in situation where specifiers can see the product in context, in silhouette so they can see it on its own, and in details of textures or other feature close-ups.
You won’t win over specifiers with tiny, pixelated photos that they’ve got to dig for. And you certainly won’t help them convince their clients that your product is the right choice. Selling to specifiers is a long sales cycle. It’s a shame to put so much work in presenting the product physically, only to have it all fall flat because a specifier doesn’t want to patch together their vision board with low-quality photos from your website.
- “I always stress the importance of having good product images—we need these for renderings… If downloadable, high-res images aren’t available, I usually don’t use the product. For presentation and rendering purposes, it’s a must.”
- “Designers always set aside images of products they like—think tearing out a recipe from a magazine… The more images the better! Images featuring the same product in different settings, for example.”
2. Technical specs and rendering files in multiple formats across multiple interfaces, including smartphones and tablets. No matter how beautiful the product or sample kit, if a company doesn’t offer architects and designers the tools they need to incorporate the product into renderings, it’s less likely to be specified.
- “I’ve stopped using companies that don’t make CAD, Revit and SketchUp files readily available online.”
- “You should never have a site for professionals that offers none of the information a professional needs to spec a product. It’s like having a car lot filled with cars, but no dealership around to buy one.”
- "Having your products as digital files that can be used in most drafting programs is huge. It not only cuts down on the time I have to spend getting the materials into my digital model, it also brings in the information needed to spec it as well.”
- “All the information I need to write a spec is on one page—THANK YOU! A lot of companies put their spec information in all caps or as an image. Why not use normal text? This means I can quickly copy the spec information into my document."
3. Evidence Based Design data. Do your products reduce the spread of infection in a healthcare environment? Do they improve safety in multi-residential facilities? If your products can improve outcomes in the environments they’re used in, write a whitepaper on it. Give your targets the expertise to sell your products to their clients. They will be perceived as smart and valuable in their clients’ eyes.
4. Case studies and testimonials help architects and interior designers confidently specify a new product and minimize the risk of failure. Specifiers don’t want to be the guinea pig. They are skeptical of using new products because they’ve either seen, heard of, or (regretfully) experienced firsthand the consequences of product failure.
Architects and designers tend to specify the same products/materials over-and-over again. This is because they’re familiar with the product, assured of its quality, and confident in its ability to withstand the conditions of a specific environment. They also do this because they know what to expect throughout the entire process—from product and manufacturer support to how the supply chain works to how easy it is to work with a company.
But with the right materials, you can help specifiers break out of their ruts. Case studies and testimonials are a great way to make specifiers confident in their decision to try a new product. Your product.
“I’d be more likely to specify this product if there was third-party quantitative evidence for reduced patient stress.” –Liz Amaral, Interior Designer at Gresham, Smith and Partners, Healthcare Studio
5. Lead-generating content. Provide client-facing sales materials on your site, such as infographics, e-books and testimonials, and always launch new products with detailed case studies and research papers that prove the merits of your building or architectural product. Targets will be able to connect and download educational material they need from your site, essentially “meeting” you before ever experiencing a cold call or an unsolicited e-mail. By offering educational downloadable materials, you can transform your site visitors into leads and eventually, into customers.
Inbound is a marketing methodology that’s based on the belief that attracting specifiers is more effective than advertising to them. Think of advertising as a push—the messaging is pushed out from the company to the specifiers. Inbound is the opposite: a company creates compelling keyword-rich content that draws specifiers to them. It’s a reverse from traditional marketing, one that fits the preferences of today’s consumers.
There’s a lot to Inbound, but there are a few fundamental parts:
- CRM & MA systemsA Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system is a database of all of your customers. Using Marketing Automation (MA) software, the CRM is automatically updated when a customer (or user) returns to a website and it notes how many pages they view. Some Marketing Automation platforms, like HubSpot, have the CRM integrated into their system. Companies receive a daily report noting who has been to the website, what they did, and which areas they engaged most with.
- Lead-generating CTAsEach time a customer responds to a call to action (CTA), they are sent to a landing page that allows them to download premium content (like a report or case study) in exchange for their details. Marketing Automation will then add the contact to various lists such as “newsletter” or filter them by subject like “hospitality”. This allows the company to send the most relevant (and thus, effective) materials to that prospect. Leads generated can be fed directly to the sales team for follow-up.
- Branded contentContent has come a long way in a short time, and the volume is overwhelming. We’ve reached a saturation point for blogs and, quite frankly, most of them are mediocre. The most powerful fuel for an inbound system isn’t just content, it’s branded content. Branded content is real, remarkable, and unique to your company. It solves problems, engages the specifier, and is infused with the essence of your brand. The first step to developing great content is starting with your brand voice, both verbal and visual.
- SEOIt’s not uncommon for specifiers to begin their hunt with a Google search. Google’s mission is to bring the most relevant results to a user’s search query. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the method by which a website ranks as high as possible in organic or non-paid search results. An SEO specialist uses keyword ranking tools to find out what specifiers are searching for, then optimizes your website to be in the top results for those terms. SEO comes down to creating a site that is the best possible place for specifiers to come to when looking for specific answers.
Incorporating these fundamentals of Inbound marketing will turn your website into a high-performance lead generator. Think of it as your digital sales rep, the one that brings in new prospects from the online world.
Though everything seems to be marching toward digitalization these days, physical materials are beginning to make a resurgence. According to a recent Gallup poll, trust and confidence in marketing and media platforms throughout the United States has nosedived to below 32%. That’s the lowest level in Gallup polling history. Of all marketing avenues, however, print is the most trusted, retaining the highest level of credibility amongst end-consumers and decision-makers.
Print is powerful. It delivers a uniquely tactile experience for specifiers that digital just can’t touch. It doesn’t matter whether it’s trade publications like The Architectural Review and Metropolis, or consumer-focused magazines such as ELLE DECOR and Dwell; the lure of high-quality imagery and beautiful typography on luxury, oversized paper in print magazines is so powerful that architects and designers often set aside time specifically to read these pieces. Many even archive them in a library of their own.
Good: A beautiful image of the product in a stunning project situation with contact details. This is best if it can be run consistently. We recommend a six-month minimum media buy.
Better: A beautiful image of the product in a stunning project situation with a close-up and/or image of the product in silhouette and contact details. Realistically, you’ll need a larger ad with a six-month minimum media buy.
- Best: The ultimate display is getting your product highlighted in a featured project layout with article text describing its value in detail. This is where PR is important.
Print isn’t limited to advertising. It can also include all of the collateral pieces that are needed to market to specifiers. Next up, we take a look at a special project in which we used beautiful print collateral to revamp a company’s brand identity.
Nydree Flooring specializes in high-performance wood flooring that’s infused with acrylic-resin for greater durability in high-traffic spaces. The company drew its name from a horse farm in Virginia that the founder grew up near and admired. Memories of the farm brought to mind the beauty and strength of the horses, traits reflected in Nydree’s product.
When revitalizing the brand identity for Nydree, we looked to this narrative to lay the foundation for all of the materials: typography, color, brochures, website, everything. This equestrian theme allowed us to explore image options that were outside of the normal types of imagery found in a sample library. We had the opportunity to make Nydree immediately stand out.
Calling on the textures of horsehair and tanned leather that you’d find in a stable, we crafted a sample kit with a wool felt sleeve, leather strap, and wooden buttons. Far from your ordinary packaging for a flooring sample, the sleeve was something that a specifiers could use outside of the office if they chose. Enclosed was a product sample, as well as a corresponding letter and brochure. In the brochure, sophisticated styling was elevated with artful photos of horses and Nydree’s product.
The sample kit served as an inspiration to both sales reps and designers, furthering the equestrian feel that we infused into the heart of the brand identity.
If you’re struggling to figure out ways to showcase your product, e-mail us to set up a call. We’ll discuss how print materials can be used to empower your marketing efforts.
Your sales team is your most versatile tool for strengthening your marketing efforts and winning the business of specifiers. If you want to take advantage of this versatility, you’ve got to think beyond basic rep duties like stocking samples or scheduling follow-ups. You’ll need to leverage their talents and knowledge in creative ways that fall outside the usual sales routine. In this section, we talk about how you can get the most out of your sales team.
Relationships are everything in the specification world. In fact, for many architects and designers, their specification hinges on the relationships they have with individual reps.
Your reps’ physical presence is one of the most powerful ways to develop meaningful relationships with specifiers. But that presence has to be something that specifiers look forward to. By making visits from your reps fun, stimulating, and benefit-rich, these events can become a well-loved part of the specifier’s work. There are many types of visits that your reps can use to build relationships with specifiers and promote your products:
- Non-scheduled drop-ins.“Reps will drop in from time-to-time to update their catalogs or sample bins. They usually send an e-mail the day before to let us know they’re coming. This is great because it allows us to pull items we need samples for. This always seems to get a lot of traffic into the library. We get really excited when the Shaw carpet rep e-mails us to say she is coming in.”
- Informal 15-minute drop-ins.“These are scheduled through individual designers (at our office at least.) It’s a quick way to show us some new products without having to provide lunch.”
- Weekly drop-ins.“Some reps are in our office on the same day and time every week. One rep is here every Friday morning. I always have some sample orders to talk about… It’s especially great when we’re working on a custom item.”
- Social hour.“Some of our reps host little social hours in the library. One rep does theme parties, like the Kentucky Derby. Another rep does one every product release, basing the theme on the patterns being released… It’s a fun way to get to know the reps. When you feel like you have some kind of relationship with them, you’re more likely to call with questions you may have, and they quickly become a "go to" resource.
- Lunch-and-learns.“This is best when there are new products that come out. It gets the target audience in one room... They have an hour to review new products and can lay everything out in front of the designers.”
Sales reps are the ultimate intelligence officers. They are the people who build relationships with your customers and spend all day selling, problem-solving and advising. They are your boots on the ground, your intel forces in the field.
Why, then, do so many building material and architectural product companies fail to take advantage of sales reps’ intimate knowledge of specifiers’ needs, wants, and concerns when creating marketing materials or developing new products?
Decisions are often made from the top and then pushed down. But that doesn’t make much sense because, for most manufacturers, sales reps are the middlemen that directly interact with customers. Sales reps can provide marketing teams with testimonials, common objections, and valuable insights into the problems their clients are facing, as well as the questions they are asking. All of this information is invaluable in the development of successful content strategies and marketing materials that resonate with specifiers.
So how can you best harness the insights of your sales reps? By creating a sales advisory board. Here are the top 5 reasons why it can be such a powerful resource:
- It gives sales reps the opportunity to provide input. This instills a sense of ownership and accountability, not just for the product, but for the company as well.
- It generates excitement around the brand. Having a sales advisory board signals to the world that your company is interested in growing and staying fresh.
- It can help you see the future. Running a company takes focus and discipline. Sometimes we become so involved in the business that we can’t take a step back to look at what is on the industry’s horizon.
- Sales advisory boards keep companies plugged into what’s next.
It’s a great way to solve issues. The biggest problems are best solved using many minds instead of relying on a single person. Sales reps can help your company become more competitive by solving problems more quickly and effectively.
- It’s a good reality check. Good, bad, or indifferent, the reps on your advisory board will tell you the truth.
Most companies can focus their marketing efforts exclusively on getting architects and designers to specify their products. But companies that use multiline reps face the additional challenge of getting those reps to present their product or material more often.
Independent sales reps carry many product lines, each one competing against the other to make it onto the table for a lunch-and-learn or in-office consult. At any time, sales reps have the opportunity to position your product or material as the best choice for a project.
We've asked hundreds of reps why they choose to promote one product over another. The answer lies in understanding who the reps are selling to, and giving them a reason to do it more frequently. This means companies must come up with consistent and interesting ways to motivate their independent reps.
To begin, let’s consider the main question on a rep’s mind when they walk into a specifier’s firm: Which products am I going to present today?
A variety of factors influence this decision:
- Reps don’t want to overwhelm specifiers with too many products or too much information, so they must choose wisely.
- Reps consider the kinds of projects a firm specializes in, then curate products and materials that match those needs.
- Reps consider which products and materials they showed last time. If they have something new, it will make it out of the bag first.
- Reps will promote materials and products that have great sales support. This can consist of many aspects, from custom Pinterest boards to a quick and easy sampling program. Reps favor companies who make it easy for them to sell.
- Reps consider their income. At the beginning of each year, reps look at their total income and then divide it up by product line. If your product or material makes up a large portion of their income, you can bet it’ll be shown early and often.
How can companies that make up 10–20% of a rep’s income increase their odds of being promoted?
The answer is to develop two marketing campaigns: one aimed at specifiers, and one aimed at reps. These two audiences think about and approach products and materials a little differently.
Like a good marriage, the relationship between reps and manufacturers requires work and romance to keep things new and exciting. Reps respond to three-dimensional objects that they can impress specifiers with. If you consistently send them fresh takes on your existing products, they will become more engaged with your line.
The goal of a campaign targeting reps is to produce something so cool that reps can’t wait to share it, and specifiers vie to keep it. This is your chance to build brand awareness and desire, not only among reps, but also among the specifiers whose business you hope to win.
The coolest retail brands promote themselves by consistently refreshing existing products and presenting them in new ways. Start by taking a good look at your line and ask yourself, what can we do to create desire around our existing products?
In some cases, the answer is simple. We once created a limited edition signed poster for a client that was so popular they couldn’t keep it in stock. The poster featured a beautiful cross-section of a nautilus shell, the perfect architectural form. To make it feel special, the poster was printed on a thick, creamy stock, hand-numbered, and signed like a fine art print. We included a single line of copy that read “Inspired by nature’s perfection” and the company name. Each rep was given a copy and most requested more to hand out. Firms loved it enough to request duplicates for their architects and designers. The poster inspired desire and excitement for the reps and specifiers alike.
Creating a beautiful poster is a relatively easy solution. But sometimes the answer is more complex. Is it time to rebrand your product, or retool the line altogether? Is it possible to create demand around a limited-edition product line or a unique partnership? Take a good look at your favorite retail brands and see if you can emulate some of the strategies they employ. It can be the key to holding the interest of both specifiers and your reps.
In short: don’t take your reps for granted. Think of them as consumers and use a targeted marketing strategy to cultivate a preference for your product line.
Every architecture and interior design firm has a library filled with hundreds of samples and product brochures. They’re often chaotic scenes: shelves heaving with binders and boxes. Amidst the clutter sit brochures and random samples that have been pulled out but never returned to their original home.
Searching these libraries is a big challenge for associates and juniors, who are often tasked to pull relevant samples and binders from a broad category, such as tile or flooring. They’re under pressure to select the most appropriate products and materials without the benefit of product performance or brand awareness. They must literally judge a book by its cover.
Would they pick yours? What does the spine of your binder say? What is your binder made of? Getting off the shelf and into the consideration set can be as simple as having “Luxury Hardwood Flooring” on the spine and the binder made from your beautiful wood materials.
In an ideal world, your product would be selected before the project even starts—not slugging it out on the library shelves. But in reality, many product specifications live and die by something as simple as the spine on a binder. It’s your job as a manufacturer to add one more product into their consideration set, rise above the competition, and achieve specification. You must disrupt the library.
As many as 90% of companies create binders and sample kits using the same myopic strategy, and it shows—they all look the same. Want your architectural product to stand out from the crowd? Try these five easy strategies:
- Use your 3-inch advantage.If you have a binder or a box that sits on a shelf, chances are the spine is the only piece of real estate showing. In essence, the spine is acting as a billboard—messaging that must be easily understood from a distance with a quick glance. Effective billboards follow the same rules. They are clear, easy to read and convey a complicated message in a concise manner.
- Try it: Place your binder or sample kit on a crowded bookshelf, preferably on the top or very bottom shelf to give you the worst-case scenario. Now ask someone who isn’t familiar with your product to stand 10 feet away and locate your sample kit in less than 30 seconds. Bonus points if you just give them the category (tile, flooring, etc.) instead of the name. How’d they do?
- Try it: Place your binder or sample kit on a crowded bookshelf, preferably on the top or very bottom shelf to give you the worst-case scenario. Now ask someone who isn’t familiar with your product to stand 10 feet away and locate your sample kit in less than 30 seconds. Bonus points if you just give them the category (tile, flooring, etc.) instead of the name. How’d they do?
- Message in terms of benefits.So your spine needs to broadcast a message, but what are you going to say? Stick to benefits. For example, a company with a tile that helps reduce the spread of germs could choose one of the following labels: “Anti-bacterial Tile”, “Tile for Healthcare”, or “Germ-reducing Tiles”. Unless you have high brand awareness, the company name should be second to the product benefits in terms of messaging hierarchy.
- Think small.Specifiers want BIG samples to show clients—samples that are too big to fit in a binder or sample kit. Building and architectural product manufacturers often try to compromise with samples that are neither big enough to use in presentations nor small enough to feel irrelevant. This is a mistake.
Your binder or sample kit should only give specifiers a taste. Just enough to motivate them to gather further information on your website or ask their rep for larger samples in specific colorways.
Another reason to “think small” is to deter specifiers from ripping out the glued in samples for placement on their presentation boards. (On that note: sales reps should check library materials regularly to make sure that nothing’s missing.)
- Let the retail world guide you.In the last section, we briefly covered how retail marketing approaches can help you hold the interest of your sales reps. These principles can also be applied when marketing to architects and designers. They’re consumers too. And like any good retailer, you’ll need to keep things fresh if you want to keep their attention.
A pop-up display is one way to pull your product off the shelves to highlight it for a period of time. Limited-edition/small-run collections impart a sense of urgency and FOMO (or fear of missing out)—a technique used by Girl Scouts to sell millions of boxes of cookies once a year.
If you are considering a limited-edition collection, let fashion be your guide. For example, if you make insulation, why not try it in the Pantone color of the year? Or roofing tiles in yellow or hot pink? The goal isn’t to sell the limited-edition products but rather to create buzz around your existing product line.
Another retail strategy is to create inexpensive campaigns that can be rotated frequently rather than sinking all of your resources into one annual investment. For example, your company could provide sales reps with stickers to change out the messaging on the spine several times a year.
- Get sexy with it.Architects and designers are tactile beings; use this to your advantage. Simple print techniques such as blind emboss, varnishes and unusual paper, board, or metal choices can shine a spotlight on a sample kit. In an increasingly digital world, stand out by creating materials that invite touch.
Increasing specifications and growing sales can depend on how often binders and sample kits are being pulled off library shelves, and how that inspiration is turned into action. To give your product the best shot, approach the library as a living environment to be tended to and disrupted frequently.
Tradeshows are a great way to meet prospects and turn them into customers. That is, if you have a plan. Honestly, most companies don’t. Thus, trade shows wind up being an expensive way to grow awareness. If you want to harness the power of the trade show and get your money’s worth, you’ll need to follow a few rules.
Focus on your product benefits and the nuances of your brand. Specifiers are walking the floor looking for solutions to their problems, not specific products. They are also looking to make a memorable connection with a brand rather than meet a manufacturer. There’s a big difference between the two.
This is why you need a lead-capturing plan. Whatever you can do to keep a record of who visited (aside from scanning tags) and what was important to them will make the difference between a lead-generating show and one that was just busy. Start placing your leads in different buckets by product or by project. This will make your follow-up easier and more relevant.
Write all of trade show communications and plan your follow-up campaigns in advance. THIS IS HUGE . If you don’t do it before you go, chances are it won’t get done after, rendering your investment fruitless.
This is where having prewritten communications becomes a smart strategic move. All you and your team will have to do is a 5-minute lead ranking (informed by your notes) at the end of each day to determine which leads should be followed up onsite. After the show is over, you can sort your leads into predetermined groupings and start them on relevant e-mail campaigns.
So, what does all this mean for you as a manufacturer? How can you leverage modern marketing techniques to get your products specified consistently in a densely-crowded market?
We’ve covered a lot of territory in this guide. But if you remember a few key principles, you’ll be well on your way to winning more specifications.
Here are a few quick takeaways:
- Be unique.Your brand is the one thing that will distinguish you from the competition and make you memorable to specifiers. Stand out by finding your company’s authentic voice and image, the one no one else can imitate.
- It’s not you; it’s me.Your prospects are not interested in reading more about you. They’re interested in how your products can help them be successful. Take time to understand your prospects and focus your message on the benefits you can offer them.
- Don’t just tell—show.Specifiers want an expert guide. Brand yourself as a thought leader in the industry by creating downloadable educational materials that explain the ways your products solve problems for your targets. This type of marketing moves you from product-pusher to partner.
- Embrace the data.All that educational material will boost your SEO, driving potential leads to your site. Capture their data as they download your content and use it to transform visitors into sales leads.
- Use multiple techniques.Inbound marketing strategies can be pursued through a multitude of media: blog posts, whitepapers, research reports, PDFs, etc. Through inbound marketing, you can track what types of materials your prospects respond to and hone your content to match their interests.
- Save time.One of the benefits of inbound content marketing is that it reduces the amount of touch time required to close a sale by doing some of the heavy lifting. While it’s busy establishing trust and demonstrating value, you’re free to do more of what you do best.
- Value relationships.Value relationships. Whether your reps meet specifiers at trade shows or in-office visits, these real-world relationships are essential to getting specified. Don’t take them or your team members for granted.