If your company were a box of cereal, how would you market it?

That may sound like a bizarre question, but the battle you fight with your crosstown rival for dominance in your local market isn't much different than the battle the marketers of Wheaties and Cheerios fight for the shelf space at your local supermarket. Whether you are trying to create demand for the electrical supplies you sell or for a breakfast cereal, the marketing strategies used are more alike than one would think.

Over the years, Electrical Wholesaling magazine has offered its readers dozens of articles on marketing, but you can really cut to the chase and pare everything down to just three words: Build your brand.

Sound familiar? It's why masters of the retail marketing game like General Mills and Kellogg's spend millions of dollars to position themselves in the marketplace.

Says Christine Moeller, marketing manager for Edson Electric Supply, Phoenix, “We're moving away from this industry where a widget is a widget, toward needing to brand ourselves and who we are and what we can offer. Electrical wholesalers have known that marketing is a good thing, but they have not really understood how to use it and how they can make it work.”

Once you buy into the philosophy of building your brand as your real marketing objective and the key to your survival, everything else should flow from there — all the marketing research, promotions, merchandising, customized publications, counter days, Web sites, direct mail, strategic marketing plans, and marketing campaign analysis.

Building a brand isn't easy. But you can learn from the masters of the marketing game — no matter how big or small you are. Plus, today's distributors have some real advantages that were not available in the past. The tools necessary to build your brand are now much more accessible and affordable.

For instance, not all that long ago, if your company wanted to develop a customized flyer, newsletter or other promotional material, you had no choice but to go to a public relations company or ad agency. Today, you can invest in a desktop publishing system to do that work in-house.

One rep in the Kansas City area did just that to help distributors plug into the many marketing programs now offered by manufacturers and through the industry's buying/marketing groups. C&O Sales, Lenexa, Kan., took one of its top inside salespeople and moved her into a marketing role. Mary Coldiron now manages the development of flyers, brochures and promotions. To build up the company's marketing capabilities, the company had to invest in a top-of-the-line laser printer and upgrade software for desktop publishing, contact management and Web-page development.

Coldiron recently produced a 140-slide presentation for the C&O booth at a trade show sponsored by the Electric League of Missouri and Kansas. The customized marketing materials that Coldiron creates for C&O's customers and vendors position the company as a professional provider of electrical supplies and services in its Midwestern market.

“She is the hub, and all of that flows into her,” says Doug Carlson, C&O president. “It helps us tremendously for her to manage that for us.”

In this article you will learn about several companies that have mastered different aspects of the marketing game. They learned from some of the masters, and you can learn from them.

WONDERFUL WEB

With multiple industry awards for its Web site, Roden Electrical Supply Co. could not have put the prize-winning site together on its own, said Sam McCamy, president of the Knoxville, Tenn., based distributorship.

The site is one example of the template-based Web sites that many of the Vanguard Distribution Group's 18 members have rolled out over the last year.

Launched in late-2000, the Pittsburgh-based Vanguard Distribution Group (VDG) is a group of noncompeting Allen-Bradley/Rockwell Automation distributors that pool resources to develop online marketing and management resources, such as a template-based Web site.

“It wasn't cheap, and it wasn't anything that any of the distributors could have done on their own,” said McCamy. “By pooling financial and other resources, we've been able to pull it off.”

Pooling resources and sharing best practices is nothing new to Roden's leaders. One of the original members of Southern Independent Electrical Distributors (SIED), the industry's first buying group, Roden has pooled its power and talent with other distributors for more than two decades. With recent years' rampant consolidation, independent distributors may find it necessary to increasingly form smaller focused groups to try to even the playing field.

“Sometimes you have to focus into a smaller group to do great things,” said McCamy. “We've had to belong to different peer groups to do everything we're doing.”

While VDG members are able to pull from centrally hosted common content applicable to OEM, contractor and industrial/MRO customers, the 18 distributors also tailor their sites to their unique customers' needs.

Still, one of the most important aspects of the Vanguard Web sites is the continuity between them. If one distributor builds a page, it can be saved as a template and other group members can edit it as they'd like.

Before redesigning Roden's Web site using the VDG tools, McCamy says the site was pretty static. Now, it's very interactive. “We like to think it's the stuff that only really, really big companies can afford,” he said.

With nine locations and 95 employees, third-generation family-owned Roden Electrical Supply had $37.5 million in 2001 sales. The distributor is ranked No. 139 on Electrical Wholesaling's list of the 250 largest electrical distributors.

HIGH VOLTAGE

Marianne Brummett has witnessed much change in her job description in her six years as director of marketing for Wiseway Supply of Florence, Ky. Originally hired primarily to baby sit promotions and counter days, Brummett says her job focus now entails more strategic marketing or “marketing with a purpose.”

“We try to target our marketing efforts in areas that may need some attention,” said Brummett.

For example, one of her current duties is creating monthly penetration analyses for Wiseway's salespeople. By crunching numbers from Electrical Wholesaling's Regional Factbook and Market Planning Guide (published annually in the November issue), Brummett forecasts potential sales numbers for individual product categories and bumps them against the sales team's actual numbers. “If we see that across the board salespeoples' numbers for wiring devices are suffering, we know that we need to do some marketing in that area,” she said.

Although the distributor recently received recognition from IMARK for “Outstanding Marketing Activity,” the staff at Wiseway gets more excited when marketing activities receive customer recognition — in the form of dollars and cents.

With a 14-percent increase over prior-year sales from 2000 to 2001, Wiseway's “High Voltage” direct promotion did just that. “We thought 14 percent was really good given the economy we were in,” said Brummett. “With that success, we decided to do it again this year.”

The promotion — a three-month merchandise rewards program — let customers earn points through the purchase of certain vendors' products. At the end of the promotion, customers traded in points for merchandise like TVs or Walkmans.

As the first Wiseway employee dedicated solely to marketing, Brummett points out that without someone dedicated to marketing, a lot of opportunities would probably be missed.

“If you have someone just managing the co-op programs, a marketing position easily pays for itself,” said Brummett.

With six branches and 90 employees catering to both electrical and plumbing markets, Wiseway brings in $20 million in annual sales.

ALL ABOUT NUTS

Ask the gang at Duplex Electrical about its shtick, and they'll tell you they're nuts. The 12-year-old distributor's central message and the cornerstone of its marketing efforts — “Duplex is nuts about service” — helped earn the Port Washington, N.Y, electrical wholesaler marketing recognition from more than one industry organization.

Part of the slogan's success comes from Duplex's judicious and consistent use of the phrase. Where will you find the motto? On the Web site, direct mail pieces, the monthly newsletter and in ads run in the Nassau Electrical League's monthly magazine. Can't read? That's OK. Enjoy a snack of packaged nuts while you wait at the counter.

The nutty campaign — the brainchild of Duplex President Herb Slater and Jerry Light, marketing consultant for the distributor — came as a way to try to differentiate Duplex from the other distributors serving its target market of Nassau County on Long Island, N.Y.

With approximately 12 distributors and 600 electrical contractors serving Nassau County, Duplex's single branch competes in a tough market.

“We're a David among Goliaths in our target market area,” said Light. “We try to show a point of difference — what we call our unique sales proposition — and that is service.”

Research is another important part of the Duplex marketing strategy. “We run several focus groups, and we've followed the results of the focus groups,” said Light.

Of course, the research wouldn't go far with Duplex's customers if its slogan were merely empty words. “We do know that service is a very important part of this business,” said Slater, a longtime electrical-industry veteran and the founder of Duplex. “You can't sell on price because everybody has the same price,” he said. “If you go lower than everybody, you're going to put yourself out of business.”

With nearly 80 percent of Nassau County's 600 electrical contractors on Duplex's current customer list, it seems that the folks at Duplex need not worry about going out of business…even if they are all nuts.

7 STEPS TO DEVELOPING YOUR PROMOTIONAL PLAN OR THE 90-DAY DISTRIBUTOR MARKETING PLAN

Right about now, as a distributor you are probably thinking about next year's marketing and sales plan. But you may also be feeling a bit disillusioned by this tougher-than-usual year and wondering if a marketing and sales plan can really work in this environment. Nonetheless, don't procrastinate.

Planning is tough when spirits are down, the budget is squeezed, and you're not sure anything will work. But, think about the upside of planning for next year. Competitors are probably feeling the same way you are, so the smart thing to do is take advantage of the prevailing tendency to “procrastinate and commiserate.”

Plan now to take market share next year, and get the jump on competition.

How does this work? Involve your top suppliers now and you'll grab their mind share and focus on developing the market with you. Suppliers respect distributors that work this way.

October

1 Review projected sales performance for 2002, including projected sales, market size for 2002 and market share by branch and market segment. Forecast your annual results and plan based on that! Review the forecast for next year, too, by using tools like DISC DataSearch and Quarterly Sales Forecast (www.disccorp.com).

2 Get feedback from your top suppliers on this year's marketing programs and suggestions for next year, including hot new products, important supplier objectives and marketing campaign schedules for next year. Share your planning approach (this outline) and set a date for a meeting with them in Step 6.

3 Set and share tentative sales goals by market segment and product line.

November

4 Develop your marketing strategy and break it down by product and service offering by market segment as well as promotional strategy by market segment. Include corporate communication campaigns, segment communication campaigns and product promotional campaigns. Leave room for supplier-generated product promotions during the year.

5 Develop next year's promotional strategy and media schedule, including expected funding and activity participation by supplier.

6 Meet with your top manufacturers to discuss and edit the plan, including top end user targets, share and sales goals.

December

7 Publish and implement your final plan for next year.

Neil Gillespie, principal with Channel Marketing Group, Pittsburgh

5 THINGS YOUR MOTHER PROBABLY NEVER TOLD YOU ABOUT MARKETING

  1. You must market your company to more than just customers.

    To some distributors, marketing may mean staging counter days, giving away baseball caps and golf balls, and sending out flyers about upcoming product specials. While these are pieces of an overall marketing strategy, marketing means much more.

    Market your company to existing and prospective customers, vendors and to your local community just as much as you market it to the people who buy your products. To get more ideas on how marketing affects all aspects of your company, check out “99 Ways to Sell Your Stuff,” EW, October 2001, (p. 18).

  2. There's more to earning and effectively using co-op ad dollars than meets the eye.

    Just because a manufacturer offers co-op dollars, it doesn't mean that they should be your only effort to market a vendor's product line. As Tony Fasano, vice president of marketing for Bridgeport Fittings Inc., Stratford, Conn., points out in his “Speaking Out” column in EW's July issue, manufacturers are usually glad to work with distributors who have specific marketing goals in mind and are willing to invest in them, but they don't want distributors to treat co-op dollars as a free handout.

  3. Your customers would like you to put on a counter day or mini trade show at their facility.

    Most distributors probably never have considered staging a counter day or trade show anyplace but their own branches. But large accounts, like industrial firms or utilities, with many of their workers on-site might really appreciate you bringing a key vendor or group of key vendors to their locations for product demos or training.

    One Salt Lake City-based industrial distributor does this fairly often with some of its industrial maintenance and repair operation (MRO) accounts. The customers love it because workers get some free on-site training without having to leave the building.

  4. It's easier than you think to get publicity for your company in local newspapers or industry trade magazines.

    You can usually get a brief article published when you hire new employees, stage a special event or open a new branch — and you don't have to hire a press agent or even have a full-time marketing person.

    Call the editor or person handling local news, and see if the news would be of interest, how much information they need from you and the technical specifications for photos. These days, most publications like them in electronic format in a resolution of at least 300 dots per inch (DPI).

  5. You don't have to spend thousands on a Web site to offer valuable insight and information about your company.

    Don't despair if you are just getting started on the Web or don't have the bucks to get a professionally designed Web site. Relatively inexpensive software, such as Microsoft FrontPage, is not that hard to learn and will produce professional results.

    At first, keep the site simple and just offer the basics: who you are, what services you offer, when your branches are open, driving directions, and e-mail addresses for key contacts.

MAKING MAGAZINES

Although every electrical distributor — from the largest to the smallest — engages in marketing activities, few funnel time and money into producing a magazine.

Edson Electric Supply, Phoenix, has published The Edson Connection going on three years now. This year, the glossy magazine won a “Best of the Best” marketing award from The Electrical Distributor (TED) in the category of best publication.

“I like to call it the coffee-table magazine because customers keep it around for more than just a day,” said Christine Moeller, Edson's marketing manager. “You go to businesses and the magazine is sitting out for all to read.”

The fact that Edson's customers keep the magazine around longer than a mailer or newsletter is one of its benefits. As a vehicle for introducing Edson's customers to its people and services, the magazine's editorial well also includes special interest stories, such as an economic outlook, a small-business article or a key construction project in Arizona. Because Edson sponsors customer trips every 18 months, Moeller might also add a story on the next vacation destination.

The 30-plus-page magazine mails three times a year with a circulation of 2,500 that includes contractors, specifiers, builders, key decision makers and prospect customers. The magazine is also distributed at the counters of the distributor's 10 branches.

Key vendors support the magazine with paid advertising, but Edson tries to limit advertising to just one vendor per each product category. “It's becoming kind of a premier thing that our vendors want to be a part of,” said Moeller.

What's more, the publication creates another opportunity for the sales team to bring something with them when visiting with customers or vendors.

Edson did some research before launching its magazine. “We did a test publication before committing to producing the magazine,” said Moeller. “The feedback was tremendous, so we had to keep going.”