#91: Creating a COVID-Proof Building Materials Brand

by Smarter Building Materials Marketing

Even during COVID, manufacturers want to know how to get closer to their customers and learn the real problems that they need help solving. The opportunities to meet face-to-face are less frequent, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be present as a trusted partner.

More About This Episode

In this episode, Zach and Beth talk to Sebastian DeGregorio, Business Strategy Manager at Allura, about what they're doing to market and sell during and post-COVID and how they're supporting the channel.

Transcript

Zach Williams:

If you're a manufacturer wondering how you can use the situation around COVID to help you get closer to your customer and learn the real problems that you need to help your audience solve, this is an episode for you. On today's episode we bring on a manufacturer who's doing that very thing by getting in front of their audience to learn their pain points, their problems, and how they can help them sell effectively in today's market. They share some great stories around simple marketing tactics that you can implement today without a lot of effort or man-hours. All right, let's get into the episode.

Voiceover:

Welcome to the Smarter Building Materials Marketing Podcast, helping you find better ways to grow leads, sales, and outperform your competition. And now, here are your hosts, Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov.

Zach Williams:

All right, everybody. Welcome to Smarter Building Materials Marketing where we believe your online presence should be your best salesperson. I am so excited about today because we've got my cohost back on the show with us. We've got Beth PopNikolov. Beth, you are back in action, back at Venveo. Beth, tell everyone why you've been gone. It's not because of COVID.

Beth PopNikolov:

Zach was nice enough to give me a three-month vacation. So I just chilled.

Zach Williams:

HR nightmare red alert. Ah.

Beth PopNikolov:

I was on maternity leave, just staring into the eyes of the world's cutest baby for the last three months while the world burned down around us, basically.

Zach Williams:

What's your baby's name? Share with our listeners.

Beth PopNikolov:

His name's Forrest Callan. He is the cutest, squishiest thing you've ever seen in your life.

Zach Williams:

And how much hair does he have? Does he have more or less-

Beth PopNikolov:

So much hair. So much hair.

Zach Williams:

For our listeners out there, Beth has two boys and the immediate reaction when you see one of her babies, it's like, "Oh, my gosh, it's so cute. Oh, my gosh, that is the most hair I've ever seen on a child."

Beth PopNikolov:

Full heads of hair, 100%. And it never falls out. Like lots of people who... Yeah. Never falls out. It just continues to grow. Just giant heads of hair on really cute babies.

Zach Williams:

That's so great.

Beth PopNikolov:

We're going to make some newborn hair gel. Going to be our next product.

Zach Williams:

That's great. Well, I'm pumped you're back on the show. As I mentioned when we were prepping is, I've gotten multiple emails and conversations with people while Beth was out. They're like, "Hey, where's your really smart cohost?" And I was like, "Um, am I not smart? Why do you have to put that adjective in there?" Like...

Beth PopNikolov:

I'm really glad because I listened to the podcast while I was out and you did so well without me, I was concerned. I was, "You don't even need me anymore."

Zach Williams:

Oh, I definitely do.

Beth PopNikolov:

Thanks for letting me back, regardless.

091 multi residential units

Zach Williams:

Absolutely. Well, we're really excited about today's guest who's going to be sharing with us about what they're doing to market and sell during and post-COVID and how they're supporting the channel. We've got Sebastian DeGregorio on the show this day. He's the Business Strategy Manager at Allura. Welcome to the show, Sebastian.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Thanks for having me.

Zach Williams:

So for our listeners, why don't you just kick us off, give us a little bit of your history and how you made it into building products.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Sure. So I actually started out in marketing in a nonprofit, and then after several years of that, when I got a master's and went into management consulting where I did performance improvement, shortly after a two-year stint there, I started a technology startup focused on trying to match builders with home buyers. It was somewhat of a platform type of business and that didn't work out too great, but it helped solidify my love for construction and building. So I found a great company called Allura and I started in their strategic planning group. And then my role shifted into being more towards on the commercial side of the business. Yeah. So, today I'm largely focused on sales, marketing, growth initiatives, new products, new market entry, things like that.

Beth PopNikolov:

You know what I'd be interested in, if there's anything that you learned during your time working on this start-up technology of marrying homeowners and builders that you bring into your marketing when you're trying to reach homeowners and builders.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Absolutely. Yeah. There's lots of things. So, with homeowners, because it's the most important decision it feels like to them that they're making, at least financially, they're very careful and very risk-averse about the whole process. And I think the thing that killed us was, what we were offering was so drastically different from what people are used to that it was too scary for them. So there's a need in the buying process for homeowners to feel secure with the process, with who they're talking to, with the thing they're listening, and anything that maybe raises a flag, I think folks will push away from, or not want.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

And then the flip side with the builders, it's different for the builders, right? They just altogether do not have that same feeling. They're building something, they're trying to get it up quick, they have their cap tables that they're paying attention to, and they're trying to get out. So on their side, actually, there's resistance to change, too. And I think this is why our industry by and large hasn't changed in 80 years. Even the methods of construction haven't changed and guys like Integra and others who are pioneering this change, it's an uphill battle. It's not easy. And some of these technologies, like offsite construction, factory-built homes, these things have been around for 120 years. We used to be able to order a home through a Sears catalog.

Beth PopNikolov:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

You know what I'm saying? Anyway, today when I'm looking at Allura's marketing and I'm thinking about the blog post and things like that, and when I've got my editor hat on-

Beth PopNikolov:

So good. Yum.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

... those types of things are very much in my mind about, how is this message making this person feel secure? Why should they trust us with what we're saying? Is there something in here that, not just is valuable information, but is there something in there that's building that trust factor, building that relationship with them that then they'll want to buy?

Beth PopNikolov:

So obviously Sebastian we're here to talk about how you guys are handling, continuing to see steady growth or continuing to grow your, either customer relationships or sales during COVID-19. Obviously a couple of months ago the whole world exploded a little bit. Tell us about how that was received within Allura and what you guys have done to be able to reach your pro channel during this time.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yeah. Great question. To tell this story, I want to back up to the latter part of last year. Every year Hanley would publish this brand survey where they measure how building professionals recognize certain brands, and what was nice about that, it was a little bit of a wake-up call to us about where we stood, not just in fiber cement but in the industry at large. And so that kicked off with us a lot of internal discussion around what it is that we're doing and what do we want to be in the future. And one thing that we realized is, we probably weren't doing a good job of making clear how we're different from the competition. And so in the beginning of 2020, we actually launched a new tagline for Allura, which is making the material difference and making a material difference is actually the way we've been doing things all along, and it's basically clarifying to the industry how we're different from our competitors and what we're about.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

And so, in light of that, we had a lot of strategic initiatives that came out of the tail end of 2019, both in R&D and marketing and sales. And so when COVID hit, COVID has been very interesting. I think what COVID has done, at least on the building side and not just to people personally, is kind of exposed maybe where your business was at and where certain things were. And I view the last two-and-a-half months as a pause, and everything went to a screeching halt. And for a materials manufacturer supplying builders, that was a pretty significant two-month halt because those are some very core months to our revenue and whatnot.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

And so as we went into it, obviously we energize our sales force to continue to work the way they could while observing all the CDC guidelines. But during that two-month pause it really gave us an opportunity to get back to working on what's important. It's easy in your day-to-day to get stuck into working on what's in front of you, what's kind of burning, but this period has been good because we've been able to touch many things that really needed to get touched. So one thing I'll say is, I was thinking about one of the core things we try to focus on, and at least in the marketing side, is this idea of relational versus transactional. So anytime we create a marketing piece or we hold some event or we're doing something, we think about how does this thing help us build a relationship with that audience, versus, "Hey, merely something like a customer requested something, let me give them what they're looking for."

Sebastian DeGregorio:

So in light of that, our business prior to COVID a big part of relational was face-to-face, was our salespeople going out, meeting with customers, meeting with prospects, being in the channel, meeting builders. And I think that idea of face-to-face has changed, right? Whereas maybe face-to-face before was, the standard was, "Let me get in my car and drive to you and get in front of your actual face," face-to-face now, I think probably to use, I hate to use this word, but the new norm might be virtual meetings becomes the default. So we've done some things to help ourselves adapt to this face-to-face interaction and we've taken what we've learned and thought about, "Okay, how can we provide more value to our customers? To our channel partners? How can we provide more value a little bit further down to builders, installers from Allura, from our website, to help builders maintain that face-to-face interaction and build those relationships?"

Sebastian DeGregorio:

And so, one thing we've done is, "Okay, well, no doubt some of our partners are going to be using virtual meetings. How can we help them speak to Allura's products and how can we help train them so that they can impact their business in a good way?" And so we launched a series of videos called Lots of Know-How. It's a kind of play on word, right? Lots, like lots that you build a house on.

Beth PopNikolov:

I love that.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

So we had our salespeople actually shoot videos from their home, much like it would look like if they were sitting in a virtual meeting with them, and they each grabbed a topic and they went through different things like product knowledge or, "Hey, here's some tips when you're engaging a builder on how to speak to fiber cement," or, "Here are the benefits of Allura fiber cement over the competition," or over different material types.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

And so there's somewhere around 17 to 22 videos that are hosted on our website that are there basically providing a bit of training, a bit of sales instruction, a bit of product knowledge to our partners so that when they're having their virtual meetings with builders or other people, they can speak to the benefits and value of Allura fiber cement and help them close more business.

Zach Williams:

So where would I find these videos?

Sebastian DeGregorio:

You can go to allurausa.com/lots-of-know-how.

091 apartment building with pool

Zach Williams:

I want to check that out. That's really cool. So if I hear you correctly, paraphrasing, you took the approach of saying, "Hey, let's use COVID as an opportunity to, number one, not only continue to find ways to get in front of our audience, but continue to shift your messaging and your marketing to support your audience, to sell more effectively to their audience."

Sebastian DeGregorio:

That's right.

Beth PopNikolov:

Love. So smart.

Zach Williams:

It's like what we always like to say, like BthroughB, not B2B, like you're selling through to the channel. Talk to us a little about the response that you're hearing from builders and the channel around this approach. Are you hearing anything from them saying, "Hey, we really like this," or are they still trying to just figure out the, for lack of a better term, as you mentioned, the new normal? What kind of insights are you hearing from builders across the industry?

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Well, the main target with these videos has been our dealers and distributors, and their reps love it because many of them might be new to their company or that some time has lapsed and they just need a refresh on their knowledge of the product. And some others just very much thankful that, a little bit of coaching about what matters to builders and what matters to installers. And so, sometimes just hearing how somebody might approach that sales pitch versus the way you've been doing it, you pick up tips.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

And then some of the installers actually we've shared these videos with, because we do have a couple of videos in there about installation, best practices and tips, tricks, things like that, how to best store fiber cement on the job site. And so several of those installers have told us, "Hey, this is really great. I never thought about having a special cutting table to help protect the paint coating on the fiber cement and flipping it over and cutting it this way." So, very good, strong response across the board.

Zach Williams:

What I like about this idea is, is candidly, Sebastian, if I'm just being real with you, like "This, isn't a revolutionary idea."

Sebastian DeGregorio:

No.

Zach Williams:

I mean, don't hear that the wrong way. But this is the thing I've heard from a lot of manufacturers is, "Oh, my audience is at home. They have no excuse." And I say something like, "They have no excuse to not meet with you." And instead of being concerned about, "Oh, my gosh, am I going to lose their business?" You're trying to help them build their business. I think that if you can always take that approach, always view your business through that lens, it's going to help that relationship component that you guys it sounds like you're really focus on. Is that right?

Sebastian DeGregorio:

That's right. I mean, again, with the making the material difference launch, we very much adapted a mindset to try to outperform our competitors in every way possible. And so one of our core ideas with our performance, with outhustling, and so we thought to ourselves, "How can we be proactive in continuing to build our relationships during COVID?" And this was one idea that was generated from the sales team. So it was very much... This was not a top-down thing. I'm proud to say this was very much a bottom-up idea that we executed, and it's been really great.

Beth PopNikolov:

Okay, first of all, I love so many things that you've just said, I will be stealing outhustle because we talk a lot about hustle. I've never heard anybody say outhustle, and I really, really like it. I will be saying that from now on. So I want to go back to what you said at the very beginning, because you actually started by saying, "At the end of 2019, beginning of 2020, Allura was really looking at, what do you need to do to better position yourselves in the market?"

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yup.

Beth PopNikolov:

And the two things that I like of what you said that I want to get you to talk just a little bit more about is, one, you decided to be very intentional in the year 2020 about how you went to market, how you partnered with your dealers and distributors. And, before I get to my question, I just want to say what I love so much about what you've shared is, you as a company have taken this moment to be introspective.

Beth PopNikolov:

And I think instead of just going straight to the hustle, which doesn't always pay off, right, and just scrambling, you guys have said, "Okay, what do we need to reevaluate based on how things have shifted so that we can be successful in the long-term and help our partners be successful?" I'm obsessed with that viewpoint. It's incredible. So, what I'd love to hear you talk about is, you guys went into this year being very intentional, but during this time of halt, as you said, what have you seen that's been able to continue because you were being intentional in your marketing beforehand?

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Ooh, that's a great question. I would say as far as the tactical execution side, we haven't stopped any of our social media marketing. Some of our... We do a bit of light advertising on digital, those things haven't stopped. Also, we have not stopped trying to be focused on content and providing content to different audiences through our blogs or through other means. And I'd say those things, as far as the sales side, I can't say that much has changed in terms of activity. Like we've still been able to get with customers by virtual means. Yeah. I'm hard-pressed to think of something that really has been impacted.

Zach Williams:

Sebastian, if I can have you put your futurist hat on, which, by the way, I want that title. I like your title a lot.

Beth PopNikolov:

Futurist is so baller.

Zach Williams:

I want to know, how do you achieve that title? I've been reading articles about futurists and like what they're predicting, and the great part about being a futurist is no one remembers if you're wrong. It's like being a weatherman.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yeah, exactly. It's only-

Zach Williams:

And my viewpoint of that is very small. I don't know enough about futurists, so please don't judge me if I'm completely off base. But the thing I really like to hear from you about as we wrap up the show is, what do you think is going to completely change because of COVID? And what do you think is going to go back to the status quo? I think is a better way of asking that. I'd really like to hear your perspective on that and how you guys are planning for it.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yeah, that's interesting. When this thing started I was able to pull some data from some of our industry partners and worked with other people within Allura. And we built several different models, one of which basically iterated outcomes, like 10,000 outcomes. And it's funny, when you build these things, you have a timeframe, right, a year, and you look at, "Okay, what's the impact going to be on a year?" And, well, I think everyone seems to agree within the industry that at least in 2020 we're going to see a 30 to 40% impact on the total volume of new home constructions. So we thought about that and we had to take some steps to ride through that, and there's still a lot of uncertainty, right? Some kind of vaccine is probably a year away, in reality, is what a lot of doctors and the CDC is saying.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

So we expect that a lot of the social distancing is still going to be in effect to a certain degree. And, to be honest with you, I think the means of face-to-face, as I started out at the beginning, I think that has changed for business. I think in the past it maybe wasn't as acceptable in our industry. If you were in a sales role to meet virtually, I think the expectation was probably somewhat that you go down to the retail level, you meet face-to-face with the builder. But I think that this last two, three months has opened people's eyes to, in a sense, you can be slightly more efficient if you do a mix of virtual meetings. And so our plan is to very much try to continue to do these types of meetings.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Why? Because it actually makes us more responsive to our customers. I don't have to travel to go see you if it's not necessary, or I can get on a face-to-face call with you immediately and help you solve that issue you're having. And so we've set this as a target. This is something that we're going to do. And so we've actually taken steps to support this. And one thing that we're doing of the many things that were borne out of COVID is, we're going to be launching a chatbot. Again, something, as you said before, like video is not that groundbreaking, right? It's not revolutionary. But one of the things that we're wanting to do or how we're going to leverage that chatbot is to give our customers and give prospects or people who have questions, a direct channel to connect with all the talented people within Allura. So if you've got a question about, "Hey, where can I buy this product?" We're actually going to be developing a new internal role, kind of a customer success/inside sales role to help answer those questions.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Or you're a current customer and you need to get said material at this date. Well, you can reach out directly to the chatbot. Or you're a builder and you're very interested in Allura but you want to meet with someone. You could be able to set a time on a rep schedule to meet that same day. So finding ways really to close the distance and speed up our ability to be able to respond to different types of people with different types of questions, is I think one way that we've changed our business. And I think it's something that's going to be long-term despite, at some point, the social distancing is going to be relaxed. This is not Allura's official position. My official position is that I think people are going to get back to normal later on this year. But I think you'll see a difference amongst people in terms of their level of comfort. I think you'll see people walking around with masks still for the next-

Zach Williams:

Oh, have you been to Home Depot recently?

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yeah. Yeah.

Zach Williams:

Oh, I mean, this is not political at all, but I just think it's funny. Like America is social distancing on their own terms and some scenarios are like, "Oh, I'm going to do social distancing unless I've got a project I've got to do in my house or in my yard. And in that case I'm going to drive as quick as I can to Home Depot." Like that's... I'm not criticizing anybody. Please don't hear that the wrong way. But I think, to your point, America is doing it a bit and this isn't everybody, but America is doing a bit on their own terms.

091 custom home

Sebastian DeGregorio:

If I were Home Depot, I'd spend a whole bunch of money to prevent sports from happening, because if you think about it, all the men have been home and the only reason that the honey do list is getting knocked out is because there's no sport.

Beth PopNikolov:

It's so funny. Oh, that's my favorite thing in the world.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Home Depot and Lowe’s should develop a cabal and like just stop sports somehow.

Zach Williams:

So my last question for you, and you've got to answer this in one word, okay?

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Okay.

Zach Williams:

IBS 2021. Is it going to happen?

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yes.

Zach Williams:

Okay.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yeah. Now, is everyone going to attend?

Zach Williams:

No. That's it. I want to really cut the episode right there. No. Yes. I'm just kidding.

Beth PopNikolov:

What do you say, Zach?

Zach Williams:

Do I think it happens? Yes, I do. I think it's because it'd be economically catastrophic for the organization that puts it on.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yeah.

Zach Williams:

But to Sebastian's point, are there going to be a lot of people that go? I mean, also, it's in Orlando, which, it's not the best venue. I will say it'll probably get easier to get in and out of the Convention Center because there's going to be less people.

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Yeah. But, then, what does this value become?

Zach Williams:

Sebastian, this has been awesome. If someone wants to get in contact with you, what's the best way for them to do that?

Sebastian DeGregorio:

Well, I won't put out my email or cell phone number out there, though I would welcome talking to people. But the best way to get in touch with us is, you can email us at [email protected], E-L-E-M-E-N-T-I-A, .com.

Zach Williams:

That's great. Awesome. Again, thank you for coming on the show and if you want more great content like this go to venveo.com/podcast. Until next time, I'm Zach Williams alongside Beth PopNikolov. Thanks everybody.

Voiceover:

You've been listening to Smarter Building Materials Marketing with Zach Williams and Beth PopNikolov. To get the resources mentioned in this podcast, visit venveo.com/podcast. Thank you for listening.

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