To avoid racing to the bottom on price, you want to sell your brand, not your product. But what happens when your brand is so well-established that your company name becomes synonymous with similar products, even from the competition? We talk to one manufacturer on how they keep selling to contractors, even as the market around them evolves.
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The Smarter Building Materials Marketing podcast helps industry professionals find better ways to grow leads, sales and outperform the competition. It’s designed to give insight on how to create a results-driven digital marketing strategy for companies of any size.
In this episode, Zach talks to Jim Edgeworth, Director of Sales and Marketing at Bilco about their tactics and strategies, as well as what messaging actually works to cut through the noise to reach the contractor.
A Brand With History
Jim’s been in the business a while — more than 27 years in fact. A golf pro looking for a career change, he connected with Bilco back when job ads were still advertised in local newspapers. A member at the country club told him that building materials was a great industry to be in, but once he got started, he’d never leave.
“Don't be nasty to folks because you'll see them at the next event but they'll just have a different logo on their shirt. It’s really like that,” Jim was told.
Like Jim, Bilco has been in the business for a while. Started in 1926 and run for 80 years as a family company, they’ve now gone international with their parent company. If you live in the northeast, you’ve probably heard of Bilco doors. They manufacture bulkhead doors and other foundation egress points.
In fact, Bilco is so well known in their industry, that their brand name has become synonymous not just with their products, but also their competitors, in the way people use “Kleenex” to refer to any kind of facial tissue. Brand recognition like this might seem great at face value, but it poses some unique challenges when it comes to sales and marketing.
For decades, the bulk of Bilco’s sales and marketing was focused on wholesalers. Jim’s proud to say that they have 40- and 50-year relationships with some of their partners. But as years go by, some owners retire with no family members to take over, and the arrival of big-box and e-commerce retailers mean the marketplace is changing.
When the Big Box Stores Come Knocking
As the marketplace evolves, so do established companies like Bilco. Jim admits the transition wasn’t an easy one: “We were a very traditional company and our mindset about kind of dancing with the one that brung you. And so we protected our two-step wholesalers.”
But as Home Depot and Lowe’s started to take more and more market share in the early and mid-2000s, Bilco felt the pressure to adapt. “The business was changing; people wanted to buy differently. I buy differently, you buy differently. I go online first, right?”
With large OEM products, Bilco eventually started selling to Lowe’s and Home Depot through their wholesalers, but that arrangement didn’t last very long. “Within 18 to 24 months, Lowe's came back and said, ‘It's got to be business to business now.’”
With large, heavy OEM products like Bilco doors, the risk is low. Lowes.com doesn’t stock these products in their warehouse, so they’re only shipped on demand, keeping costs relatively low and margins good for Bilco.
“It really proved out for us and so then we took it to some other places, not major known retailers, but building material distributors who also realized that brick and mortar wasn't always the right path.”
These days, when people ask where they can buy Bilco products, Jim tells them to “just go online.” From big box stores to specialty retailers, to the endless shopping aisle at Amazon, buyers have more opportunities to find the product at the price point they want.
How Selling to Contractors Has Changed
The changes that Jim has seen in the last 30 years aren’t just limited to where his products are sold. It’s also about how and who they’re selling to.
“It's completely different today, isn't it? I live in an old home, you know, 1935 or something. And there's always a project. And it's a challenge, even here in Toledo, Ohio to get qualified contractors because they're so busy.”
He says, with skilled labor shortages facing construction across the industry, it’s increasingly difficult for Bilco sales reps to get one-on-one face time with contractors. With contractors managing multiple projects, and dealer reps who make sure orders get filled quickly, making sure those contractors are educated about up and coming Bilco products has become a digital proposition.
“So we target them through digital media, mostly, whether it's our Instagram account or our Facebook account, or just at bilco.com.”
But even while Bilco has made the move to digital, they don’t want to forget their roots or the partners that keep their supply chain running.
“Bilco doesn't really want to sell anything. We want to drive everything to our partners, whether it's a retailer or a wholesaler. So, that's the way we've taken and I would, I don't think it would be a secret to say we probably sell almost 35% of our residential products via dot-com.”
Digital marketing doesn’t have to be complicated. Or expensive. Jim describes Bilco’s digital marketing tactics as “frugal” with organic social media presence, an email list, a solid website and an additional boost when products get featured through channels like This Old House.
“It's kind of grassroots and for us. One bite at a time. That's all it is.”
Succeed by Embracing Change
Zach wants to know more about Bilco’s messaging. Jim admits it’s tricky, when every basement bulkhead door in the Northeast is generically called a “Bilco door.”
“We find that we are also the most expensive product in our category. And okay, we're sorry for that, but here's why. We have features and benefits like lift assist, and you can get your door powder coated in the factory, and on and on and on that somewhat allows us to compete.”
Focusing on benefits, rather than price, helps homeowners perceive better value for money. And Bilco works to maximize that value by also offering access to independent installers. There are local contractors and remodelers who know the area and the benefits that a Bilco brand door can offer to a homeowner’s project.
It’s an ongoing evolution, not only for Bilco but for the industry, too. Jim hopes to see more young people — and particularly more women — join the business, just like he did all those years ago. He says change is slow, but he’s seeing signs of it, whether it’s the move to digital or homebuilders holding recruitment campaigns at local colleges.
He also sees the role of wholesalers changing and possibly diminishing: “The traditional two-step wholesalers will continue to struggle to find validity for their warehousing. They bring in product and they deliver it. It's important for us because our stuff is very heavy, so we'll probably always be tied. And we have some wonderful relationships but not everybody needs wholesale distribution with the way logistics has changed.”
But evolution isn’t bad, and Jim says it’s important to remember the human element, even while more and more becomes automated. “You have to retrain these people and honor their work and give them, not necessarily more things to do, but perhaps different things to do, rather than simply put them out whether they're 20 or 120.”
If veterans like Jim and Bilco can embrace the future, there’s room for everyone.
Got a Question?
Get in touch with Jim by email.
If you have questions about how to evolve your sales and marketing, let us know! Shoot us an email at [email protected] with all of your questions.