Marketing: The New Frontier

Three companies explain why they have dedicated staff and resources to the marketing function. It's a way to stock fish in the pond. It's the artillery fire before the infantrymen storm the enemy. In the injection molding industry, it can be the elephant in the room. Marketing.

by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business

Why expend resources on marketing?

Dan Cunningham, president of Parish Manufacturing, understands the necessity of a strong marketing campaign. As a matter of fact, when he joined Parish Manufacturing, he insisted upon it. “My first career was in the US army,” he explained. “I was a field artilleryman. I compare the employment of field artillery to marketing, whereas the tanks and the infantrymen are the sales force. They’re the ones that engage with the enemy (in business, salesmen engage with customers!). But, the purpose of the field artillery is to soften the target before the infantry and the tanks go in. If the artillery does its job well, it makes life a lot easier – and longer! – for the infantrymen.”

Cunningham explained that Parish Manufacturing had been trying to accelerate its growth for a number of years. The company was growing, but not nearly at the rate that it could or should. “One of the chief constraints was getting known,” he said. “We’ve been around since 1960, but we still kept running into people who just didn’t know about us. This was true even in some of the markets we’d been in for years, and it certainly was true in the markets we were trying to penetrate.”

While Parish Manufacturing had done regular trade show exhibiting, the company felt the shows were becoming less effective because the audience was too general. With a desire to drill down more specifically into certain markets, Cunningham and another employee began to do basic marketing assessments on their own. “We were only slightly successful,” he explained, “and the main reason was a lack of time to dedicate to do it right. Marketing provides the overarching awareness that softens a prospective customer for when the salesperson goes in, and we didn’t have the correct resources available to know who we were supposed to ‘soften up’!”

Erin Hlavin, human capital manager for four companies related to Thogus Products Company, agreed that the manufacturing industry is not known for its strength in the world of marketing. “Unless you are a large, national company with a marketing department, the typical marketing plan includes a website and some brochures to pass out on sales calls,” she said.

When Thogus President and CEO Matt Hlavin wanted to create a sales plan to “own the backyard,” Erin Hlavin knew marketing needed to be a large part of the focus in developing Thogus in the Northeast Ohio area. “We recognized the need to stay on top of molding and engineering technologies to remain ahead of our competition, but we also needed to be ahead of the curve on the marketing side,” she said. Thogus recognized that top-flight technologies weren’t a sure path to market dominance if potential customers didn’t know Thogus has the ability to execute and apply them.

Royer Corporation acknowledged a similar strategy. “We like to be very aggressive in reaching out to potential buyers and promoting our products,” said David Chabukashvili, executive vice president of operations and marketing. “We have three full-time sales people, but our marketing efforts are the first step. Roger Williams, Royer’s president and CEO, tells us the job of marketing is to put the fish in the pond, and the job of sales is to take them out. Effective marketing prepares prospects so they’re ready for the sales staff to go in and secure new contracts.”

Internal, external or both?

Few plastics processing companies have the ability to staff a full on-site marketing department. Thogus, Royer Corporation and Parish Manufacturing all have taken different approaches in staffing the marketing function, including hiring dedicated marketing personnel and utilizing external marketing resources.

At Thogus, a marketing intern proved her worth and became a full-time employee who now leads the marketing efforts for four companies related to Thogus. Prior to the arrival of intern Dana Foster, Thogus had been using a PR firm to design and direct its marketing campaigns. “Someone outside the industry doesn’t get the opportunity to learn our business from the ground up,” explained Hlavin. “By hiring a marketing person to our staff, she was able to learn our business by shadowing several positions, which gave her an understanding of how to promote our culture and talk about our company. An outside PR firm never has that opportunity.”

Foster interned with Thogus for one summer while still attending college. She spent three months learning about the business and at the end of the summer, worked part-time while finishing her degree. Upon graduation, Foster became a full-time employee and spent the first six months of her new career learning program management. “She learned from other program managers to handle a new program when it came in,” explained Hlavin, “and then, as she cut her teeth, she started taking on clients and projects of her own. She was involved in sales and engineering meetings and completed a two-day Beaumont training session. She learned what she needed to communicate, and then it was her job to figure out how to communicate that to our customers and prospects.”

At Royer Corporation, one person oversees the marketing function while another is dedicated full-time to keeping the vision on track. David Chabukashvili spent five years as the plant manager before veering into marketing, and he now acts as the executive vice president overseeing both operations and marketing. The marriage of the meat of the facility – operations – with the dessert – marketing – makes sense. “Because I see the day-to-day operational issues, I’m better able to direct the focus of our marketing plans,” said Chabukashvili. However, a full-time director of marketing is responsible for fulfilling that focus.

Cunningham implemented a similar strategy at Parish Manufacturing, pairing an internal staff member with an outside marketing firm to provide both the high-level plant view of what is needed and the personnel to get the job done. “Parish developed a staff person to manage both the sales and marketing areas, but we’re still too small to be able to have two people there,” he explained. “It very quickly became evident that we needed more help. That was when we determined the logical thing to do was hire a marketing firm to assist us.”

Parish hired Strategic Marketing Partners (SMP), a firm with extensive experience in the manufacturing industry. “We knew that directing sales and directing a good marketing effort was too much work for one person,” said Cunningham. “It’s more cost-effective for me to hire the expertise I’m getting in SMP. The company was able to step right in and very quickly become productive as a professional support organization to Parish Manufacturing.”

Plans of action

“Once SMP was on board, we started at square one with the classic textbook SWOT analysis,” Cunningham explained. “There’s a reason it’s a standby – that’s what works!” The assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats helped to discern specific directions in which to move in manufacturing, sales and marketing. The marketing company also conducted customer surveys, the results of which were compared to the SWOT analysis. “It was an interesting comparison,” he said. “Our customers thought we had some problems more severe than what we thought, and they thought we had strengths greater than what we thought. It told us what we needed to focus on!”

Once a direction was identified, Parish began the work to update the company’s look for those customers and prospects that had been around for many years, while also addressing its lack of visibility in the new markets the company wanted to enter. “About 15 years ago we had changed our logo, and one of the things I had determined in the beginning of our newest marketing efforts was that we were not going to scrap our logo … because then nobody would know us! Instead, we’re transtioning our logo from Parish Manufacturing Incorporated with a stylized bag and box graphic to a stylized bag and box graphic with just the name Parish,” Cunningham explained. “We are making a gradual change so people in the marketplace don’t lose track of us.”

In addition, a new tag line was created that speaks to how Parish wants people to think of the company and identifies the company as more in tune with today’s packaging markets. A new website also was a priority, as the old site was dated and did not incorporate SEO optimization. “We worked very diligently with SMP, and they guided us designing a new website,” he said. “That was three years ago, and this month, another new website will go live because of what we’ve learned over the last three years. Marketing is a journey – not a one-time project!”

Parish utilizes targeted sales collateral to drive people to the website. These targeted mailing pieces are sent to specific prospective customers in certain markets and are tailored with information that relates only to that prospective market. “Everything we do in sales collateral is specific and tailored to either a customer or a very narrow target audience,” Cunningham explained.

Royer Corporation also has recently undergone a website revamp. “The new site has been live for only two weeks,” said Chabukashvili. “We wanted to rebrand the website, so we could talk about our products and the advantage of our products over our competitors.”

Tom Seaver, the newly hired director of marketing for Royer, explained: “The evolution of technology over the past several years has made a huge impact in the business world. Nowadays, when a prospect hears a business name and wants further information, it almost is guaranteed that they will hop on their laptop, tablet or smartphone and search for a website. In a matter of minutes, consumers can be directly connected to businesses. We wanted to give our website a complete overhaul because there is an abundance of value in the way a company portrays itself online.”

The website plays a key role in another marketing strategy for Royer, as the company uses sales generation software to send targeted email blasts for the purposes of lead generation. Sent every two weeks, the emails provide information on capabilities, products and technologies, with live links that drive customers and prospects to the Royer website to find additional information.

One of Seaver’s jobs is to keep the site constantly updated. In addition, Chabukashvili said social media will take on a larger role. “Social media is going to be very important for us, as well as other internet strategies like Google Ad Words,” he said.

Thanks to Foster, Thogus already is ahead of the game when it comes to social media. Since 2011, her marketing strategy has included a combination of platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, with clear focuses for each platform. “Facebook is used to display the Thogus culture as it relates to our brand,” Foster explained. “Photos show what is going on at Thogus, whether a student tour, our employees at work or events. The Thogus Twitter account is used to help promote our customers, as well as foster relationships with other people in the manufacturing sector.” The LinkedIn company page and employee posts may provide the greatest return, as LinkedIn has proven to be the driving force behind traffic to the Thogus website.

What are the results?

Injection molding is a bottom line business, and marketing – like any other expenditure – must prove its worth. Yet, marketing’s worth can be elusive and rarely can be pinned down to one set of metrics or numbers on a spreadsheet.

At Thogus, success can be measured through rapid growth on all social media fronts for the four Thogus companies. In just the past two months, the number of “likes” to the Thogus page has grown 30 percent. Since 2011, the number of Twitter followers has grown over 1200 percent. While friends and followers don’t translate into direct sales, one particular relationship with a manufacturing expert developed via Twitter has led to an upcoming feature on Thogus in his upcoming book about manufacturing. That’s a marketing return that will continue to pay dividends in exposure to potential customers.

At Parish Manufacturing, the bottom line results are easy to see. “There were three reasons we decided to focus on marketing,” explained Cunningham. “First, we wanted a better understanding of the market and how Parish fits into it. We needed to understand what our customers want and how that aligns with what we do well. The second reason was to rebrand the company and make the market aware of us, because outside of the dairy industry, virtually no one knew of Parish. The third reason was to help us generate leads and increase sales.”

Cunningham reported an average annual revenue growth rate over the last three years in excess of 21 percent. “Eighty percent of that is in markets that we had specifically targeted for growth,” he said. “To us, that’s quite the return on our investment.”