Brand Report 2019: Flooring manufacturers discuss the evolution of branding and the role brands play in the buying process – Nov 2019

By Beth Miller

In an industry where manufacturer brand has always been somewhat invisible at the consumer level, marketing thought leaders are looking to new tools to take their names and messages to market. At the same time, however, the chasm between traditional and digital media marketing methods continues to grow, and the ways in which these methods are utilized is evolving, compelling flooring manufacturers to weigh a wider range of factors in order to produce a successful branding and marketing strategy that will effectively serve these dual paths to market. To some extent, digital marketing has both simplified and complicated the effort: providing a more direct path to the consumer but via an ever-noisier conduit.

To discuss these market dynamics and better understand flooring manufacturers’ strategies, Floor Focus reached out to a handful of the marketing leaders from the residential market’s most well-established manufacturers-The Dixie Group’s T.M. Nuckols; AHF Products’ Wendy Booker; Mohawk’s Karen Mendelsohn; Shaw Floors’ Julie Beth Fisher and Kris Stanfield; and Tarkett’s Mausi McDaniel.

Q: How do you define “brand”?
Mohawk: A brand is a complex combination of coded DNA that has personality, that has equity; there are emotional attributes attached to it. It’s really the personification of the way that [a company] goes to market with all of the natural features and benefits as well as all of the emotion that comes with having a true identity.

Purchasing decisions are emotional. We want to believe that we are making decisions that are logical. If you give the consumer the reason to believe that the decision they are making is right, they will make the decision that feels good.

AHF: A brand connects people to a full experience and personality, beyond the logo, the name or the functional value of a product. A brand tells a story. There is so much clutter in the marketplace that having a strong brand and a trusted name helps people make decisions and feel confident that they have made the right purchase. Great brands are also tremendous assets to retailers; they help bring people into the store and provide a sense of trust and assurance.

Tarkett: A brand has its own identity. Just like a person is more than their name, a brand has a personality, values, beliefs and a voice. A brand builds reputation and must earn loyalty by consistently delivering on its promise. A powerful brand is able to elicit emotion and a feeling of connection.

Q: How has your brand-building strategy changed in recent years, and what has driven those changes?
Dixie: Historically, The Dixie Group’s residential business has been closely tied to the Stainmaster brand, one of the best-known brands in flooring for decades. Recently, we have been placing more emphasis on creating and building our own brands. These are also our sales divisions (Fabrica, Masland and Dixie Home) plus two new product brands Trucor (rigid core flooring) and EnVision66 (nylon fiber). These brands will not be consumer brands, per se, but they can become relevant trade brands with value to our retail and design channel customers. Changing market dynamics are driving this. Price points, a competitive landscape, customer awareness and perception of existing brands factor into our brand strategy.

AHF: Since our inception less than a year ago, we have been working on developing an infrastructure for our portfolio. We have focused on various criteria ranging from multi- or single-channel brand awareness to identifying the target consumer down to regional variations.

AHF Products’ portfolio of brands-Bruce, Hartco, HomerWood, Capella, Robbins and LM Flooring-covers the market. Each has a unique personality and ability to serve the market.

Mohawk: We have rolled out our go-to-market strategy where we focus on the top 4,500 specialty retailers who do a good amount of volume with us and are also committed to the same things we are, which are volume (a mix of soft and hard surface, since we are in all surfaces), a commitment to brand and brand building, lead generation and driving qualified leads into their in-store environment as well as making sure, whether it’s online or in-store, that they’re delivering the best experience for the consumers that we drive to them. [The strategy] has been very well received, and we’re seeing lots of movement. This program was designed with one very important objective in mind: to increase our share of our retailers’ hard surface business because that is the growing segment of the business. If we don’t grow there, we don’t grow.

Shaw: Today, our products must appeal to a broad segment of the consumer population in addition to remaining relevant to the brand’s multi-channel routes to market. For many years, the Shaw Floors brand stood alone, but we’re also now focusing attention on both Anderson-Tuftex and Coretec in addition to putting greater emphasis around defining the Shaw Floors brand.

As the largest brand in the Shaw portfolio, Shaw Floors brings more than 50 years of product expertise and experience. Our legacy and expertise is rooted in a culture of service, and at our core are three foundational beliefs that hold us accountable: our commitment to provide superior products; our passion for people, relationships and earning trust; and our dedication to deliver the very best in customer care.

Tarkett: Our brand-building strategy focuses on the human experience and how we can have a positive impact on it-at a higher level than only features and benefits.

Q: What are the biggest threats to producer brands, and why?
Mohawk: One of the biggest threats to producer brands-and this is not just in flooring by the way but in every category in home improvement and building products that I’ve ever worked in-is that there are very large customers, whether they are specialty retail or big box, who have the wherewithal and means to create, invest in and support their own private label brands that they can control and to drive leads and to convert those leads to support these private-label brands. That’s lost share potential for producer brands.

Q: What Internet tools are you using to build your brands? Do you also use traditional media to build awareness with the consumer?
Mohawk: We view our media to the consumer very differently than we do our media to the trades. For trade media, we use 100% traditional media. Traditional media is where the target trade audience still goes, and, of course, this includes the digital versions of that traditional media.

For the consumer, we’ve gone 100% digital. What we find is that we are focused, through the consumer purchase journey, on the consideration phase, not necessarily on the awareness phase, so we want to target people who are actually considering, researching, searching and contemplating the purchase of a floor. Not every home in America is in the consideration phase and what we find, from our research, is that when they’re not in the consideration phase, then they’re not in it at all, so it’s very difficult to gain traction.

Conversely, when they are in market or considering being in market, they are very involved. We want to catch them when they are starting to think about a new floor or are amid a project that involves new flooring. And when they’re ready to ultimately make that buying decision, then you want to hit them everywhere that they go, multiple times, and the way to do that most effectively with the way they search, research and sometimes purchase flooring is via digital. And that’s everything from our own branded website to our retailers’ websites to destinations for inspiration like Pinterest or Houzz.

AHF: Ours is an integrated combination of efforts addressing the primary touch points along the shopper’s purchase journey. We want people to connect the dots-social, digital and in-store-as they research and shop the category. This breeds familiarity and trust and creates a deep connection over what can be a rather lengthy shopping timeline.

We believe that the central goal of our brand is to drive strategic demand-a strategy that aligns with the consumer purchase journey, engages, nurtures and converts quality leads, turning buyers into loyal fans and advocates for the brand.

We, of course, use various digital tools, but perhaps the most visible are our brand websites. We have just relaunched bruce.com. It’s our job to be helpful and link arms with the DIYer, the contractor and the consumer to help them in shopping, specification, installation and post-sales service.

Shaw: Historically, the Shaw Floors brand has been promoted heavily by our dedicated retail partners. This encompasses all traditional media formats-TV, print, radio and online.

Today, our approach has expanded to employ an inspirational, strategic, and targeted social program that will drive consumers through the entire purchasing funnel; this is helping efforts to gain visibility and establish strong, consistent brand messaging. In order to reach all audiences, our program is data-driven and spans all leading social platforms and promotes inspiring video content when applicable.

The Floorvana app assists those looking for inspiration and direction, while the Floor Care Center on shawfloors.com assists with care and maintenance with step-by-step assistance for common household spills. Through Shaw Web Studio, we provide our retailers much-needed support in website development (while maintaining the brand consistency we desire) with relevant, curated consumer content and a suite of solutions for retailers to connect with online consumers actively educating themselves on their flooring purchase.

Tarkett: We primarily use our website, visualizers, social media, influencers, digital ads and video channels. We also integrate blogs and podcasts at times. We use traditional media, such as print ads, advertorials, public relations outreach to drive earned media (publicity gained through promotional efforts other than paid media advertising), radio and TV. Since 2018, we’ve partnered with Military Makeover as the exclusive flooring partner. While this builds awareness, it more importantly aligns with Tarkett’s values and drive to put people at the center of everything we do.

Dixie: We utilize our websites and social media to showcase and highlight all of our brands and products to our retail customers and designers. We do not see traditional media as an effective method of reaching our consumers.

Q: Do you have a brand, marketing company, individual or influencer you look to for direction?
AHF: Traditional consumer packaged goods, with their emphasis on branding and large investment in building a story, have historically been a source for examining the consistency brands use to build and maintain share across time. But lately, I enjoy the authentic, unapologetic marketing you see on social media. Flawed and honest is valued above overly polished and is preferred more in today’s culture of transparency all the time. People shown in ads no longer adhere to an outdated concept of beauty.

Mohawk: We do most everything internally, but we do have partners that help us work through some of the higher order, strategic work. We used an agency last year to help us work through and finalize the three master brand strategies. Once we did that, we brought the execution in-house. We use different folks to help us do consumer research and think through merchandising recommendations. We utilize third parties for a number of things when we feel they have a unique expertise from which we could benefit, learn and build internal muscle.

We absolutely do [look at influencers], but you have to be really careful and make sure you do your homework. There are a lot people now who are marketing themselves as influencers but don’t really have the following they claim. It’s getting very competitive, and the bonafide influential folks are becoming more expensive.

Tarkett: We make it a point to collaborate and partner with both groups and individuals that bring diverse perspectives on a broad range of topics. We constantly study and seek understanding of cultural shifts that ultimately impact where and how people live, work and play. Identifying how we might best support the human experience-through product, design and service-guides our brand and marketing strategy development.

Shaw: Shaw Floors has a large team of dedicated marketing and branding experts committed to furthering the brand mission while keeping customers and consumers at the forefront of all we do. We are constantly seeking inspiration, and our day-to-day interactions bring us in line with many individuals we consider influencers. Due to the massive scope of our work, we lean on a variety of resources, including external agencies.

Dixie: From time to time, we will engage third-party marketing agencies to assist with brand research and strategy development. We also pursue customer feedback to help ensure we are on a meaningful path when it comes to our marketing and brand strategies.

Q: What does your research tell you about the role of brands in the consumer selection process? Is that role shifting in any meaningful way?
Dixie: The selection process for flooring is very complicated. There are so many product categories, and, within a category, many products look the same. The consumer is overwhelmed and needs help in figuring it out, so she goes online to see what she can learn. Then, she visits one or more retail stores to actually see, touch and feel the products she is interested in. If what she sees and reads online is aligned with what she hears and sees in a retail store, she becomes more confident and is closer to making a purchase decision. Otherwise, she becomes more confused and delays the decision.

The role of a brand in this process is to help the consumer become more confident. If a brand creates confusion or is not endorsed by a retailer or retail sales associate, then that brand is getting in the way of the purchase decision.

Regarding our brands, our goal is to ensure two things: the online information and in-store experience are consistent and aligned, and our retail and design channel customers are supportive of and endorse our brands. If we can effectively do this, our brands will help move the consumer along the selection process, ultimately to a purchase decision.

AHF: The answer to this question may be more complicated than it first seems. A consumer who walks into a retail store with the desire to look at one brand of flooring may well be steered by the RSA [retail sales associate] toward another brand for a whole host of reasons. At AHF, we do believe, however, that there are plenty of benefits of having a brand that lives up to its value proposition. A flooring purchase is high risk, high reward. It’s costly, disruptive and time consuming, yet can make a dramatic impact on the home’s look and feel and on a person’s pride and status-a personal choice that is publicly consumed. Having confidence in a brand helps to ease this journey.

Mohawk: We just finished a study, and every time we do work like this, it actually comes back more compelling. The role that brands play in flooring, or have the potential to play, can help the consumer through a very complicated, complex, overwhelming, scary, distrustful, confusing, hard-to-make-a-decision experience. The brand that is going to win is the one that simplifies the decision-making for the consumer and provides her with confidence that she’s making the right decision; doing the right thing for herself, her home, her family; and making a good investment.

Shaw: We know that purchasing flooring can be a lengthy and overwhelming process for the consumer. In fact, our research shows the journey to purchase flooring takes 149 days on average from start to finish. This involves everything from initial thoughts and design planning to product research and ultimately an in-store experience. Consumers spend the majority of this time doing research online, in the comfort of their own home, making them more knowledgeable than ever when they visit the retailer. Consumers seek brands they can trust and that help them feel informed, educated and confident in their selection. By guiding the consumer through flooring options online, helping them hone in on the performance and style attributes they seek, we aim to make the complex buying journey a little less overwhelming.

Tarkett: Quality, performance and service are table stakes today. Consumers seek information and compare products. They don’t blindly trust the biggest brands to have the best products anymore. Brands must prove themselves over and over throughout the entire selection journey.

Q: What role does merchandising play in supporting your brand? How has your merchandising strategy changed in order to remain relevant?
Mohawk: In-store merchandising has and always will play a critical role in flooring. The way it’s changing now is two-fold: we are evolving our merchandising strategy to make sure that we are elevating the importance of our master brands and our in-store merchandising strategy, and we are also looking to drive consistency across our brands, across different surfaces so that all of our master brands-Mohawk, Karastan and Pergo-are multi-surface brands. We want to make sure that, for example, if we are merchandising Mohawk soft surface, that the merchandising is appropriate for carpet, and that there’s a relationship and a consistency with what we are merchandising from Mohawk hard surface. What that means is we are creating a merchandising system that is recognizable at a master brand level regardless of what the product collection is or what the surface is.

The other thing that we are doing from a merchandising standpoint is recognizing that our on-line merchandising has to be consistent with and treated with the same degree of importance as our in-store merchandising because the consumer tells us that having consistency between online and in-store merchandising, positioning, strategy, look, feel and hierarchy goes a long way to creating brand trust.

Dixie: Merchandising our products in retail and design channels plays an important role in the perception of our brands. We consider trends in furniture and fashion and select colors and designs that are aligned with the personalities of our brands. We are in the midst of updating our fixtures and signage for all three of our divisions.

AHF: Fresh merchandising has been a focus in 2019. We have simplified both our branding and our displays to better align with how retailers want their showrooms to look and how consumers like to see information. We have built messaging and visuals to hit on the key consumer desires. Our “Why Wood” story, which boils down the true benefits of wood to responsible, authentic and long lasting, has resonated with consumers and the trade and is incorporated into the messaging. These value propositions on our point of purchase displays also help retail sales associates during their conversations with consumers.

Shaw: Merchandising plays an important role in supporting the brand. Shaw Floors’ new merchandising systems combine online and in-store elements to create a better experience for consumers. The new displays are bright white, sleek and modern, unifying the brand identity and creating a more streamlined, simplified visual in the showroom space. These visually engaging, flexible displays also respect footprint allocation and provide an inviting space for the shopping experience. For example, the “Color That Speaks to You” display, an update of the iconic Shaw Floors Anso Colorwall, has a clean and engaging aesthetic that brightens showrooms and draws consumers in. Combined with the “Color That Speaks to You” online presence, consumers enter the store already familiar with the Shaw Floors brand.

Tarkett: Even though we are increasingly becoming a digitally driven society, flooring remains a category that people want to see, feel and touch. Merchandising must inspire, inform and give consumers a reason to believe; it is a physical extension of not only our products but also our brand. In a world where we are always rushing, with too much to do in too little time, our merchandising must communicate clearly and simply. It isn’t about communicating what we want to tell but rather what [consumers] want to know.

Q: Do you have a dealer co-op advertising program? How essential is it to your overall brand strategy?
Tarkett: Yes, the Tarkett Elite Retailer program is designed to help our partners become the preferred destination for flooring. Our program covers an extensive range of Tarkett products, including both soft surface and resilient flooring, and enables consistency in brand communication.

Mohawk: We have a very robust dealer co-op advertising program, and it is critical to our overall brand strategy-so critical, in fact, that we are [looking at] a couple of options and ways that we can be incrementally invested in that program over the next couple of years. What we find is that the combination of our master brands-the money we spend on master brands nationally-and how we help our dealers advertise and promote our brands locally leads to the most qualified, best converted traffic that we can drive to that retailer’s store. It’s the magic of national brand advertising and promotion in combination with that local promotion and advertising that really gives us the best bang for our buck. We have co-op advertising for our dealers for our Mohawk, Karastan and Pergo, via Pergo Extreme hard surface that is sold exclusively through specialty retailers.

Q: How are you driving consumers digitally from your website to dealers? What other ways are you connecting the dealer brand (local) to the supplier brand (national)?
Dixie: We believe the retailer brand is the most important brand in attracting consumer traffic. To that end, we partner with retailers on promotions and campaigns to drive a stronger connection between the retail brand and our brands. For consumers visiting our websites, we have dealer locators that help the consumer find a nearby retailer that carries one or more of our product lines. We also utilize social media platforms to link our products and brands to our retail and designer customers. The open sharing of content and ideas through these channels provide aspirational and visual cues for how our products can be used to create beautiful interior spaces.

AHF: The push effect is with the sales side-the retailer educating consumers on our brand-but we need that pull effect too-with consumers going into the retailer seeking our brand. Our brand websites geolocate the visitors to area retailers near them, along with contact information.

Educating RSAs is the key, and it is an on-going process. Mohawk: New for 2019 and also associated with the Edge program, we drive consumers who go to our website to a local Edge retailer. The two real objectives from our [master brands’ websites] are find a product and find a retailer. It is very important to us that through our website at any stage during the consumer’s journey they can find a local Edge retailer that carries the product they are searching for.

Shaw: Bringing online consumer traffic to our retailers is critical to their success. When consumers visit Shawfloors.com, there are several ways that they can connect to dealers. Our dealer locator gives consumers the ability to not only find dealers in their area but also to see reviews, promotions, financing information and product offerings. Also, we encourage dealers to personalize their featured pages, so consumers have all the information they need to take the next step toward a flooring purchase.

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