Branding Report 2020: Manufacturers, both new and legacy, face challenges to stay relevant amid Covid - Nov 2020

By Meg Scarbrough

You probably remember this commercial from the 1990s: A mother places a diapered baby in a walker and leaves the room. Moments later, under the watchful eye of the family dog, the baby is zooming through the living room, toppling tables covered in food and drinks onto the carpet as “The Sabre Dance” provides a lively soundtrack to the debacle. Mother returns to the room to find the carnage, but it’s okay-she has carpet from DuPont Stainmaster. Decades later, the “Mommy’s Little Sweetheart” campaign remains in consumers’ minds, and it’s an example of how and why branding is so critical.

Dan Phelan, vice president of marketing for The Dixie Group, points to the McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle or Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” campaign of the ’80s. “You’re seeking recognition in your space,” Phelan notes, and you hope that it creates a memory with consumers.

But as Karen Mendelsohn, senior vice president of marketing at Mohawk Industries, puts it, true branding is more than just a naming convention or a logo. A brand has real personality, real equity, continuity and consistency; it means something very unique and differentiating. She points out that flooring isn’t a purchase people make every day, so with that comes uncertainty. Creating brand awareness can help give consumers peace of mind. “It’s a high-ticket, discretionary, considered purchase where the consumer doesn’t have a lot of experience,” says Mendelsohn. “Not only do they want to have a great outcome, but there’s a lot of fear relative to making a mistake. And there’s a lot of anxiety and confusion. It’s a difficult and complex purchase. So branding is particularly important in a category like flooring because it can serve to provide the consumer with a real peace of mind.”

Steve Wagner, director of marketing for Wellmade, adds, “In a traditional sense, product branding refers to an unspoken promise or pact from manufacturers/suppliers ensuring products under their umbrella will adhere to rigid standards, specifications and quality assurances that consumers can trust and rely on.” He says that can include performance standards, warranties and overall service after the sale, which in the end, builds ongoing relationships, trust and repeat sales.

It’s something that’s been crucial in the success of WE Cork, a 150-year-old company based in New Hampshire. Ann Wicander, WE Cork president says, “Branding represents the quality you would expect. When you buy a brand, you buy security and knowing that you’ve bought a product that’s been well tested, has a good track record that’s been developed.”

But much has changed in branding in the decades following the Stainmaster campaign, including the methods of distributing branding stories, which are evolving at a lightning pace. And in a year that’s seen a pandemic, manufacturers must be nimble and adaptable to keep their brand stories relevant.

Talk to anyone who has been in the flooring business for more than a couple of decades, and they will tell you that branding has seen dramatic shifts in recent history.

Traditionally, advertising centered around print, like newspapers, eventually finding its way onto the airwaves as more families introduced televisions into their homes. And it was more about creating that recognizable logo or catchphrase, like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Mendelsohn says, “Twenty years ago in the flooring industry, overall, you had more naming and labeling, but you didn’t have true branding with brand equity.”

These days, creating equity, that sense of security, has come to the forefront. Mendelsohn points to Mohawk’s brands, which include Mohawk, Pergo and Karastan, as examples of that mindset shift, saying they have worked to develop that side of the brand with both direct customers and consumers alike. “I don’t think that type of branding existed 20 years ago,” she notes.

Aside from a shift in the ideology around what branding means, there’s also been an obvious evolution as to how those messages are served to the masses, most notably, the rise of the Internet and social media. Says Mike Sanderson, vice president of marketing for Engineered Floors, “It is not necessarily the content that has changed but the medium in which it is delivered. Over the years, television and radio ads have been replaced by social media posts and email campaigns.”

The digital era means consumers expect instant gratification. Says Derek Welbourn, CEO of Inhaus, “In the beginning, to be successful, it was enough to have great products presented to the public. Now, to state the obvious, with everyone having real-time access to product information on their smartphones, online reviews, etc., it is important to have easy access to information about your products. Consumers want expert advice to make an informed decision.”

However, the move to digital has not been an easy one, as manufacturers continue to test new methods and analyze data they hope can bring results. Says Wicander, “Print marketing has certainly taken a back seat to social media over the years. With this new online presence, we are trying to figure out where our marketing dollars are best put.”

Rodolfo Panisi, CEO of Florim USA, says that as far as branding is concerned, the ceramic industry, in particular, has been a little behind in comparison to other flooring and interior industries and “will have to invest more on branding.” But that as a whole, he adds, “our industry needs to improve the way we are presenting our products to the consumer and to be more proactive instead of reactive in order to be able to influence the final decision.”

Up until 2016, Boa-Franc, the Quebec-based manufacturer of Mirage hardwood flooring, had directed its advertising dollar toward print. But the firm changed strategy, according to Brad Williams, senior vice president of sales and marketing. He says, “We took the transformation to go 100% digital; it was a major change,” adding that their new social strategy is adapted depending on the market.

One way that manufacturers are reaching consumers is through social influencers, which are people who have a large presence on social media and have established credibility as experts on certain topics and industries. An example of how this is done is that a manufacturer might install flooring in an influencer’s home for free and that influencer then uses their social media channels to tout the benefits of that flooring in an effort to drive consumers toward a purchase.

Says Wendy Booker, vice president of marketing and product development for AHF Products, “We are targeting influencers to use our products and provide first-hand, real-life testimonials. Flawed and honest is valued above overly polished and is preferred in today’s culture of transparency. People shown in ads no longer adhere to an outdated view of beautiful.”

Kathy Young, vice president of marketing at Shaw’s Coretec, echoed that sentiment and said her company’s strategy has been about showing people living their best lives with few words and doing extraordinary things like surfing or ice sculpting. “We encourage you to express yourself,” she adds.

AHF has also partnered with Mark Bowe, of DIY Network’s “Barnwood Builders,” to launch its new Barnwood Living Collection. The company says the union reflects their shared missions. “Bowe and AHF are aligned in many ways,” Booker says. “He cares about West Virginia, as do we. He cares about the country, as do we.”

But some say they’ve had mixed results with using influencers, noting that it can be difficult to see online impressions translate to quantifiable success.

Another challenge is identifying the audience and whether to target different age demographics. Baby Boomers are generally seen as the target audience, armed with spending power and the desire to make worthy investments. But as Millennials enter the market, some say there’s an opportunity to reach out to them, as well.

Nicki Rayburn, director of marketing and brand strategy at Shaw Floors, says her team does go after those demographics separately, but that they go even deeper. Based on a study Shaw conducted several years ago, “we identified six different consumer types of floorcovering consumers.” She says what the research revealed was more attitudinal behaviors, not specifically age-based, that consumers have toward projects. And with that information, like where people are shopping, where they are getting their information, they adapt their marketing strategies to reach those potential buyers.

Many manufacturers say they will continue to do blanket messaging in the hopes it can reach everyone. Says Mendelsohn, “Baby Boomers’ Millennial kids have a very strong influence over their parents. We don’t see a huge difference in the consumer journey. Everybody goes online to search and research.”

At AHF, Booker agrees. “Our messaging is geared to anyone who wants a floor that will not only add natural beauty to a home, but add value to a home, whether a Boomer or Millennial,” she says. “There are universal issues: with discretionary income, I believe that people will want to invest in their homes, their safe havens, at least in the near future, rather than on travel or other transitory experiences. The number one selling point to a consumer is return on investment, with housing being their single biggest purchase in a lifetime.” With that being said, she adds that AHF will be launching Tmbr, a new brand they hope will resonate with the Millennial buyer.

The challenge to stay relevant doesn’t belong solely to legacy or newer brands, although both face their own unique hurdles.

Says Mendelsohn, “Just as soon as you build a brand, you’re either growing or you’re not. Regardless of a category or how long you’ve been established, you have to continue to feed the brand and infuse it and build on the equity with new products that are relevant to your target audience with marketing support, making sure you stay relevant.”

Anderson Tuftex, owned by Shaw, is a newer brand on the market, forming in 2017 by uniting two existing legacy brands: Anderson Hardwood, a family-owned hardwood manufacturer company founded in 1946 in South Carolina, and Tuftex, founded in the ’60s in Southern California. Shaw bought Tuftex as part of the Queen acquisition in the early ’90s. and Anderson in 2007.

Katie Ford, director of brand strategy for Anderson Tuftex, says Shaw wanted to “see what it could look like to combine them and create this comprehensive assortment of products in carpet and hardwood and custom area rugs. We did a lot of research; we wanted to be very respectful to both brands’ legacies and histories and loyalty, and treat them in a way where we could bring them together. And we’ve been slowly building that over the last couple of years with the great lasting legacy of what the two brands were before. It’s been great to build on an already successful platform.”

Coretec is another younger brand, which launched in 2001 under US Floors and was later acquired by Shaw. “Our strategy has been 100% social media and website-driven,” Young says, pointing to their efforts on Pinterest and other platforms. “We know we’re in a crowded industry, and we know we’ve got to stand out. Consumers can tell if you’re not authentic.”

And it’s not just newer brands that are fighting for a piece of the market. Legacy brands must evolve with the times, as well.

“Just because you’re an old brand doesn’t mean you’re good,” says Phelan, whose company, The Dixie Group, is marking its 100th anniversary this year. “You have to remain relevant to today, or you don’t survive. The brand doesn’t live on.” Dixie’s residential brands are Fabrica and Masland-both legacy brands that were acquired over the years-and Dixie Home.

“Masland over the years has done a good job of redefining itself as often as needed to remain relevant in the market,” he says. Dixie Home is the youngest brand in the company, launching in 2003. Phelan says in that time, it has also become Dixie’s largest brand.

The story is much the same for fifth-generation WE Cork. Wicander points out that while longevity can provide some brand security, it’s not enough on its own. “I think you have to constantly offer the market products that are relevant to today,” she says. “You have to reflect the technologies that are available in the product you present, making it the most durable, the best looking, while making sure it’s technically appropriate.”

Branding is more than just reaching consumers. Ford says, “It’s internal. It’s external. It’s to the consumer. It’s to the retailer. It’s to our sales team. It’s really the essence of what the brand represents and what it promises at the end of the day.” She adds that consumers for the most part may not have brand recognition when it comes to flooring, “It’s partially because our industry doesn’t spend a tremendous amount of money on advertising because it’s a purchase you only make one, two, three times in your life. You just don’t buy flooring that often. So brand awareness from a consumer perspective is a little more difficult to keep top of mind.” And that’s where the relationship with retailers becomes even more critical.

Part of the equation is listening to the retailers. Says Sanderson, “They have direct interaction with the customer and have vital insight into the flooring needs of today’s households. By providing retailers with the necessary digital tools and maintaining open lines of communication, we ensure that the retailer and manufacturer are both on the path to success.

Ford’s team keeps connected with retailers in a variety of ways, mostly centered around education and brand awareness. “We get people out on the street promoting the brand as well as use trade shows,” she says. “We also do a monthly newsletter to RSAs and retailers to talk about key things going on with the brand; live learnings each month that offer education on a variety of topics, like design; being in store with merchandising and new products.” And they release a digital catalog each year.

Another component is providing retailers with the tools they need to succeed. Some manufacturers are implementing web visualization tools that can help them engage with consumers both in the showroom and from the comfort of their homes. Says AHF’s Booker, “Everything we do supports the retailer, from POP displays, which act as silent salespeople to the information on our websites to the visualizer tool itself. With the visualization technology, retailers have a wealth of inspiration to work remotely or in the showroom with consumers. Dealers can help customers to immediately see what their floor will look like, and follow up with actual samples.”

One challenge for manufacturer brands is the rise in private labels within both big box stores and specialty retailers. The shift in strategy means those outlets are investing money and manpower into promoting their own products, something manufacturers-which are often the makers of those private labels-fear means less attention on their brands. Doug Chadderon, CEO of Great Floors, says that while his chain has a complete product offering, its strength is in the best-sellers, which are private-labeled products. He says the success of those items rest on educating retail sales associates. “Whether hard or soft surface, our staff has confidence in the value to the customer that these products offer,” the retailers says. “Because we stock them and have availability, both the retail sales associate and the customer have confidence when choosing one of those items.” Chadderdon adds that it remains critical that vendor partners provide production training on new introductions.

Ultimately, it’s about giving them quality goods. Booker says, “Of course, the most important way to support retailers is to give them products to sell that will make them money” and then educating them on those products, which “leads to better margins, bigger paychecks for RSAs, satisfied customers, positive word-of-mouth and more business.”

Williams agrees, saying, “Our mentality is that if we can acquire that consumer and tell them our branding story and who were are and what we’re about and then have that person go into a retailer and asking about the product, well, we’ve just made life more simple for the retailer, and it’s going to be a lot easier for them to make the sale.” He says it becomes even more critical when you’re a higher-priced product that’s not positioned in as many stores as other brands. “The brand is extremely important to us. Driving recognition with the consumer helps you to sell a higher-priced item. People are willing to pay for a recognized brand. It’s the trust. It’s the confidence. The retailer and the salesperson are a critical part of the chain,” he notes.

Staying relevant and in the forefront of consumers’ minds has been even more challenging in a year in which COVID-19 has changed the ways in which consumers prioritize spending.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to force shutdowns across the country, and around the globe for that matter, sales of flooring began to slump with manufacturers reporting double-digit losses. As the economy faced uncertainty, some manufacturers began to assess their product launches and campaigns for the year, with some halting or slowing previously planned releases.

One particular challenge was staying engaged with consumers as well as retailers, many of whom were deemed nonessential and forced to close or limit operations and found themselves facing losses as big box retailers remained open. “We’ve missed out on that face-to-face interaction, but we still stayed connected,” Ford says. “And our team out in the field has had to do different things. They were calling customers, texting them, sending them little videos, all kinds of things to stay connected.”

Wicander says the biggest issue for WE Cork was within the supply chain and the slowdown in production. “It was just a matter of making sure we had inventory to satisfy everybody,” she says.

Says Brook Brown, vice president of global surfaces of Stainmaster, “We were able to pivot and help serve our retailers quickly after COVID forced shutdowns. By making our digital tools available right away to those who needed them, we were able to help our retailers stay up and running until they were able to figure out their own plans for adjusting to COVID’s new reality.”

A silver lining emerged during the shutdown. Consumers were sheltering in place, working from home and teaching children who were out of school. Vacations were canceled. And stimulus checks went out. Professionals across all sectors began seeing a change in consumer buying habits, both in the way in which they approached discretionary spending and the ways in which they were seeking out products.

Digital played a critical role in those efforts to stay connected. Says Rayburn, “The consumer mindset probably permanently shifted. We really noticed through this that digital is more important than ever before. It was already important and growing over the last couple of years. But COVID has expedited that growth and that importance and probably pushed it five years ahead of where we were.”

Says Ford, “There’s been a lot of good that’s come out of 2020. While I know March, April and May were tough for retailers and manufacturers, June, July, August and September have been some of the best months they’ve ever had. People have been home doing projects, making additions to their homes and renovations, and thinking about how they live in their space differently. It’s encouraged using digital platforms and digital means of communication that we might never have used before.

It’s been a similar story for WE Cork, according to Wicander, who says, “Because some of our salespeople haven’t been on the road, we’ve focused their efforts more online. I think it’s helped; sales are up. I think a lot of people are improving their homes since they’re staying at home, and they are seeking quiet floors and insulated floors.”

Internet commerce has seen record numbers since the spring, as consumers seek out products online in an effort to maintain their safety and wellbeing. And by May, flooring sales began to rebound, in some cases, reaching numbers that topped the same timeframe last year. Those that had already begun shifting to digital channels appeared to be better positioned coming out of the downturn.

Stainmaster was among the brands that say they did not trim back on advertising spending. Says Brown, “When it came to advertising, we stayed the course, and it has paid off. In particular, we’ve focused our efforts on resonating with younger consumers, and we have significantly higher ad recognition with them. We recognized that consumers were at home, looking at their homes, thinking of how they could make their lives and their homes more comfortable.”

AHF also did not slow, launching 400 new SKUs. Says Booker, “While the onset of COVID-19 here in the States has been disruptive, it was important to forge ahead with new, innovative collections. The pandemic has been terrible for our world and our country-the loss of life and the impact on our economy is just terrible. But you can’t remain exclusively fixated on it and lose sight of the future. It’s the companies, the retailers that make the right decisions in this time that will win in the future.”

Another strategy manufacturers have enacted in the COVID era is the promotion of hard surface products. While there’s no concrete evidence that hard surfaces are “safer” than soft surfaces, manufacturers have been touting collections that could be attractive to consumers seeking to improve health and wellness within their spaces. Retailers have said they have not seen such trends among consumers within the residential side, but that requests for antimicrobial flooring in the commercial sector has arisen in recent months.

A significant hurdle for manufacturers has been that trade shows have been postponed or delayed indefinitely, meaning they will have to get creative when it comes to approaching 2021 releases. But most remain hopeful.

Mohawk has announced it will launch a roadshow that will hit seven cities in the U.S. and Canada starting in January in an effort to launch new products and connect with retailers. Says Mendelsohn, “This is our novel and creative way of getting to the marketplace in a way we can control that’s safe for retailers and associates, but also kicks the year off on a great start. There was a lot of uncertainty relative to how the industry was going to approach 2021 in relation to historical approaches. We can’t afford to lose a quarter to a half of a year. We’re going to help our retailers create their own 2021.”

Wicander says WE Cork will be introducing a new glue for gluedown products called Quickstick Tape, which she says will make installing gluedown tiles much easier and much quicker. They will be releasing some new colors, as well.

And Ford says she feels like Anderson Tuftex is ready for whatever comes next. She adds, “As we prepare for launches in January, I feel like we are more buttoned up than we have ever been. We are dialed in with how we’re going to do this.”

Copyright 2020 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Fuse Alliance, Shaw Floors, The Dixie Group, Great Floors, Tuftex, Karastan, Shaw Industries Group, Inc., Mirage Floors, Mohawk Industries, Engineered Floors, LLC, Lumber Liquidators, Anderson Tuftex, Florim USA, AHF Products, Masland Carpets & Rugs, Fuse