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Episode 55 – Better Building Materials Marketing with Susan Milne


Jessica: Hi, this is Jessica with Build Green, Live Green, CaraGreen’s podcast on trends and fun things happening in the sustainable building materials market. Today, we are here with Susan Milne from Epiphany Studio and Susan, you and I have been at trade shows together, spoken at events together, and I've always been intrigued by your business model. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what Epiphany Studios does and some of your background with big brands like L’Oréal Mattel, Coca-Cola?

Susan Milne: Sure. Jessica, thank you so much for having me today, and this is the best part of our industry, that we always collaborate and stay in touch and it means that we can serve our clients better, so thank you. Epiphany is, we live at the intersection of manufacturers and specifiers, and there are three ways that material gets into a building: an architectural product or a material and that is through a specification that either says, one I want this exact thing, two I want this or something like it, or three, I want something that does this. So we really try to help position manufacturers, those are our clients to specifiers, which may be an architect, a designer, a facilities manager, a developer, a contractor to make a specific selection, so they're going to specify something that says, I want this exact thing.

Jessica: That makes a lot of sense and CaraGreen, as you know, our focus, on the distribution side has always been heavy on the A&D and trying to court those customers. So, I think your knowledge is something that a lot of emerging manufacturers would be so smart for them to engage with Epiphany or someone who has that institutional knowledge upfront because that takes a long time to figure out. I think it took us, I mean, it took us several, several years to figure out even just those three different levels of being specified. 


Susan Milne: So, yes I think the second part of your question or your opening comments is I've had all this experience with big brands, so I kind of cut my teeth in design and advertising, working for companies like Coca-Cola, L’Oréal just a bunch of big brands in New York. Sure, so Jessica you had.

Jessica: Right. Start with going back to your last comment, your opening comment, sorry.

Susan Milne: So, going back to your opening comment, I come from the world of big brands and B2C marketing, and in that case, working on brands like Coca Cola, L’Oréal, I worked on a lot of car accounts. We really focus on: what is that emotional connection? What does this brand stand for? And when we get to building materials, there seems to be a disconnect.  Building materials in my experience are usually created from an engineering mindset and that's a mindset that's going to say, here's the product and I'm going to give you 50 proof points and you can compare those and see if I'm telling you the truth. 

So, they have a very engineering mindset. Now they're selling to people who are very much about a whole brand experience., so they don't want to just know about what this wood floor is going to do in the building, will it stand up? How often do we have to refinish it? They want to know where did it come from? Why is this better than the other brand? And the thing is, it's not always about whether it's better, it's about how you tell your brand story. So, I think for anyone trying to get into this market, and when we think about it, specifiers really are in charge of billions of dollars’ worth of purchases annually.

When you're specifying for a building, it can be millions and millions of dollars of items that are going to go in that building, and everything that goes in that building has been chosen or specified. So, if you think about that, the market opportunity is massive, but so is the competition and we can't just compete on performance, although that's part of it and we don't want to compete on price because that's a race to the bottom, so we need to engage these really smart people, and designers and architects are smart people, they've got style, they've got taste. Their knowledge is so vast, they have to be very technical to know how fabrics are going to perform, how materials are going to stand up, but they also have an aesthetic piece. So, when you're trying to differentiate your product in all of that, it really goes back to this emotional connection. How can you build this? What story can you tell? How can you get an architect or a designer to say, of the three ways I can specify,  I'm going to put you in the first camp, which means I want this exact product or material. 

Jessica: I love hearing you say that, because that is a drum that we have been beating, we send our samples out in a box that says your story inside. So, it's really great to hear that because with all the brands that we represent, we want to have that exact thing, is I want my salespeople to be as connected as that architect or designer is to the story behind that brand. We just had a meeting today with an automotive company that is really, really involved in the story of the products and our direct product has this great story of circularity, and that has been a really strong story to tell, Direct went to a hotel and they took all the vanities out and they brought them back to the factory, so it's that circularity story and stories like that , even your own salespeople get impassioned by those stories and then that comes across to the architects and designers, so it's really good to hear you say that.

From a marketing standpoint, though, when you're looking at building materials companies versus other, obviously L’Oréal,  Mattel, Coca-Cola, automotive have a lot of these huge marketing budgets, some of these building material brands that are quite small or, as you said, they value engineering over marketing, how do you help them and how do you get them to, even on a limited budget, where do you point them to get the most bang for their buck in the marketing space? 

Susan Milne: That's a great question. So, I think it all depends on how they're going to come to market. Sorry, let me start over. That's a great question, so it all depends on how they are going to come to market and the first thing that we do when we engage with a company is talk to, first, we determine. Let me back up, first we determine where is their product ideally suited for? So, what is the best type of projects that their product is going to fit into? And then we go out and we talk to the specifiers on that journey, so if you think of the sales journey and you think of the architect or the designer is the money, they're going to say, I want this exact product, but there's all these spots along the sales journey that go from the idea being written into some plans to the actual installation. So, we look at all those spots and say, where can this be thrown out? When can it be substituted and how can we prevent that? 

And then we have two jobs, we have to build awareness. So how are we going to get a new product in front of the right people and then how are we going to protect that specification against the objections of people who can put it out, which is, and very interesting market, this is why I love this industry. It’s a puzzle, so sometimes we want to start with the homeowner, we want the homeowner to be requesting something, and we might go through Haus, Pinterest, Instagram to engage with the homeowner and we want the homeowner to say to their architect, this is the wood flooring I want in here. So, we have to be able to tell the story, that the homeowner's going to drive it to the architect. For other products it might be about converting dealers, so we want to take, we think our best path to market, if we have a product that could be a this, or something like it we may take a dealer approach and we would look at how can we build awareness with dealers? How can we identify with dealers? How can we convert the dealers and then what will the dealers need in turn to sell the product to make sure it’s installed properly.

So, for every client in this market, this is the best news and the worst news all at once, there is no straightforward path, you get to find your own path. and there are some interesting companies doing really, really cool things in terms of coming to market in various ways, whether they do a very vertical outreach, like they're only going to go after designers in hospitality who worked for brands that already have a chief sustainability officer, that’s a very, very specific group that they’re going to try and convert or whether they're going to try to convert thousands of tile contractors, so it's all really different, unfortunately, and fortunately.

Jessica: Right, and I think that you mentioned a couple of the platforms, if you're trying to do a broad swath interest in homeowners, you’re going out to Pinterest,  you might get pinned on a bunch of boards, but you've got to create a very, very large funnel to end up with the sales and then you talked about the dealer network and I think far too often, people just go after the designer and think that that is the only person making  the decision, when in fact, as you're saying, you get to choose what part of the funnel you want to engage at and ideally you can do that in more than one area. If I had a very limited marketing budget, I have one marketing person and I'm a building material company, I need to deploy this person, and say  I'm in the commercial space, what are some of the top platforms that you recommend? And you don't have to limit it to commercial space, but what platforms do you recommend, social media for getting to those customers?

Susan Milne: Well, I think the first thing is that we talk about this all night and day is your website has to be on point and that means you have to understand how specifiers work and make sure that you have a website that is designed in line with the way that they work and the reason I'm saying this is because specifiers, and this is something that drives manufacturers crazy. I don't know if you hear this, but we hear this all the time, my God these people are a pain in the ass. 

Jessica: Yes

Susan Milne: They always want something. What do they want?  It's never like well, let's think about how they work. So, we know that anyone 40 and above is going to start or they have historically started in the resource library in the firm looking for materials and then, below 40 they start online, so eventually, the people, even if they're in the library, they're going to go and look online to verify their choices, so your website has to have the information given to them in the way they want it. So at first it's the big thing, I look at your website I know exactly what you do, who you do it for and why it matters and then we want to have points of conversion on our website, so if somebody wants to download an ultimate guide or take an accelerator class in how to do something, they've got to give you some information, so you definitely have to have a really well designed website with points of conversion and SEO strategy and then you have to have the basics, beautiful photography that's price of entry into the market. This is not an add on, having a BIM strategy, you need to have one, you need to have ways for people to download spec sheets, order a sample. I would say it's even gen X, millennials and gen Z, they don't want to call you, so have a way that they can get the sample and have it be very exact as what they want, so I would start with your website, you have to start there and then if you have an awareness issue, depending on who your target is, the reason I like Pinterest is because the links are live and you can send it back to your website, having a good Instagram strategy, how are you going to convert from that platform? It’s an awareness platform, but we still want to be able to get people to know who made this and why it's important. 

So one of the things that we do with our clients who are starting out, maybe they've had a few years of experience, they’re in a couple of projects, we'd like to contact the architects and the designers, find out if they've taken any photos and then go in and really tag those Instagram photos with our information and see if we can buy that photography from them, whatever we need to do to be able to now be on Pinterest and LinkedIn is telling some stories. They’re doing stories now, which I think is pretty interesting.

Jessica: Yeah, that’s new

Susan Milne:  Instagram stories and then as far as other platforms, it all depends on your product. If I have a product that is a surface product and I don't have a lot of sales reps, or I don't even have a sales rep strategy yet, I may consider something like Material Bank, I may also consider Swatchbox. To me there are two slightly different ways of coming to market. Both have their benefits and their features, but it really depends on which type of product you have to know which audience you're speaking to. 

Jessica: So, let me just speak to that a little bit too. So we have recently put several of our products on Swatchbox and on Material Bank, we don't have SwatchBox up and running, but  Ben was at the same talk that you and I were at, but I really like what they're doing and I think what we're starting to see is a lot of these platforms, BIM Smith integrating SwatchBox, Material bank integrating Mindful Materials. So, I feel like they're trying to make it even easier for the under 40 demographic to not even have to go to all the websites eventually. Obviously, you have to have your website, but they're almost creating this aggregated platform where everything is there, so what do you think about that, and do you see that as, I can see it being perceived as somewhat monopolistic on the side of Material bank and I wonder is there a risk of there being too many brands on there? Can you knock any of this out?

Susan Milne: I absolutely agree. I think there is a risk of there being too many brands on there and then the other thing is if you speak with. So, you have a designer and they're working on a project, there are so many other points within that firm of approvals, so they're always having meetings and even if a designer’s selecting a surface for a project that the architect has already done the shell of the building, they still will be meeting, there'll be a lot of approvals and the reason that I'm seeing pushback on all these types of platforms is there's a belief that it can squeeze out the expertise of the salesperson. So, something that seems like it could work very often needs that salesperson to say, actually the profile when we're going to a wider plank, the profiles a little bit thicker and so, that’s never going to dovetail, you need to have, you need to pick from this category of what flooring.  


So, I think there's a danger in Material Bank and other platforms like this, one as you said, is it a monopoly? Yeah, it’s probably a monopoly until there'll be other people joining I think, so I'm going to go back to good old American capitalism and say if both of them can show they can make some money, there'll be some competitors and somebody will deliver it all in a beautiful matte black box and it'll be stunning and I won't go there, but I think it opens you up for competition, so If I’m searching for orange flooring, I'm going to get every orange flooring available, which is great if I don't have a big salesforce, which is terrible If I have a huge salesforce and I have a lot of investment, and now all of a sudden you're bringing my little known competitor and putting us side-by-side and making us look equal. 

So that can be a problem but then also the circumventing of the rep is something that is a problem because they do have so much expertise which, the thing, Jessica, I don't know if you find this, but I find this I'm a big Carl Jung psychology person, amateur strictly, but love this because the architects are typically introverts, they’re like the Myers Briggs classic introvert and so, when they see a sales rep coming who is an extrovert, they hide and we watch it happen all the time because we share our space with a firm and they just hide, but then when they do engage with you, they want limited, all they want is answers to their questions.

Jessica: Yeah

Susan Milne: They see it as a knowledge transfer, whereas when the sales rep who's typically an extrovert comes in to see the designers who are typically extroverts, it's a whole other scene. So, I find it fascinating in all of these, looking at our sales reps and saying, okay, we have extroverts selling to introverts, but they still need this expertise, how can we make that happen?  And the same thing with the designers. So again, I think the biggest thing here is Material bank and Swatch box will never replace your reps, so it's another thing. 

Jessica: Yes. I love hearing you say that because we just actually completed a presentation and one of the slides was this perfect, symbiotic, our existing salespeople  are engaging on these sample platforms like Material bank and Swatch box and how they ultimately exponentially increased specifications by handshake, working so closely together, so it's great to hear you say that. Let me ask you one other thing and then we'll kind of wrap it up here, I have heard that certain companies are basically terminating their outside salesforce and going towards a third-party rep model or more of a distribution model. Have you heard that and any other comments that you would make? I have to ask you about this, I always call it the intra Covid period, because I don’t think post is going to be a real thing anytime soon, but this interim and post Covid period, what do you see the workplace looking like? Are people going back to work and do you see this shift away from traditional salespeople to third-party reps as a result? 

Susan Milne: So, when you say third party, are you thinking multi-line reps?

Jessica: Yeah, like multiline reps or like what we are, CaraGreen, we're a distributor, but we're also a non-stocking distributor and a very heavy sales and marketing rep. 

Susan Milne: Right

Jessica: So those kinds of companies. 

Susan Milne: So, I think it all depends on the company. I think that to think that you're going to get rid of all your sales reps is, they're just going to take on a different form and you’re going to have different challenges

Jessica:  But they have to be able to take on that different form, right?

Susan Milne: Yes

Jessica: So, I think some of the traditional kind of backslapping, hey let’s go grab a beer salespeople, they’re going to struggle more than a 25-year-old sales guy who knows how to do everything perfectly online

Susan Milne: Absolutely. Well, that is, I mean in a way Covid has made your external sales rep almost like an internal sales rep, because they have to go out and they have to figure out now, how am I going to connect without being able to walk into a firm? And that is a challenge. One of the things that I've talked to a rep about recently is, everyone has fatigue, we've pushed Zoom as far as we can push it, how can these reps maintain building personal relationships when they can't get in the door?

 So that is definitely a challenge for them. if you're a company and you're thinking, these sales reps are not really sure what they're doing, let's go for multi-line reps, the thing that you need to understand about a multiline rep is you may be one of five lines that they carry. The lines may be complimentary, but they're usually not competing unless you're going, using a floor repping group and you have a flooring product, but now you have to sell your rep. You have to sell your rep to be able to 

Jessica: All the time

Susan Milne: All the time. Consider your rep a customer that you pay

Jessica: You have to be top of line. I agree with you and I will tell you one thing, we do have third-party reps for some of the brands that we're the manufacturer for and what we sell them on is our story and when you find that rep that falls in love with your story, it's like you have a direct salesperson, but you can easily go the other way and they're basically like a cat with a laser light and wherever you shine that laser they're chasing that. 

Susan Milne: Absolutely. So, one of the things that we do is we interview architects and designers after a rep has been through and we had a multiline rep who was carrying one of our clients and he came in and he held up the binder, this is obviously pre Covid and he said, well you all know what this is, and he just put it on the shelf and one of the designers said, no they don't know what this is because you're speaking to a room full of people who have been here various length of time, they're not familiar with this product as a very high-performance product and then that designer demonstrated it for everybody and the rep just again, pretty much dismissed it and went on to sell something else. So you have to make sure that those reps are really out there selling for you, I think it looks good on paper as an idea like I'm only going to go to multiline reps, but you have to be very careful and as you said, when you do find the right one it's gold. 

Jessica: I agree and I also think one of the recommendations that I've always made to people as they brought on these multiline reps is act fast, when you see that that rep is not representing you well, let them go. I think it's very hard to change of rep company, you may have one individual that's very good, but it's not good for your brand to lock up an entire territory with an undereducated rep company. 

Susan Milne: Absolutely. I completely agree with that and then, so if you've got good reps and then you treat them as your reps are  number one on the ground, you want to know what, a lot of times we find a client will say, this is my competition and then we go out and we talk to the rep and they're like, no that's not their competition. Let's use wood flooring again as an example, if you sell wood flooring, you can say okay, you manufacture wood flooring we should be in every project that somebody is considering wood flooring and so here are all the players in that, therefore that's our competition, that’s not true. Luxury vinyl tile can look like wood flooring. 

Jessica: Yep. 

Susan Milne: Porcelain can look like wood flooring they're so, laminate. Are you reclaimed? So really getting an understanding and your reps, when you have good reps to me, that's how you drive the most relevant content for your website. Another thing manufacturers say, what should we be writing about? What do you think our clients need? Ask your reps, your reps will tell you, they'll tell you who your competition is,  they'll tell you what's coming up on the market, they will tell you how to talk to your customers. They’re there every day.


Jessica: You’re bringing up something that I think was really important that I've seen with a couple of our manufacturers, specifically QRA on their echo panel products and with Expanco on their cork flooring products, they engage the reps on a monthly basis or even more frequent, they are talking to you. I mean, QRA, and Expanco throughout this whole Covid thing, they had all their reps together, hey what are you seeing? And everyone was there, it was just so congenial and it was so collaborative and it just made you feel like you were part of a bigger team and I see those companies that engage the reps that way competitions, prizes, trips, it really creates this sort of intro rep community that's very, very powerful and not a lot of brands are very good at doing that., but those  two are companies that I see have been very successful, engaging third-party rep firms and just getting people really kind of beating their drum.

Susan Milne: Absolutely, because I think that kind of goes to this bigger business picture, so you make something, you sell something, but that's not really your business. That’s part of your business, but the real business is how do you motivate everybody who is engaged in this world, in your world, whether it is the person who's fulfilling the samples in house. The person who's taking the orders, the person who is responding on the chat to the reps, to everyone to make this a big group team building effort where people want to be a part of it. I mean, there's nothing, money can't buy inspiration.

Jessica: I totally agree and like I said, I think  both of those brands, I can tell you do a great job and I think one last comment I would make on that is when you're the rep or the distributor, whichever channel partner you are, and they take the time to host that meeting and give you those training documents and ask you questions, send you surveys, engage, give feedback, that's what you should be doing as reciprocal to what they're doing, they're making this opportunity for you to have this communication channel and a lot of the rep firms or individual reps won't engage and I always encourage my team to engage, ask questions, complete surveys, give your feedback but  they’re opening that communication. A lot of companies don't do that, so I think it's the obligation to of the reps to make sure that they're providing the feedback and attending those events. 

Susan Milne: Absolutely, because at the end of the day, the reps are going to change companies because we always do but their reputation is going to go with them. So the only way that you can have, you can't sit back and say well, this company, isn't doing a good job if they're actively pursuing your opinion, they want your feedback and then, you just kind of throw your hands up in the air. Reps definitely have to be a part of it, because they're a part of the whole company success, which is really in turn their personal success. 

Jessica: Nobody wants a bad rep with a bad rep. Thank you, Susan so much for this. This has been a great talk and we loved having you. 

Susan Milne: Thank you so much, I love what you guys are doing. I'm so glad that we were able to connect and thank you for all the insights.  I have to say to anyone listening, Jessica is one of those people that I call and say, hey I've got, and it's usually a client who's trying to bring something new to market and your insight is always absolutely on point. So, thank you so much

Jessica: Yours as well. Thank you so much Susan. This is Build Green Live Green. Thanks for listening. 

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