Battle of the Brands

Marketing gurus say branding campaigns are a waste of money for small companies. But branding is how some small home improvement companies got big

December 17, 2015
Jared Mellick in the studio for call-in radio show In The House

Jared Mellick, president and co-founder of Universal Roofing & Contracting, in the studio for his weekly Central Florida call-in radio show In The House. Photo: courtesy Universal Roofing & Contracting

Last year, Universal Roofing & Contracting of Orlando, Fla., opened a branch in Jacksonville. As Florida’s largest city, Jacksonville could have represented a formidable challenge for Universal Roofing, which does both exterior and full-service remodels. The $6.5 million company was a big fish in Orlando, where it’s been in business since 1993. How would it gain traction in a new market with hundreds of competitors?

Yet, within a year, Universal Roofing was well on its way to doubling its sales. President and co-founder, Jared Mellick, attributes that to what he calls the “single best marketing thing I’ve ever done.” That would be In The House, a call-in radio program that Mellick and his father, Ken, began hosting in 1999. The program airs every Saturday morning on News 96.5FM in Orlando. Before launching in Jacksonville, Jared extended the show to WOKV 104.5 in that city. It provided immediate market share. “It gave us an authority that would’ve taken much longer to create,” he says, because he could talk about the fact that his company has been doing business in Central Florida for more than 20 years.

Branding Conundrum

In The House is all about branding. Someone calls in or emails a question and Jared, who has worked in home improvement for 20 years, responds. From time to time he points out that Universal Roofing provides this service or sells that product, but the point is home repair and remodeling advice. It’s not an endless sales pitch. His engaging expertise, coupled with on-air company ads, accounts for roughly a third of sales at Universal Roofing & Contracting. Mellick tracks marketing ROI, so he knows what the radio show brings in.

But how about the end-of-the-year 60-second radio ad recently aired over five stations in New York City’s New York and Connecticut suburbs, in which Mark Franzoso, owner of Franzoso Contracting, in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., barely mentions home improvement, let alone a specific product? Instead, Franzoso simply thanks his customers for their business.

Franzoso, whose 35-year-old roofing, siding, and window company will generate more than $13 million in sales this year, attributes his success in large measure to a branding strategy he put in place 15 years ago. “I don’t even advertise product anymore,” he says. “I only advertise my company. People want to be reassured that they’re buying quality, and they want someone they can trust.”

Against the Grain

Marketing gurus such as Dan Kennedy, author of No B.S. Direct Marketing, argue that small companies should spend their money on direct marketing ads or activities, like shows or events, that produce measurable lead results. That’s smart advice if you need immediate sales, not because branding’s a bad strategy but because it’s a long-term strategy and not an easy one to pull off.

Powered by referrals and review site leads, Mike Connors, owner of Titan Siding, Windows & Exteriors,  in Austin, Texas, took his siding replacement company to $4 million in four years. But Connors found that his foray into radio as a sponsor of The Texas Home Improvement Show, With Jim Dutton to be something of a let-down. “The first commercial we did, I was taken with the glitz and glamour of it,” he says. He’d hoped to get five or six leads per month from the program. Eight months later, he’s gotten one or two. “Branding is great,” Connors says, “but you have to have something to show for it.”

We’re Not Selling Windows

A brand is different things to different people. It can simply be a logo and graphics. Or it can be “ads that don’t create immediate leads but create awareness of your company,” says David Alpert, founder of Continuum Marketing Group, in Virginia, which works with contractors. “I define it as ‘what they think of your company when they think of your company.’”

In other words, your graphics, people, business practices, reputation—all of it—distilled to a thought or feeling. It’s where your company stands in the arena of public awareness. Which is why it’s not wise to leave it to chance. “You have define what you want your brand to be,” Alpert points out, “and you have to craft it.”

Crafting it takes time, planning, money, and intuition, often without immediate results. You’re fertilizing the growth of future sales. Too often contractors, especially home improvement company owners under the gun to generate appointments for a hungry sales team, see branding and lead gen as an either/or proposition. Alpert says that, far from being mutually exclusive, they’re “all part of the marketing continuum. You’re not going to sell someone replacement siding until they need it. So you’re building brand awareness. You’re making them comfortable with your company.” When they do need it, he says, they may look you up, prompted, perhaps, by a direct-response coupon.

Steve Rennekamp, president of Energy Swing Windows, a company that manufactures and sells its own windows in Pittsburgh, says that because there are relatively few window buyers in the market at any given time, the key is to combine traditional direct-response advertising—Buy Four Windows, Get One Free—with branding messages, that is, those that create awareness of the company. That balanced blend gets the attention of both immediate and future buyers. “We’re not really selling windows,” Rennekamp says. “We’re selling the quality of the experience that our customer will have.”

Changing Market

A brand is, to use Alpert’s phrase, “what people say about you.” In effect, the reputation you have is the brand. When what people said about your company was limited to word-of-mouth, brand didn’t matter that much. But today, people who want to know about your company can easily find out. And many more are seeking information. “You have to be worried about what you look like online,” Alpert says. “It makes branding in the larger sense much more important because Gen Xers tend not to buy things without doing their research. It’s baked into their DNA.”

Brand building isn’t simple. Opportunities vary from product to product, market to market. But it starts with defining the brand and identifying cost-effective ways to promote it. “You have to think of it as a long-term investment,” says Todd Bairstow, president of Keyword Connects, a lead-generation company specializing in home improvement. You can, he points out, brand online in inexpensive ways via, for instance, Houzz, YouTube, or Instagram.

“But, ultimately, the most successful companies, the folks I see with strong brands, seem to have some kind of specialization in one specific media type.” he says. Among other things, that means they can purchase media time “wisely and inexpensively.”

Branding Powers Growth

Home improvement companies with a branding strategy tend to be the ones that grow. “Those that have built branding strategies over the years,” Bairstow says, “have almost always outperformed those that did not. If you just take a strict direct-marketing and ROI approach to lead gen, you will scale your business to a ceiling much sooner than you would if you built a brand.” 

This holds particularly true in the Internet age, he says, where the branded company holds an advantage over unbranded competitors. “If someone types in ‘replacement windows Aurora Illinois,’ they’re not choosing a particular brand but they want information about replacing windows. If they’ve heard of ABC Windows over the years, they’re much more likely during the course of that action to pick up the phone or submit an email. They don’t fear being scammed or taken advantage of. It’s a tougher hurdle online if you don’t have a brand.” 

Harry Helmet, an eight-branch gutter protection company headquartered in Maryland, ranks among the top 100 home improvement companies, in part at least for having used broadcast, especially radio, to “build an overall brand image and tell a story about our company and product,” says owner and president Del Thebaud. “We tend to go with live spots over recorded ones,” Thebaud says, “and the selection of a radio endorser can be time-consuming. But when you find the right fit with the right audience, it can be magic, in terms of lead generation.”

That’s because, in the aftermath of recession, homeowners are increasingly likely to have made up their minds about who to go with even before they pick up the phone. Brand authority often trumps price.

“When they need a new roof and call us, they feel like they know us,” Jared Mellick says. “I’ve had people say, when I walk in, ‘Jared, I love you.’ And I’ve never met them. How difficult a sale is that?”

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