Bringing Marketing to a Manufacturing Sales Rep Company

Episode 280

March 26, 2024

In this episode, we sit down with Zak Nelson. Zak talks with us about ArKco Sales’ move to having an in-house marketing asset. ArKco saw that the landscape for manufacturing sales rep companies is changing. Zak is ArKco’s answer to this evolving situation. He walks us through the changes they have implemented and how their sales reps have taken to having new branding and collateral. This is a great episode to see how you can utilize new marketing strategies in any field.

Bringing Marketing to a Manufacturing Sales Rep Company Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White, and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir?

Carman Pirie: I’m doing well. You know, happy to be here and always good to be recording another episode of the show.

Jeff White: It is. And we don’t often get to chat with more sales leader-type folks on The Kula Ring. It does tend to drift a little bit more to the marketing side. But this is an interesting pairing of the two.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, and to be fair, we are speaking to a marketer, not a sales guy, but is a marketer for a manufacturers rep company, which is just, you know, it’s just a it’s a lens that we haven’t always brought to the show. So I’m really excited to share that with the listeners today. And, you know, I know that it’s, you know, it’s almost we’ve heard it so much now about how sales is changing during the pandemic or post-pandemic. But a lot of people can say that it’s changing, but not a lot of people have the, So what? So I’m looking forward to getting into the so what with our guest today and kind of what that means for manufacturers’ reps in 2024 and beyond.

Jeff White: Yeah, and it’s certainly the case that, you know this sort of relationship between manufacturers and reps and distributors and customers is a it’s a pretty unique situation in terms of a typical marketing and sales process to like this is not really the environment of SaaS or consumer manufacturing or anything like that. It’s very different.

Carman Pirie:  indeed, let’s get on with it! 

Jeff White: Cool. So joining us today is Zak Nelson. Zak is the director of marketing and business development at ArKco Sales. Welcome to The Kula Ring Zak.

Zak Nelson: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Carman Pirie: Zak It’s awesome to have you on the show. I want to learn more about your background and ArKco sales. Please. I’m all ears. Tell us about the ArKco sales and how you ended up there.

Zak Nelson: Yeah, sure. It’s kind of an interesting story. So ArKco Sales is a family-run, second-generation sales, manufacturing sales rep, business, and electromechanical focus based in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. So their territory is the upper Midwest states and they have about 20 different lines covering everything from power to thermal. They’ve got HMI and interconnect solutions, they’ve got enclosures and moving into more of the EV charging and electrification world as well now. And they’ve been in business for 47 years. I want to say now since 1977, they’ve been successful all that time. But times are changing and I think a couple of years ago, the president, Steve Carr, saw the writing on the wall. He saw the need to move into marketing or to develop some marketing as a program, as a full-fledged department. And looked around and found me newly moved to Minnesota and looking for work and asked if I would be able to help him develop a marketing program for his firm. And so that’s why I came aboard about a year and a half ago. 

Jeff White: You’ve mentioned, Zak, that this isn’t typical. You know, manufacturers reps don’t often have marketers in the mix. And it certainly does sound like, you know.ArKco saw that writing on the wall and did make this move, which is obviously, you know, a smart way to go forward. Why do you think it is that typical rep organizations don’t employ marketers? 

Zak Nelson: Well, I think there are a couple of things. I think, first of all, is money. I think a lot of rep firms work. I mean, we’re we’re fewer than ten employees. But, you know, I think having a full-time marketing person costs a lot. And so you know, you are lucky if you can afford someone on your payroll. So that said, you know, I think also there’s this sense of what is the value you’re getting for that payroll and why can’t I just bring in either part-time or just an agency to do a one-off project or why do I need it at all? You know, we can just develop whatever we need sales sheets, cut sheets in-house and we have a website, you know. What more do you need?

Carman Pirie: And to be fair, I suppose, I mean, I’ve been in business for 40-some-odd years, not a huge number of people. So that’s probably, you know, some that’s just hardcore blocking and tackling sales, I would think. And so there’d be a lot of belief in that if you will, that kind of hand-to-hand combat of business.

Zak Nelson: Yeah, I think there’s still a strong belief in that. And I think that that is not misplaced. I think that is still why sales reps are called sales reps. But I do believe that the landscape has changed. The way that buying is done is changing as generations have shifted and buying behaviours are changing. So new generations are spending less time speaking with reps ahead of time. They’re doing more of their pre-purchase search for solutions online. And just a lot of these behaviours are pointing to a need to get information material out there and to also lead with some branding as well. And branding is something that I think that’s another big can of worms for a lot of rep firms is because when you start talking about branding to most rep firms, including in my own, you know, you get blank stares, I think the immediate response you get from a lot of folks is, well, whose brand are you talking about? You know, the immediate response is the manufacturing principle, and we have 20 of them. I mean, ArKco doesn’t have its own brand. Why would we have our own brand? Well, of course, we do. Every rep has its own brand, whether they realize it or not. It’s just a question of how you use it and how you promote it.

Carman Pirie: I think it’s interesting to imagine that I’m trying to maybe I’m trying to live vicariously and pretend that I’m younger or something Zak. But I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of that younger generation coming in and in effect, the older generation is probably like I am saying, you don’t even know just to call the rep. You don’t need to spend all this time online searching for stuff. You could just call the rep, call the salesperson. But you know, the chances are the new person in that role is going to be, you know, it may even take them more time, you know, to invest in the research and do it themselves. But it’s obvious, I suppose, as you stated, that that’s exactly what’s going to happen. They’re not going to be picking up the phone to call the rep.

Zak Nelson: Yeah, well, a lot of the training happens on the job, not in engineering school. I don’t know what the curriculum entails necessarily, but I would venture to guess that in many engineering schools, the curriculum doesn’t involve talking about the procurement process and the sourcing process and what the role of a manufacturer’s rep does. And so there’s been this process of cutting ourselves out of this fabric of the industry. And, you know, reps play an integral part in this thriving industry. And so I think we have to reinsinuate ourselves. And part of that is talking to these younger reps. Now there’s this statistic, it ranges from I think 60% to 66% of the millennials and Zoomers that are coming into the workforce that are spending their time two-thirds of their time on the Internet before they even pick up the phone or call someone for a quote or to ask about a product or a spec sheet. And so that’s, it’s a cause for alarm for a lot of folks. But you can just you know, tackle that plate as it lays and just say, okay, if that’s the truth, then let’s see where we need to be. You can’t line up your sales team and place them upfront the entire you know, that’s a full-court press, if you want to use the sports metaphor. You’re going to exhaust them. So you need to have a team that’s responsive to those behaviors. And so where do you expect these engineers to learn, these young engineers and even the distributor level? Where do you expect them to learn to talk to the reps? You know, you’re not going to expect them to learn it in their schools. You are dependent then on having their mentors on the job teach them. And so you’re lucky if you get that. So really, it’s incumbent on the reps themselves to start to teach those behaviors and in the meantime to also then respond to the behaviors that they currently exhibit. 

Jeff White: The thing that brings to mind for me and I mean your background, you know, you’re a copywriter, you work in brand, that sort of thing, and you’re coming into this organization on the heels of, you know, the weirdest couple of years in the history of humanity. And you’ve probably got a lot of disoriented sales folks and you’re inserting yourself into that and kind of looking at it holistically and saying, What am I going to do? So where did you start? Like, how did you discern how you could help early on? 

Zak Nelson: Sure. I think for me, it’s it was a little different because and for everyone, it’s going to be a little bit different because you’re always working within the framework of company culture and you know, of management that is going to be different and set of priorities that are going to be different. And there’s already pieces in play that you’re going to have to start running with. So already, you know, I came in at the very tail end of 2022 and just had to start laying the groundwork. And so for me, that involved two things. The first thing I started with, because it just didn’t affect anyone else’s work, was to start developing some new visual brand identity for ArKco. There was this old logo and typeface from, I want to say it looked like it was developed in the early eighties but no one had the original files. So the printer that the local printer that we had gone with had some files that had kind of combined several elements of the logo. But luckily the logo was simple enough that with my, you know, mediocre graphic design skills, was able to actually reproduce it pretty faithfully, you know, in the Adobe Creative Suite. And then from there was able to then develop our new logo design completely overturning it and making it just more exciting, approachable, contemporary and, you know, with that in place and starting to then roll that out into the various corners of our ArKco universe where it needs to be seen. Then it was a matter of, okay, well the sales guys in early 2023 just needed material, you know, to run with. And I wasn’t up to speed learning what capacitors were and learning what busbars were and all of that stuff. So what I could do secondarily was to start creating some pretty collateral. So I developed what I call affectionately hot sheets, which are these one-pagers that are not sales sheets. They’re not what in the industry are called cut sheets. They’re not spec sheets. They are purposefully left with lots of whitespace. They’re kind of these sexier looking, fliers essentially, that highlight anywhere from 1 to 3 products at a time with just a few bullet points meant to just spark interest, show you what the product is, you know, aimed at a technical audience, but without a lot of technical specifics and with a QR code on there that can point to that’s trackable, that can point back to our website and with more information or towards the manufacturer’s website. And so I immediately just started getting a lot of traction and a lot of leads just from that. And so that was the first quarter of 2023. And so from there we just started building out this marketing program, started developing strategies, started creating email programs, started just building the channels, planning the channels that we’d be using, developing a wish list for later down the line. In the summer, I started developing swag for all the trade shows we’d be going to. That became a priority. And so that was another fun thing. We developed these little ones here. Let me think about what over here are little headlights that have our little logo on them, and you won’t be able to see it too well. But we took the logo and in addition, renamed them Darkness Suppressors.

Jeff White: That sounds like something you had a Harry Potter.

Zak Nelson: right? So, you know, because the end user is engineers. I took that and with the other trade show swag that we developed, we developed a kind of higher-end piece of swag, some dry bags for giveaways that I call portable hydro exclusion chambers. We have little tissue packs that we call sniffles or sanitary nasal lachrymal impedance filters we’ve got. Yeah. What else did we develop there? Oh, yeah. And chip clips, Little magnetic refrigerator chip clips, the little bottle opener on the back. Because we’re in the electronics industry, I call up the macro chip. So there’s more where that came from. But that’s one of the benefits of having a creative marketer on your team is that you can have some fun, target your audience and stand out from the rest of your peers.

Carman Pirie: I love that. I, I love it because, you know, you say that in advance necessarily and people may not be able to picture how that’s going to come off. But I’m pretty sure as they start to see that come to life and start to see the reactions now, it’s a unique way in and I love doing that in combination with what is frankly a very hardworking idea. This notion of the hot sheets. I don’t know how many times I’ve said this but you got to sometimes just give the sales team something to talk about, some way or some new thing to talk about something, just some excuse to open their mouth because they’re good at doing it when they have something to talk about. And I just really love that idea. I’m curious, Zak, when we started talking about this, it kind of sounded like they were approaching hiring marketing talent from a bit of a defensive posture, like, you know, the world is changing and we need to react to that. So maybe not defensive, but at the very least reactive. Have you found in your work so far there’s a level of scale that I’m guessing you’re able to bring to the organization, a level of impact that you’re able to bring that’s different than just hiring one more salesperson, you know, and expanding that way? Have you gotten a sense that with your new work that maybe maybe there’s a bit of an offensive play for this term? Is the organization starting to see that it’s not just about reacting to a changing world, but actually we can drive serious competitive advantage here and maybe even just really accelerate our growth ambitions as a result?

Zak Nelson: I think the rest of the teams beginning to see that. And I think our president, you know, is definitely seeing it as he goes to association conferences like we were both recently at the Electronics Representatives Association Conference in Austin, Texas, where there were several breakouts about marketing and about future-proofing your rep business. And I think he heard the message loud and clear from all sides that exactly what you’re saying. It’s not a defensive move, but an offensive move, and it’s a long game that you’re not best served by aiming just to use your marketing to generate leads in the short term. But that coupling that, you know, that doesn’t hurt as part of your strategy. But that in the long term demand generation, you know, bringing that inbound marketing, having material that is drawing customers to you, whether it’s through brand awareness, whether it’s just through content marketing or these other approaches in the long term, is going to yield far more dividends for the average rep than just purely chasing individual leads. Now there’s also account-based marketing, which we haven’t even talked about, but, you know, which is certainly a lot of reps are starting to turn to and that’s, you know, marketing driven. I mean, that’s actually really where you start to see sales and marketing really working closely together because that’s a lot more labour intensive, but that’s in its own strategy, you know? But yeah, it’s absolutely it’s absolutely a more aggressive approach. Our leadership sees it and a couple of our reps who are younger reps who have been going to these conferences have been kind of hearing, you know, sort of the gospel being preached, you know, are starting to hear it from other sides, not just from me.

Carman Pirie: It’s always nice to not be the only one singing from that song sheet, you know?

Zak Nelson: Well, yeah, right. And especially when they start hearing these messages that aren’t just talking points, the messages that they’re hearing don’t use the same verbiage that I use, but they rhyme. 

Jeff Whtie: I have to think too, and I’ve seen this before, when you bring things like swag into it, when you bring a revitalized brand into it, oftentimes, especially, you know, people on the sales side, they begin to feel more comfortable in the skin of that brand. You know, they enjoy kind of the newness of it. And they’re probably hearing about, you know, the darkness suppressor from people at the conference or at the, you know, wherever they might be. And hearing people talk about that probably gives them faith that they’re headed in the right direction. I hope I’m not putting words in your mouth, but that’s my impression.

Zak Nelson: No, it’s been part of and it’s something also I had wanted to say to Carman’s earlier point. It’s been part of this learning experience for me, too, that as much as I might be coming in with my own experience and expertise, there’s this kind of humbling moment or many moments where I might initially chafe at this redirection, at being told, okay, well, we need to take the summer to focus on swag. When I hear I’m trying to focus on, you know, oh, we need to be getting our email channels set up in our social channels set up and why am I focusing on swag? Well, it turns out that exactly, Jeff, as you’re saying that swag was critical in retrospect for not just external industry by it, but for the internal team it, and that the Carman to your point earlier those hot sheets you know even though I came in with perhaps a lot of ambition and perhaps no small amount of impatience to you know, do everything at once, starting with these hot sheets and for the whole first year being introduced to new people as the guy who creates these hot sheets, which is a little bit like eating some humble pie, you know, it’s like I’ve done some other things, you know, But but to take a moment and to be, to remind myself to be more humble and to just listen to what’s resonating into what’s working and to own it and love it and appreciate it and see the value through their eyes. I mean, that’s what marketing is about. My customer isn’t just these engineers. My customer in this case is also my team. You know, these are the this is an audience whose needs and values I need to respond to every bit as much as, you know, the people that we’re selling to. And at least for me, during my first year. And so those hot sheets, having that swag, it was very critical in those early stages to developing a spirit of the brand. Even before we sat down and had a workshop as a team to talk about verbiage. And I think in retrospect this happy accident will seem wise and we’ll give ourselves credit for wisdom when it just was an accident. I had wanted to do a team, build a team workshop on brand. This is these are workshops I’ve led when I worked for a marketing agency in the past, you know, where you sit down and talk about, okay, what are our shared values and, you know, how do those, you know, mesh with our mission? What is our mission, what is our positioning? And you start to grow this organic and very specific brand out of that. And you don’t use, you know, vague words like teamwork and leadership and integrity. But you get into real specifics. But, you know, my team, they’re great at sales. They’re they’re not writers. But what they do well is they’re intuitive. So they respond to these things that I’ve created. And so if these darkness suppressors are something that they can rally behind if these hot sheets are something they can rally behind, I can see what it is that they’re responding to and use those as these, you know, baselines for developing.

Carman Pirie: And they’re and you’re putting some you know, those are some chips that you can cash later as well from a cooperation perspective. You know, I feel like that’s something that marketers sometimes jump, like you say quickly to the brand workshop or what have you, you know, from the people on the other end of it. They just think that, oh, we’re going to sit and listen to a marketer talk about marketing speak for half a day, and it’s about the last thing that they ever want to do, but they’ll be a little bit more willing to indulge such a conversation and actually, they’ve seen some other more direct impact. So I very much agree with you Zak. I think you’re going to be able to look at that in hindsight and say, yeah, that was the smartest thing we ever thought. I’m glad I came up with it.

Jeff White: Yeah, Those hot sheets, though, I mean.

Carman Pirie: It’s a great idea and I love it’s just calling them something different because it allows you to give them a different expected session.

Zak Nelson: Yeah, half-hour, half-hour team still calls them cut sheets. It’s funny, you know, it’s fun. 

Jeff White: You win some, you lose some.

Carman Pirie: You’re not going to win all the battles all the time. Is that right, Zak, it’s been lovely to have you on the show. I just wonder as we draw our time here, draws to a close, if there’s any kind of piece of advice that you may have for somebody jumping into the first marketing role in a very sales-heavy organization that you haven’t kind of extended this far as there’s just one one nugget that you’re like, I need to get that out of my head.

Zak Nelson: Yeah, You know, there’s a couple I was just actually on a panel at the ERA conference talking about digital marketing and how to get into it. So it’s exactly on that topic. Certainly for those listening, if you are members of the ERA, there’s a white paper by Outpace group that is all about how to get started in digital marketing. I’m not a member of the Outpace group, but they developed this really great white paper and it’s available to members. But I would say, first of all, you know, take a lesson from my, you know, kind of humble stumblings and remember that you always have to walk before you run. And so no matter your ambitions, just have patience and know that there’s a long game here and that whatever money you can invest, invest it in a marketing person, whether it’s a third party, and I would say especially for small businesses, invest in third-party marketing because you know, you may not be sure what you need yet. And until you know what you need, having that outside help, having that outside and I say this as someone who’s done both in-house marketing and now working for an agency, having the outside help can really be a learning experience and can give you some knowledge and some help getting moving in a direction. And even if you end up finding some things that you push against and that don’t work for you, it gives you something to start doing and a direction to start going in. And then down the line you can reevaluate and say, okay, well now we need to do more either with the same agency or a different agency, or now we’re ready to bring on a part-time or a full-time marketing person. But if you have extra money floating around, even if you don’t find it because you’re going to be left in the dust, if you don’t invest in some marketing now, and that can be anything from an email program to sprucing up your website and investing in some SEO, especially now that SEO is changing in light of artificial intelligence. You know, there’s just these little things that you can start pecking away at, and there’s a lot of free tools out there now to help you. So just start picking a strategy, pick a channel and just start working on it and just free up some money somewhere to get some help with it.

Carman Pirie: It’s good advice Zak and I think your point about the outside versus internal resources thing, is interesting, I think in bringing you on, I guess your internal, but you’re also bringing a very external perspective. And I think that you know, they’ve almost the I think your team’s gotten a bit of the best of both worlds because they have an agency style resource that’s able to bring that external perspective. But it’s working internally. So that’s a that’s really it’s been a really cool story. Thanks for sharing with us Zak.

Zak Nelson: Oh, thank you so much. It’s been really a fun little conversation here. I appreciate it. 

Jeff White: And I love the part about, you know, hiring an agency first. Yeah, not that we’re biased or anything. 

Zak Nelson: Oh of course not. 

Jeff White: It has been wonderful having you on, Zak. Thanks a lot. 

Zak Nelson: Thank you so much.
Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s K-U-L-A partners dot com slash The Kula Ring.

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Zak Nelson Headshot


Zak Nelson

Director of Marketing and Business Development at ArKco Sales, Inc.

Zak Nelson is director of marketing and business development at ArKco Sales, Inc. As a brand and content strategist, he helps businesses achieve their goals through irreverent storytelling and targeted marketing. Prior to coming to ArKco, he was a senior copywriter for Sands Costner, a digital content marketing agency, where he developed brands and executed content strategies for clients across diverse industries.

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Zak got his start in book publishing, where was a pioneer in digital marketing. He later taught rhetoric and composition to undergraduates at North Carolina State University, where he also received his master’s degree in creative writing. Zak is an innovative leader and a strong advocate for the strategic alignment of customer research, brand identity, and long-term business goals.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

About Kula

Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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