The Kula Ring podcast is essential listening for manufacturing marketers who want to grow their digital presence and compete online.
Sponsored by Kula Partners—an agency committed to helping leading B2B manufacturers craft digital experiences that transform how they engage buyers, serve customers, and outpace their competition—The Kula Ring podcast features conversations about marketing, sales, and technology with top manufacturing executives from across North America.
The Kula Ring podcast is co-hosted by Kula Partners principals, Carman Pirie and Jeff W. White, both of whom are frequently sought after for their digitally-focused B2B expertise. They regularly share their insights with audiences including conferences like B2B Online and HubSpot’s INBOUND, the Gardner Manufacturing Marketer blog, and other podcasts focused on B2B marketing and technology.
It doesn’t matter if you call it a niche or a nitch, how big yours is will determine your best next marketing moves. In this episode of the Kula Ring, Jeff and Carman explore examples of B2B manufacturers with large, almost B2C-style niches driving results by getting closer to end user customers.
Niche Moves for Manufacturers that are Less Niche 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 am delighted to be chatting with you today.
Jeff White: Yeah. Looking forward to the discussion.
Carman Pirie: I’m doing well. How you doing?
Jeff White: I’m doing great. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Nice. Yeah. I mean, I think… I guess to kind of try to tee up today’s conversation for our listeners, I guess one of the things that we always… has really kind of been a bit of a underpinning of our work over a number of years now, and is something that I really feel guides a lot of the strategic opportunities and decision points and whatnot that manufacturers have, that B2B manufacturers have in the marketing realm, is kind of the niche orientation of the markets that they serve. The extent to which their success is predicated on being well-known or making connections in a very niche category. And there’s kind of different degrees of that, I guess, and I guess one thing that we’ve just always found is that kind of where you fit on that spectrum changes things for how you move forward.
Jeff White: Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s not just the combination of, or their niche orientation. Part of the rest of that is that cross-referencing it with how account focused they are and kind of the tools they bring to bear on that process. It’s the combination of those two things that kind of decides where somebody falls on this model.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Exactly. And of course, those two things are kind of connected in some way. I mean, if you think about what you just said, basically if you’re in a market that isn’t particularly niche, then maybe the requirement to be account focused and have account-based revenue competencies and things of that sort, to kind of think about the world through that target account lens, maybe that isn’t as required, you know?
Jeff White: Or even possible.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. So, you know, why would you have that muscle developed I guess would be a way to think about it. But I guess that’s kind of what we’re talking about today, isn’t it? It’s like okay, so what do you do when you find yourself towards what would be maybe in our way of thinking a bottom end of niche orientation, which what we actually mean is a larger, much larger niches. When you’re a B2B manufacturer and you find yourself operating in pretty big categories.
Jeff White: Where there’s potentially thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of possible accounts. It’s much harder to kind of wrap your arms around the full breadth of it. It’s not like you’re just picking the manufacturers of pet food in Canada specifically, where you know that there’s only like 30 of them or whatever.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, or you’re just selling into automotive factories where it’s a pretty limited number of those. Yeah, Tte example that we always use, the brand has been a guest on this show, is Klein Tools. It’s a great example of a very large tool brand that sells a lot of different things. Pliers to electricians being at the core, but certainly PPE and a lot of other things required for the job site. So as a result, their market’s pretty big—they make their products available in Lowe’s, and Home Depot, and every distribution channel known to man, right?
Jeff White: Yeah. Almost down to the B2C… Well, actually in the B2C retail channels.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly right. I mean, tools is kind of a good example, because they do kind of bridge a bit of a gap.
Jeff White: I wonder how much of that is actually related to things like COVID making people pay more attention to what pros use in a particular category, and then seeing it dribble down into-
Carman Pirie: I think it was happening well before COVID, to be fair. We can blame COVID for a lot of things, but I don’t know that we can give it credit for that.
Jeff White: Yeah, I don’t know. Anyway.
Carman Pirie: Anyway. So yeah, I guess that’s the topic of today’s show, is kind of I think we’ve just… We’ve experienced some interesting examples of brands that would fit in that category of being B2B manufacturers that kind of function in more B2C-esque markets, if you will. And we’ve seen some examples of them taking approaches to going to market that are actually more akin to very highly niche players, which is why I think our audience kind of ought to be interested in this. Because on the one hand, you could look at a Klein Tools or what have you and almost dismiss what they do from a marketing perspective, and say it’s a playbook that’s not open to me because they’re playing in a more B2C-like space. It’s a big brand space, most of their marketing and communications will kind of be a little bit more brand centric. And maybe there’s not a lot of similarities to how they function and how I function as a highly niche manufacturer, for example.
But I guess a couple of these more recent examples of how they’ve gone to market, to me, kind of point to them taking approaches that are more targeted and more one-to-one, more operating at the account level, which I just find fascinating and an interesting kind of connection, if you will.
Jeff White: Yeah, and they’re doing that on the back of a very successful, more large distribution strategy as well. I mean, if they weren’t able to be successful there, it would probably be a lot harder for them as a brand to break into this more one-to-one connectivity. And I guess what we’re… To familiarize our listeners who may not have heard the episode, we’ll link it up in the description—but basically what they were doing was joining with their distribution partners and visiting major job sites and talking to the contractors, and the carpenters, and the electricians, and everybody else about what they needed, and introducing new products. But you know, that’s a pretty narrow reach when you’re getting down to, ‘I have to be in-person on a job site in order to connect with this account.’
Carman Pirie: Yeah. I guess that’s a bit of the thing to unpack, right? So, they’re doing like tailgate demos and things of that sort at the job site.
Jeff White: Toolbox demos. That’s what it was.
Carman Pirie: What’s that?
Jeff White: It was toolbox demos, wasn’t it?
Carman Pirie: Toolbox? I thought it was tailgate. Maybe it was toolboxes on the tailgate. [Laughs] But regardless, the connotation’s the same, frankly. I mean, they’re demoing new products on the job site. They’re working to get in this case quite honest, quite physically closer to the customer, right? But getting the Klein brand closer to customers and kind of being a more direct part of that relationship with a customer and not just selling to the distributor who sells it on through. And of course, for Klein, this is a bit of a response to their distribution channels, the store fronts basically being shut down. The notion of during the pandemic, the front of house was shut down, but there was still lots of sales happening out the back door, so to speak. How do we get in front of those people? Because the big, fancy displays that we paid to have on the floor of our distributors aren’t really helping us right now when the lights are turned off.
Jeff White: Yeah. And the training for the counter reps and all of that no longer works if they’re not talking to anybody.
Carman Pirie: Right, right. So I just thought ‘Wow, that’s a really interesting approach and it’s an approach that would be, I think, more familiar or likely to be imagined by somebody or by a brand who operates in more highly niche categories.’ And I guess as somebody who works with a lot of those types of companies, I was kind of a little bit like, “Aha, you’re coming over to our side!” As the big brand B2B marketer, you’re seeing benefit in this closer proximity.
Jeff White: Targeted approach.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly. And I guess the other example I would point to people, and we don’t have a podcast episode to highlight here, but there’s some interesting kind of interview work that we’ve done in kind of exploring the Cambro brand. And they’re a brand that serves professional kitchens with storage solutions and wide range of things, and in their case a big part of their strategy was trying to get closer to customers. In their case, get closer to the kitchen. Try to build tighter relationships with those end users.
And I guess so often, anytime I’ve heard that type of language with brands often before, it would be through the lens of eCommerce, right? You would hear, which was kind of through the lens of channel conflict and cutting out distribution, going directly to customers often, so I think that’s a more kind of obvious play for people. I guess what I liked about both the Cambro and the Klein examples is that these organizations chose not to do that. They’re not trying to cut out distribution. They’re not wreaking a bunch of havoc and channel conflict. They’re frankly working more in partnership with those channels to further their connectivity to end users.
One thing I suppose that would be similar between those two brands is they are both market category leaders in their space, aren’t they?
Jeff White: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of people who would be listening like, “Yeah, but I’m not the Klein Tools of my category.” It’s almost like in some ways in terms of brand recognition, many of the companies we’re talking with would be like an upstart shoe manufacturer trying to beat out Nike. If you were trying to-
Carman Pirie: Well, you know, but it’s interesting, because of course a big brand like that that’s operating in a more B2C fashion, they may do something like sponsor a NASCAR team. Well, that’s certainly something that the Mr. Upstart, Mr. and Mrs. Upstart can’t do. I guess when do the excuses start and stop? Because here’s something that those big brands are doing that actually you can do probably, in some way, like you can get closer to your customers. You might not be able to sponsor a NASCAR team.
Jeff White: No. I want to ask you what you think, because both of these examples that you’ve given, and it’s not to suggest that this is the only way for B2B brands to get closer to their customer when they’re not operating in massively defined niches. Both of these involved personal interaction, in-person interaction, as opposed to say, a more B2B niche player with a more well defined niche might leverage account-based marketing or account-based advertising platforms to try and reach those targeted accounts. Do you think that when you’re more to the brand side of this that those platforms maybe make less sense just due to the scale of the audience? Or is there potential to use a Terminus or Demandbase if you’re Klein Tools?
Carman Pirie: Well, I guess I haven’t done a match test on the platforms and look at those target accounts that broadly to be able to answer that question, because it’s a double edge. On the one hand, you’re like, “Oh, well, these are pretty broad, big categories, therefore does this work?” Well, that just means you have a larger opportunity in some way to take advantage of more enhanced targeting. So, provided the platforms, that the targeting fidelity was high, I guess, then I would be like, “Hmm, I don’t know.” I don’t think there’s less of a chance to use those kind of approaches at all, and in fact, I seem to recall in one of those discussions… I think it was Cambro. I think advertising, targeted advertising into the kitchen was part of that play.
Of course, you could do that in a couple of different ways, especially if you don’t mind a bit of crossover with kind of home pro chefs, if you will.
Jeff White: Yeah, interesting. I mean, your spend is certainly going to be much higher if the audiences are that much larger, unless you’re continuing to refine them and refine them and refine them, and you’re able to do that.
Carman Pirie: Yeah, and then, of course, say in Klein’s case, I’m certain that they leverage their distribution network to identify those customers and to get onto those job sites, right? Take advantage of the fact that those distributors are already closer to the customers than you are as the manufacturer and basically that… I think they had a 15-point soft loyalty card that was end user-actioned through the distributor, and that was kind of the price to pay to play probably, right?
Jeff White: Yeah, yeah. It’s an interesting thought. What do you think, if you’re a manufacturer and you kind of find yourself in this space, where would you look first? Would you try and work with those existing distribution channels? Would you try and get closer to those customers yourself? What do you think some of these organizations should think about first?
Carman Pirie: It’s an interesting question. I feel like the sensibility that’s required here is probably more resident in the sales organization than it is in the marketing org. Those people that are managing those distribution relationships are probably closer to being able to action this maybe even than the marketers are, so I think the marketers ought to be working pretty much in partnership. I think Klein was a pretty good example of that, where they had salespeople that were typically servicing the distribution channel that were frankly quite idle because of COVID, so they could be repurposed to be more on the job site, so they’re still working in partnership with distribution but in new and different ways.
But at least then the sales org, because you gotta think about what does it take for this type of program to scale? Well, it takes a CRM probably, right? Probably a level of…
Jeff White: And these aren’t necessarily things that organizations like that are used to.
Carman Pirie: Right, that’s just it. I mean, they otherwise probably don’t have one, really, because they don’t think of customers in that way, or if they do have a CRM, they don’t have a CRM for customers as people traditionally-
Jeff White: No, it would be distributors.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Exactly right.
Jeff White: It really does require a mind shift in how you choose to go to market.
Carman Pirie: And then I think for a manufacturer that maybe they have strong distribution relationships, but it’s hard for them to imagine how to scale it in a way that they could put boots on the ground, as it were, and action it in the same way that Klein did. I don’t see any kind of impediment to a more marketing-led approach, I guess, as I think about it. I think it just probably leads you down a little bit more, like you say, maybe taking more ad-centric initial steps as opposed to demoing products at tailgates. Initially, I mean.
Jeff White: Yeah, yeah. What about organizations that think they’re here but they’re really not?
Carman Pirie: What do you mean?
Jeff White: Like a manufacturer that thinks they’re a brand, that it’s a brand play for them, and they don’t think they have a niche orientation, but they really do. Do you think that there’s a path to success for them?
Carman Pirie: So, like this is somebody who thinks that the brand is-
Jeff White: The power.
Carman Pirie: Like they’re a Klein that doesn’t believe they’re a Klein? Is that kind of the example?
Jeff White: Or they think they’re a Klein, but they’re really not, and they’re selling to much smaller, more… They don’t think they play in niches, but they really should.
Carman Pirie: Well, I mean, I think what we’re talking about here largely are brands that don’t think of themselves as niches but are leveraging niche tools. Cambro and Klein being good examples of that. So, if you actually are somebody that’s well suited to these tools to begin with, then yeah, you’re better off to not think of yourself like a Klein or a Cambro.
Jeff White: It’s kind of the investment required to build a brand to that level. I mean, we talked about how they’re category leaders. Well, part of that is their brand power and what they’ve built because of their visibility in their communities of interest. You know, if you’re a smaller manufacturer, that’s harder.
Carman Pirie: And part of that is that prosumer crossover, too. You know, like Klein Tools sells swag on their website to people who live in New York City and think it’s fashionable to have a tool bag as their purse or what have you, or their overnight bag. Well, that’s only because there’s a level of prosumer crossover in that category that enables that tool brand to be more cultural, if you will. I would say the Cambro in the kitchens are kind of the same way.
Jeff White: Yep. When you start to see them show up at Costco, that’s how you know.
Carman Pirie: Right, yeah. And so, there’d be plenty of kind of people that fancy themselves home pro-ish chefs-
Jeff White: Who want to have what they see the Serious Eats people using on YouTube.
Carman Pirie: Right, right, right. So, if you’re in a category that serves, let’s say like, instead of pliers for electricians along with a whole host of other things, maybe you sell a niche product in the HVAC space or something. The brand play certainly isn’t there for you in the same way.
Jeff White: No, and that’s a risk that marketers who don’t necessarily understand how to market into niche categories potentially run the risk of wasting money to try to promote a brand that isn’t at that level yet.
Carman Pirie: Right. And you know, if their end goal, if somebody—the HVAC person I just mentioned—if they’re ultimate vision is to have somebody on the New York City subway buying swag that looks cool with their logo on it because they’ve successfully embedded themselves in culture, it’s like that isn’t gonna happen. It’s not gonna happen regardless of how much money you have because there’s just… That space doesn’t crossover in the same way. That person could work with their small network of distributors and work to do demo days, and whether they’re toolbox or tailgate demos or whatever it is, and so they could… I guess they could pull a club out of the bag of Klein Tools. They could say, “Yeah no, I’ll try that, though.” So, maybe that’s kind of the interesting point here, is that I guess if you’re… Some people look to those bigger brands to validate approaches that they might be thinking about and maybe this helps them get the confidence to do it.
Jeff White: Yeah. Well, one thing we can say for sure is that you’re never gonna go wrong by talking to your customer.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It is interesting, though, of course to think about that these people have more customers that they can talk to as a result of those leadership positions. Yeah. In the example of Klein, I think they’re more trying to… It was also a bit of a ‘we’re more than just pliers’ play, right? People don’t necessarily think Klein Tools and PPE in the same breath, so as a category leader, for a way to find new revenue, that’s kind of one of the ways that you may find yourself needing to go. Another way, typically, is typically if you’re a market share leader, then in a B2C space the secret is to increase consumption. So, if you’re the market share leader in hamburgers, your advertisement should be largely about getting people to eat more hamburgers.
So, it’s interesting to think about that and the notion of a brand like a Cambro or a Klein, how could they take the… Go, even push further to a B2C kind of approach, and conduct advertising that’s around expanding consumption. I’m not sure it’s possible. There’s a limit to how many pliers you need. Now yes, expanding the number of products you buy from us is one way of expanding consumption, but that’s-
Jeff White: That’s not really… That’s not the same thing.
Carman Pirie: Not the same. Yeah, yeah. And I’m kind of left wondering now if there’s a ‘there’ there.
Jeff White: You know, the way to do it, of course, is the Gillette model. Consumables. You develop something where you sell the tool but the thing you need to run it is consumable. And that’s… There’s an awful lot of stuff going that way right now, honestly. You know, but that would be the model, which maybe does work more in some of those other kind of more specific categories like the HVAC model that you were talking about. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Thinking about almost Cambro’s an easier one. I can picture the store everything campaign, like where everything ought to be in a Cambro. It could kind of…
Jeff White: The baby.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. No, exactly. Anything and everything that can be enclosed ought to be enclosed, so like the store everything campaign, I suppose, fictitious campaign we just made up, but that would be about encouraging more consumption of what they already sell, which would be maybe the purest thing that you could get to my burger example.
I think this has been an interesting exploration of kind of marketing options and opportunities for those people that find themselves with a niche orientation that isn’t particularly narrow. And I mean, I know it can be difficult sometimes to pull inspiration from market leaders like Cambro and Klein, but at the same time I think we’ve shown a few examples of where they’re actually doing things that are available to others and are available to the masses, if you will.
Jeff White: Even less niche. Thanks for the conversation, mate.
Carman Pirie: It’s been a pleasure.
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 kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing.