The Kula Ring

Episode 160 Using Niche Marketing Tactics to Build Brand Awareness

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.

In this episode, Liz Shovlin, the Director of Sales & Marketing for Americas at Nicomatic talks about how niche marketing and traditional sales have helped her build and expand the Nicomatic brand in the Americas. She goes into detail describing the multi-faceted marketing approach she uses that incorporates a mix of social media, content, and traditional sales to deliver the right messages to specific companies and people at the right time. Hear more from Liz on her team’s focused approach to helping customers to discover, buy, and find solutions with Nicomatic’s products.

Using Niche Marketing Tactics to Build Brand Awareness 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 are you doing, sir? 

Carman Pirie: I’m doing well. I’m doing well. Look, I think today’s conversation is yet another really interesting episode. I’m really looking forward to it. 

Jeff White: Yeah. We’re gonna be talking about some very interesting ways of going to market. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. And today’s guest is one of those gifted marketers that’s able to just kind of… has a nice way of summarizing some of the approaches. I don’t want to put her too much on the spot in advance, but I’ve just enjoyed it… It’s made it easy almost to refer back to as I thought about our discovery conversation. 

Jeff White: Yeah. Some excellent turns of phrase, as it were.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. All right, now we’ve put her completely on the spot. 

Jeff White: Isn’t that normally what we do anyway? That’s the point of the show is to put smart people on the spot. So, joining us today is Liz Shovlin. Liz is the Director of Sales and Marketing for the Americas at Nicomatic. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Liz. 

Liz Shovlin: Thank you. Thanks for having me, guys. Happy to be here. 

Jeff White: Glad you’re with us. 

Carman Pirie: It’s awesome to have you with us, Liz. Yeah. Look, I think it’s probably best if we start with letting our listeners understand or know a bit more about Nicomatic and what Nicomatic is, what you make, what you do. 

Liz Shovlin: Of course. Absolutely. So, Nicomatic is a manufacturer of creative interconnect solutions. Our Americas location is based in Horsham, Pennsylvania, just a little bit outside of Philadelphia, and we are manufacturing everything from inside of the box connectors to sealed connectors that are going into some pretty harsh environments, mostly working with defense organizations, so Lockheed, Raytheon, similar companies to those, and also medical devices, so some of our flat flexible cables are used quite prevalently in things like hospital beds or ventilators. So, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a lot of activity in that space, as well. 

Jeff White: Yeah. And initially, a small, French-based company, from what I understand? 

Liz Shovlin: Yeah. Exactly. So, the organization started in 1976. It initially started out interestingly, I don’t think a lot of people know this. I recently learned it. I’ve been with the company for about five years. The father of Julien and Olivier Nicollin, who are the owners of Nicomatic now, his name is Paul Nicollin. It’s the father. He started the organization making automated equipment for the tobacco industry. So, he then transitioned from that to machining very precise components, and actually, the first product that Nicomatic offered was our Crimpflex connector system, which is utilized with flexible circuits, and it’s still very popular today, and we still sell that often, and we’re incorporating it into new products and things like that. 

But yes, the company is still headquartered in Bons-En-Chablais, France, and most of the manufacturing is done there, and quite a bit in Horsham, Pennsylvania, and we do have some manufacturing in Tianjin, China. 

Jeff White: Nice. And so, you’ve been there five years. Tell our listeners a bit about yourself and the rest of your background. 

Liz Shovlin: Sure. Yeah. I’ve been with Nicomatic for five years. I started in a global product line leader role, so I came in working with the Crimpflex product and transitioned to our flat flexible cable line, which we manufacture in Horsham. I learned a lot about Nicomatic in the first couple of years and we recently, within the last three, four years, repositioned a little bit and began heavily targeting our connectors and our military offerings, as well. So, Nicomatic is definitely a value-add partner, full-service solution partner, and we really wanted to bring that more so to the Americas organization, so I stepped into the Director of Sales and Marketing role for the region, for our time zone, and I’ve been doing that for the last four or so years. 

Prior to that, I was in a product management role at AmeriGas, in oil and gas. They’re one of the largest propane distributors in the United States. I was working in King of Prussia, PA, in the marketing team there with a great group, a very large group of employees at AmeriGas. And prior to that, I was working in marketing at a company selling SOLIDWORKS and Stratasys 3D printers. 

Carman Pirie: Ah. 

Jeff White: Covering all the bases. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. Look, I’ve gotta say, the kind of customer that you’re targeting, especially in defence, when I encounter marketers trying to sell and market into these environments, they can be tough accounts. It can be kind of tough accounts to crack. I just find a lot of marketers really struggle with how to wrap their arms around these organizations. I’d like to just kind of dive into it a little bit of just kind of how you go to market and some of your I guess guiding philosophies or thinking that help you do that. I guess, can you… How would you start to describe that? 

Liz Shovlin: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s a great question. It can be really challenging to begin working with these organizations. They’ve been around a long time. They have a lot of rules and requirements. And beyond that, their customers are often militaries of various different countries, and they have their own standards and requirements too. So, coming in with a product that is modular, that is very flexible, that can be adapted to whatever the customer needs, isn’t a cookie-cutter product like a standard electrical connector that you might find in the back of your computer monitor. 

So, what we do is we work with those clients to understand the benefits. Oftentimes, they already realize that they have an issue, right? They have a problem. The standard isn’t going to work for them. So, we work with them, and we sell to them through multiple channels. So, we have a distribution channel. We work to bring clients to us through some digital marketing and most importantly and most traditionally, we have a direct sales channel, as well. So, that’s really how we’re going to market, but we work with those customers, help them understand the benefits of moving to the new technology that’s gonna bring them advancement, and make their product perform to a higher degree than if they used those kinds of standard elements. 

So, once the customer knows they have an issue, or they see that “Wow, I have an opportunity to do something next level,” that’s when we begin to work together. But the challenge for us is really making sure that the customers know who we are. So, we’re a small organization, very adaptable, very flexible, but a big focus for us over the past few years has been brand awareness and meeting those clients.

Carman Pirie: It sounds as though it’s really part of your unique positioning is this notion of the modularity and flexibility of what you do versus your competitors. 

Jeff White: It should be noted, a lot of your competitors are significant and large organizations, so you’re going up against some real Goliaths. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I guess I’m kind of wondering, do you find yourself in taking this position that you’re almost in some ways challenging your prospects to buy in a new way or to think about what they consume, or what they’re buying in a different way because you guys deliver it fundamentally differently? Does that make sense?

Liz Shovlin: Yeah. Absolutely. So, showing the customer that, for example, they’ve been using two or three connectors to send a certain amount of power through their print circuit board, for example, now they can do that with one connector from Nicomatic, and send a lot more power through a smaller footprint, is really something different for them and it’s going outside of the standard. Now, that said, Nicomatic does offer some standard sealed connectors too, our Optimus EN4165, so we kind of hit both areas, but the bread and butter of the business is that modularity and that different approach. So, the customers are used to calling their traditional supplier, or hitting their website, or going to that standard connector that everybody sells, and trying to find the cheapest one, and they’re finding as we move forward here that technologies 30, 40, 50 years old, as we have further advancements with missiles, or optoelectronic equipment, or medical devices, that’s not going to work for them anymore. They need to send power and data and signal through one connector. 

So, oftentimes the customer may know that they have an issue, or they have a challenge, and they need a solution, so we help guide them through that process to say, “Okay, we work with you to design this connector,” just as they design their project with their other system and components. We just say, “Hey, work with us a little bit here on your connector and we’ll help you configure it exactly as you need it.” They may already know, too. “I have a vision. I have coax,” and something like that in their connector, and that’s fine, and they can go to the website and just pull that down and drop it into their design. But yeah, it means that they have a lot more flexibility and it opens a lot more doors for the customer, so what we try to do is just show them how to use the tools that we offer and make sure that they know that we have multiple channels that they can work with us through. 

We also try to have a broad marketing presence so that they can find those tools easily and begin to work in a little bit of a different way. 

Jeff White: You have many, many SKUs, millions, and millions of SKUs, and is the way that you go to market in the Americas a bit different than how Nicomatic sells into the rest of the world? 

Liz Shovlin: I would say there’s a difference in that a lot of our customers in the United States, one, don’t know who we are. They’re very used to working with a much larger organization that’s been around for a long time and is a U.S. company. So, we come in with a very different product that brings them a lot more capability and we’re also a newcomer on the stage. So, while we’ve been in France since 1976, for example, we’ve been in the United States since 2000, I believe it is, or 1998. Something like that. So, we have a little bit more of an uphill battle with brand awareness, making sure those customers know who we are, feeling comfortable, and also reaching a much broader audience.

So, a lot of the other countries that we work within, France, for example, it’s a much smaller country and it’s a lot easier to get to know those different divisions that are close by. Especially if you’ve been around for a long time. So, yes, we have a little bit of a different approach, and we are…I would say in a little bit of a different stage of the lifecycle of our brand is maybe a good way to think of it, so we’re a little bit more in the infancy in terms of our relationship and the relationship of our brand to our customer brands.

Jeff White: I think that… Well, I mean it’s hard to think of someone who’s been around in a market for over 20 years as an upstart, but you’re really, that’s kind of… When you talk about the relationship between yourself and your competitors, and the type of product you sell, and the innovation that’s packed into it, it gives you a license to talk about it differently and to bring that product to your customers in a different way. How are you structuring that and how are you approaching that in your role in the Americas? 

Liz Shovlin: So, I would say there are a few different areas that we try to employ. We have put a lot of focus in recent years on our brand awareness, and making sure that the customers are aware of the technology, why it’s different, who Nicomatic is, so we work with a lot of different digital marketing tools to try to create some surround sound marketing, things like that so that when our direct or distribution sales channel makes contact with a customer, the hope is that they’ve seen Nicomatic, now they’re aware of it. So, we try to create a little bit of familiarity to warm up the lead, for example, or the prospect, or the unknown prospect, so that when our teams go and make the direct contact, hopefully, there’s been some inbound effort that’s opened the eyes of the customer a little bit. It makes it a bit easier. 

I guess, does that kind of hit on your question?

Jeff White: Yeah, I think so. Really, and I love this notion of surround sound marketing, I think it’s very much about having a number of different touchpoints at varying levels of when someone might be interested in making a purchase. 

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Carman Pirie: It’s always, especially as you target these very large organizations, I mean, Lockheed Martin, what have you. When you start trying to think about surround sound marketing to an organization with 10,000 employees, and then but yet there’s maybe a small handful of engineers that you really need to be a bit more of a household name with, as it were. I’d be curious, Liz, how have you… How much of your effort has been kind of more broad account focused, and how much of it is more narrowed in on the titles and departments that you think are a little bit more on the buying committee, as it were? 

Liz Shovlin: Yeah. Actually, Lockheed, it’s interesting. They’re an organization of engineers. So, it’s almost like everybody at Lockheed is an engineer, so we really have a lot of different names, faces, and locations that have the potential to work with us. So, what we try to do is be more specific. I can put out surround sound marketing and try to be present for many different people, but it’s not gonna be as impactful as if I target that type of engineer. Packaging engineer, component engineer, something like that, who may have these challenges of working with standard technology. We know what their issues are. We work with them already. So, the beauty of it is we know what the problem is that they frequently experience. They’re gonna tell us the specifics of it, but in general, we know they can’t fit enough power through a small footprint. Their circular sealed connector takes up too much space. They need something rectangular module that’s sealed like the Optimus. 

So, we know those things, so what we try to do is we try to put those messages out there and directly target the specific types of engineers, those specific organizations because if it’s surround sound, I can spend lots of money targeting the wrong people on many different platforms. But if I have a very specific message, it’s going to have a much better conversion rate for us, and it means we get to help more customers, right? So, we’ve seen… I think it’s roughly 26. Let me just double-check my number here, but yeah, so in the last month we’ve seen a 60% increase in conversions. 

So, we work with some partners who help us with our digital advertising and things like that, and we just continue to further and further specify the target that we’re looking for to get down to a really specific company and location, right? Orlando, Florida, packaging engineer, and we’ll put together some content, some advertisement, and things, and show those to those prospective clients and make $1 go a lot further than if I was a lot less specific. 

So, it takes time and effort, but I think it’s worth it in the long run, for sure. 

Jeff White: Are you arming your direct sales folks with some of the same material to have that message be coming from every direction? 

Liz Shovlin: Yeah. Absolutely. So, we will, for example, utilize some content marketing tactics, and we’ll put together a piece about selecting an interconnect for a printed circuit board in a medical device, so we’ll create the content, we’ll put together the landing page, we’ll launch the digital ads, and launch those specific LinkedIn advertisements. But we’ll also go the traditional way too. Have those salespeople email that out to their contacts that are having discussions about something relevant. They’ll bring that into their meetings with their clients. They’ll share it on their own LinkedIn, right? And they’ll try to leverage their network. And we’ll certainly get that out in email and to those clients that we know, as well. 

So, our sales team tries to leverage what they can to help it go the extra mile too because there’s nothing better than a prospect or a contact that is connected with your salesperson who already has heard a little bit about Nicomatic. That’s your best person to start with. Your lowest-hanging fruit. 

Carman Pirie: I’d be curious to I guess just peel back just a little bit further. I know that we run the risk of getting too tactical here, but there are in some ways two different ways to focus on specific titles and specific individuals. One is to find them and only serve ads to those people, and some ABM tools are better at doing that than others, and better at title targeting than others, and things of that sort. And then the other is to alter the messaging so that it’s only going to appeal to those ones that you want to convert, and you’re kind of… In some ways, you’re not turning off, but you’re at least not encouraging conversion from those that aren’t high likelihood to be prospective buyers. So, I’m curious, of those two sides of the coin, if you will, my guess is you probably employ both, but is there… Do you index on one versus the other? I.e., are you serving slightly more generic creative into very specific personas? Or are we getting really specific with our creative in order to take that targeting up one more notch? 

Liz Shovlin: You’re right. We do a mix of both, for sure. So, we are a smaller manufacturer, as I mentioned, as compared to some of our competition, and that means that my budget is smaller than we’re used to, so we do need to get very specific with a lot of our content pieces, and we will employ some tactics like that to incorporate into the title of the piece. For example, the phrase interconnects, some of the challenges. I keep referring to power density, but it’s been a hot topic as of late for us, and a lot of our customers experience that challenge, so we’ll try to incorporate that. And use good old-fashioned SEO, right? And things like that to try to have the customers come to us, too, by searching for their own issue. You know, what better way to find a prospect than to answer their direct need. 

So, we definitely do both. I would say that we see a really nice effect when we employ a little bit of both in the same campaign, in the same tactic. We found a really high response at the top of the funnel for gathering prospects and making some unknowns become known prospects into our system. We found a lot of success utilizing some different social and just traditional inbound efforts to have a specific content piece do a specific targeted ad, and now we’re converting a lot of people who maybe want to download a piece of gated content or something that we can then begin to expose to our other solutions and see if there’s something that would be a good fit for them. 

Jeff White: Yeah. It’s interesting because using search optimization to answer the questions, or content creation that is properly optimized for search rather than to answer the questions that they have, perhaps even before they know the Nicomatic brand, is in a lot of ways is about reversing the polarity of the sale a little by becoming the trusted advisor on that particular topic. And it’s almost as valuable as having the brand awareness part, to begin with, so like… I guess what I’m trying to say is if people know who you are, either as a brand and then they go looking for the type of connector that you sell, versus having a specific question about an engineering-related topic that you’re helping them answer and solve, two different ways to kind of reverse that polarity and have them come in, so it’s not all push. It’s a much more trusted position, I think, in a lot of ways. 

Liz Shovlin: For sure. Yeah, for sure. And it also elevates your credibility as a supplier. We do a lot. We offer a lot of engineering support. We have a big engineering team around the world at Nicomatic. I would say not that our competitors don’t, but we are very heavy on that end, so demonstrating to the client that we understand their challenge, we’ve worked with their challenge, and showing relevant content for them to find us is always preferred and means that the quality of your prospect is gonna be a lot higher than something more generic. So, we definitely try to do that. 

Carman Pirie: This may be a really odd question. I don’t know. But you know, it just seems to me like you guys are bringing a different way of thinking about producing connectors. You’re in a fairly kind of innovative model here that runs a bit counter to the industry norm. And you’re a French brand doing that, which… So, I’m just curious if it ever comes up. I don’t know. It seems to me sometimes in North America we look at Europeans and think… I don’t know. Sometimes we think that they’ve got a few things figured out that we haven’t figured out yet, like bike-friendly cities and other things. 

Jeff White: Cheese. 

Carman Pirie: Cheese. Yes. 

Liz Shovlin: Cheese and wine. Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: So, I’m wondering, does the origin of the brand, does it give you any kind of interesting kind of marketing permission, or have you noticed any kind of nuanced difference as a result of that? 

Liz Shovlin: Yeah, so Nicomatic is managed in a very interesting way. We’re more of a network rather than a hierarchy with a very centralized headquarters or something like that. So, at the end of the day, yes, we are French, we are very independent in the Americas region, and so too is our marketing. So, while you might think, yeah, maybe this could help us sell, our customer base is actually incentivized by their customers to buy Made in the U.S. So, Nicomatic, we know that, and we know that we need to answer that call for customers. That’s why we’re manufacturing in the United States. That’s why we’re manufacturing in Pennsylvania. That’s why there are people like me and a big team of people outside of Philadelphia to support their needs. 

So, a lot of our clients are actually deterred by it, you know? There’s some clients… We just started with one client. I won’t use their name here, but for a long time, they wouldn’t speak with us, right? But then they began to buy our product through distribution and really found it successful, so the distributor helped us to take the technology forth and kind of eliminate that stigma that there is, and now we’ve begun to work together. So, we do a lot of things at Nicomatic to make the client actually feel more comfortable, because at the end of the day we are a subsidiary, so we’re a U.S. company. We’re IHR compliant, so in our industry, we have to be cognizant of a lot of import-export rules. And there are a lot of programs actually that only U.S. citizens are able to work on. 

So, we have a whole process and we’re on the forefront of the new CMMC compliance and things like that, so we really… We know it. We accept it. But I would say go beyond that and go beyond that of even some of the competitors, right? Where we really try to configure the organization to put the customer first. We actually have a customer-first initiative and that means that when I set up my organization, I set up my manufacturing, I’ll tell you guys a little secret. We haven’t announced it yet, but we’re expanding our facility to bring in new capabilities and adding a whole bunch of jobs and things like that here, so that’s… We’re doing construction now, but we’re gonna bring in additional capabilities, and the reason really is because the customers want ‘Made in the U.S.,’ products. 

With the added effect of the pandemic, they want a product that is close, so we’ve always been close, and we’ve always assembled, stocked, and manufactured products in the United States for our clients in the Americas, but with the added effect of the pandemic, there’s a real concern with the supply chain of having something outside of the country, too. So, we are spinning up more and more to be able to do more and more, to essentially have… I mean, we offer it today, 100% Made in the U.S. product for some of our lines, and then when needed on other lines, we offer that too. But we’d love to just have that available at the drop of the hat for any product. 

Carman Pirie: Man, I was trying to set you up and then I was gonna ask about the dark side of the location. You kind of got right to me. You saw right through it. But yeah, I don’t know, man. Part of me really wishes that we could somehow have our cake and eat it too––Like you could be conceived and designed in France, but manufactured in the U.S.A. 

Jeff White: Well, I think the way they go about it, and the thought process, and how you go to market certainly does have an innovative, different feel to it from what you would traditionally experience in a North American manufacturer, but still having that high-quality local supply chain certainty angle. 

Carman Pirie: And the buy America angle, especially in the defense contracting. Incredibly important. So, yeah, it’s a really, really interesting kind of water to navigate.

Jeff White: For sure. 

Liz Shovlin: It is. It’s innovative and at times too I think of it as even very traditional in some sense. We’re designing products in the United States. We have engineers here working on it. We’re producing it here in the United States. And it’s not gonna be the cheapest option, right? That’s not what we’re interested in doing. And a lot of the competitors are doing that today, and that’s a big focus, but we’re going a more traditional route to do everything here in the United States, including sourcing, which seems a little bit old-fashioned at times. But it’s really what the customers need, and I think because it’s transitioned so much away from that, it is a little bit different now. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It is obviously the customer-centricity that’s powering that. There’s been such a dramatic change in attitudes around supply chains and the globalization of business as a result of the pandemic. Nobody could have really foreseen that shift. 

Jeff White: That it would have come back this way? Yeah.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. In the way that it has. So, Liz, it’s been a fascinating conversation. I really enjoyed learning more about you and your role at Nicomatic, and how you approach the challenge of raising awareness in the brand and growing it here in the Americas. This has been a real pleasure. 

Liz Shovlin: Yeah. Thank you, guys. It was great to talk with you. 

Jeff White: Thanks 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 kulapartners.com/thekularing. That’s K-U-L-Apartners.com/thekularing.

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