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The road less travelled

Industrial products manufacturers borrow a leaf from consumer product companies to connect directly with B2B buyers

When an elegant Isuzu truck arrived on a mid-June evening at Vadodara’s Kirti Mandir area, it raised a few eyebrows among the 20-odd real estate company owners gathered there under the local Credai (Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India) chapter. They had heard about the truck’s previous visit a month earlier — when Godrej Locking Solutions & Systems (Lockks) invited the city’s architect and interior design community to experience first-hand the company’s product range inside the truck — but nobody was expecting quite this. The air-conditioned interior came complete with soft LED lighting, plush sofas and mock-ups of kitchen and shower cubicles: a complete showroom on wheels. 

The Godrej Lockss’ initiative got wholehearted approval at Vadodara. “It was a unique experience as a customer,” says Ragnesh Kalathia, director of RCA Procon, a local real estate developer. “What I liked most was that the staff had been trained by the company.” The 40x10 ft ‘mobile experience centre’ (MEC) branded “Innovation Express” went on its first 73,200 km road trip last year, spending four or five days at each of the 62 cities it visited. On its second round, it is now covering new markets, and has clocked over 9,000 km already.

Snazzy exhibition trucks belting out loud music and inviting customers to walk in and experience the latest product is a common sight at malls and popular shopping centres, or even village haats. It’s far less usual in the B2B space, where the buying process in industrial or institutional purchases involves a long gestation period — sometimes six months or more. While in some cases, senior executives or promoters visit a supplier’s plant before deciding on ordering, and in consumer-oriented products, they can visit a company showroom, in most other industrial products, there is no such option. Then, suppliers provide testimonials or sometimes, even test run a piece of equipment at the client’s premises. With advanced tech products, computer simulations are also used. 

But all these are options more frequently used with large, urban customers — small and medium enterprises, especially in smaller cities, rarely get access to such detailed product demos. And B2B marketing has been pretty staid and unchanged all these years — at best an exhibition/seminar inside manufacturing plants or a meet-and-greet for buyers and category influencers at some five-star hotel. Now, it’s getting a dose of marketing ingenuity with experiential marketing. Companies in the industrial products space are taking their sales pitch right to their customers’ doorsteps — industrial areas and factory premises — to create a connect with potential buyers and generate buzz. 

Breaking and entering

Opting for floats à la consumer products helps B2B companies achieve several objectives. At Godrej Lockss, for instance, the MEC helps the company showcase its products directly to the influencer group, architects and interior decorators. “They are often involved with multiple projects with limited knowledge of brands,” says Shyam Motwani, executive vice-president and business head, Godrej Lockss.

“The value of the purchase they influence is pretty large, running into lakhs.” Builders, architects and decorators typically depend on hardware stores for accessories such as latches, door handles and locks. As can be expected, the range in such stores is limited and the sales staff not always perfectly knowledgeable about the products. “Architects want to be able to visualise how products look in a contemporary environment,” points out Motwani. 

That doesn’t always happen in showrooms. Kalathia points to the typical experience: “You ask questions and the shopkeeper simply hands over brochures and tries to divert you to other brands.” The Lockss MEC, on the other hand, was all about touch-and-feel. “I could pick up a [door] handle and ask about its internal mechanism. I got technical details straight from the manufacturer and a better sense of their delivery schedules.”

For the company, too, an MEC is a better option than a showroom simply considering the finances involved. Motwani estimates that the cost of operating a 2,500 sq ft brick-and-mortar company-owned showroom, including rentals, fit-outs and maintenance, can be as much as five times that of running a float. Besides, the reach of such a vehicle is multiple times that of a showroom — most initiatives carry on three to five years, covering several hundred cities and companies; footfalls at a brick-and-mortar showroom may not ever match those numbers. 

The ₹550-crore Godrej Lockss commands a 15% share of the locks and locking solutions market and Motwani claims the company is growing twice as fast as the category. The company is expected to close FY15 with revenue of over ₹600 crore, but the larger goal is to take this 10-fold in eight years. It is a strong player in the fast-growing security and advanced locking solutions segment, where it competes with brands such as Europa and Dorset. The MEC experience has worked for the brand, says Motwani.

“We have had a few hundred crore worth of enquiries, which we are now pursuing. This exercise has served multiple objectives for us. It has completely obviated the need for advertising in trade journals and setting up brick-and-mortar showrooms and we have been able to convert fence-sitters to decide on our brands,” he adds. That explains why Lockss is expanding the MEC initiative — the company plans to add three trucks to the two already in operation.

 On the road

Industrial product companies find it exceptionally tough to reach their customers through conventional channels.  Advertising on television and radio gets dissipated as does communication through regular print publications. Trade journals are the only option, then, and it hasn’t proved as effective of late, due to the rise of online media options.

“We have limited access to resources, unlike FMCG companies,” says Ramanan Viswanathan, head, marketing, Grundfos Pumps India. “If we conduct a seminar, our customers need to invest four or five hours of their personal time planning, commuting, attending and listening to our presentations. Mobile experiential exhibitions are proving effective as we reach the customers’ premises at their convenience.” 

In 2010, the Danish pump maker embarked on the grandly-named Incredible Indian Pump Yatra. The first campaign lasted 19 months and the next, with a smaller vehicle, for six months, receiving a total of around 25,000 visitors. The original 40-ft open format trailer truck was staffed by a local distributor, products and sales teams, and had around 150 visitors a day. Parked at a common area in industrial zones or large factories, the float displayed some pumping systems and played audio-visuals on product features and benefits. “It was not only to create awareness but also build relationships. The primary challenge was access to the market,” says Viswanathan. 

The ₹340-crore (FY14 turnover) Grundfos Pumps India caters to industrial enterprises and used the MEC to visit large factories where it demonstrated its products’ energy-saving capabilities. It was a successful campaign, says Viswanathan. “We spent around ₹1 crore on one of the campaigns where we were able to generate 30% growth in sales.” As it targets over ₹400 crore in sales, a more advanced, air-conditioned version of the float will be rolled out for a new campaign in couple of months, he adds. 

 Getting there first

Reaching out to customers directly also helps in some measure in fighting competition. And with the Chinese onslaught extending to B2B categories, as well as growing interest of global players in the Indian players, incumbents are looking to secure their territories any way they can. Industrial major Siemens, for instance, is facing the heat from not just big players such as Schneider Electric, ABB, Fanuc or Mitsubishi for a slice of the small business pie, but also imports from China. It is also battling a mindset that it is beyond the reach of SMEs. “We are seen as a company that makes products mainly for the big guys but that is not correct,” says Bhaskar Mandal, executive vice-president and sector cluster lead, industry sector, South Asia, Siemens. 

In April 2013, the German major rolled out a mobile road show, christened the Productivity Tour, to tackle just this. The road show, which will complete its tour of India by the end of this year, has so far covered 130 cities in 14 states, reaching out to around 4,000 B2B clients and receiving more than 23,000 footfalls.

The chief objective: face-to-face communication with all those directly involved in the purchase and use of its industrial automation products, such as business owners, technicians, plant managers, procurement teams and maintenance engineers. The message: how Siemens’ products could help step up productivity for smaller industrial units and pay for themselves over their life cycle.

“Technology penetration in SMEs is quite low. Our idea is to reach out and show them how we can improve the efficiency of their production and business processes,” says Mandal. 

At each location, the truck spends a couple of days and is accompanied by the sales engineer for the territory, who is trained in selling solutions and technical servicing. The route and contacts are planned three months in advance, with the current status of the truck updated daily on a dedicated website. Local PR agencies and outdoor advertisements help spread the word about the tour, which intensifies through word-of-mouth once the MEC reaches a location.

“We were unsure if the infrastructure and connectivity across India would make it feasible for a 40-ft truck to go into the hinterland,” says Mandal. “The first reaction was ‘wow’. People told us they’ve never seen something like this before.”

Among the products showcased in the truck is Siemens’ Sinamics range of motion control drives that help regulate the speed of a motor in production and can lead to energy cost savings of 30-40%. Also on display are other products such as computer numerical control solutions to automate tooling machines and the totally integrated automation concept that connects an industrial unit’s shopfloor seamlessly to its existing IT platform, enabling remote monitoring of production processes. “In this category, demonstrated benefits are more important than claimed benefits. This was the principal insight that prompted us to launch this road show,” says Mandal. 

It may be too soon to demonstrate the benefits of this exercise, but at least it’s got customers’ attention. Narsaiah Gudi, partner at Crown Industries in Prashantpur Industrial Area in Kukatpally, Hyderabad, runs a small unit that manufactures machines used in the packaging products industry, both for domestic and export markets. The ₹2.5-crore company is already a Siemens’ customer having installed its drives in the unit. Gudi, a veteran in the business for 25 years has seen it all — from exhibitions and seminars in star hotels to conferences. He finds a marked difference in what Siemens is trying to do now.

“This time they came with new, more economical products such as servo and frequency drives that are suitable for smaller manufacturers like us,” he says. The time-saving aspect of this concept is what appealed most to Gudi. “If we go to HiTec City it’s a one-and-a-half hour journey, then more time there. Here, within half-an-hour we can see the products, get our queries answered and get back to our work.” Gudi hasn’t yet made up his mind on placing a fresh order with Siemens, but it has set him thinking.

‘Made in India’

Another company that is finding floats a handy weapon to battle Chinese dragons is Havells. The Noida-based maker of industrial electrical switchgear, cables and lighting products has been battling a fiercely competitive market dominated by multinational brands and low-cost Chinese imports. With the result that, says Sunil Sikka, president, Havells, the company’s industrial categories have been growing at marginal single digits for the past couple of years, which is not helped by an overall slowdown in the infrastructure and power generation sectors. 

HavellsFurther, the bulk of potential industrial buyers, though, is not as informed. Purchase of electrical goods for commercial and residential projects and manufacturing plants is driven by key influencers such as architects and project consultants, who guide what brand is used in their projects, whether industrial, commercial or residential. “To convince and influence specifiers is tough,” says Sikka.

That’s where the Havells industrial products (IP) van comes in. A 10.75-ft Eicher truck, it first rolled out in September 2011 and has covered 200 cities over an 80,000-km run in 604 activity days, contacting over 2,300 companies. Meeting new customers and informing existing ones about its product range, the Havells truck showcases a limited range of products and has a qualified person on board to answer all questions and explain features. Havells says it can track several advantages to the initiative. “Lead times have come down from seven-eight months to four-five months. We are able to get time with senior officials on their premises and their interest level in our brand has increased,” says Sikka.

Dev Prakash Goel, MD of the Delhi-based Conquerent Control Systems, is among those whom the Havells’ IP van visited. His Rs 40-crore company makes electrical control panels for industrial and residential use, which require switchgear like Havells makes. The standard practice in the trade is to present the manufacturer’s offerings through a catalogue, from which the buyer makes a choice.  Goel remembers the van visiting his office on MM Road in Jhandewalan some eight months ago. “Seeing is believing,” he says. “One could see the quality, finish and workmanship of the products, which cannot be conveyed on paper.” As with Siemens, the translation into sales hasn’t happened immediately but Goel says he will keep the brand and its quality in mind for future decisions.  

 In the long run

It’s experiences like this that increase the popularity of marketing floats with B2B companies.  Benny Mohan, chief marketing officer at Bengaluru-based Wings Brand Activations, a new player in this space, points to the novelty of such initiatives in the industrial products space. “We’ve had a client where it had led to amazing feedback and several orders,” he says.

But creating and running a fully-equipped mobile exhibition trailer doesn’t come cheap. Industry sources say that building a large float costs ₹40-50 lakh. 

Priya Monga, co-founder of Delhi-based experiential marketing firm RC&M, which has been executing many such campaigns, gives more detailed estimates. The cost of a one-year engagement of large-format (45 ft) trailers and buses is roughly ₹1.5 crore, including fabrication and fitouts, operation and maintenance, for covering 1,000 touch points. For smaller vans such as the ones used by Havells, it could cost as little as ₹12 lakh a year. 

Typically, firms hire marketing services agencies on a turnkey basis, to organise everything from fabrication to the operations. They pay a monthly fee for the exercise, which could run up to five years. 

The biggest challenge is to track the activity of a marketing float. “It is a manpower-intensive, vehicle-based advertising activity going from city to city. The rules, permits, taxes, etc., are different in each place. Moreover, the vehicles are on the road for a very long time, so compliance on vehicle fitness and road transport rules has to be very strong,” says Monga.

Tracking is done through GPS, monitoring through live streaming video on demand, and by telephone. “We have separate account managers for each activity, conducting surprise checks as well,” she adds.

It’s not always smooth sailing, though. “The infrastructure in industrial zones are pathetic. Parking and permissions are other issues,” says Siemens’ Mandal.

Grundfos’ Viswanathan says that apart from the challenges of moving across the country, planning and scheduling of the MEC’s movement demands 24X7 involvement of the sales and marketing teams. That’s difficult since most companies insist there is no commercial target attached to the MEC at present. Also, it’s not easy to bring a goal-driven sales team on board with the idea; they have to be convinced of the long-term benefits. 

Some see the interest in MECs as another customer outreach exercise, but on a more sophisticated level. Others find it innovative in the industrial buying context. “This is investing ahead of the curve,” says Bengaluru-based brand consultant Harish Bijoor. “For now, it may be evangelical, but later it will get more commercial.” 

Whether this travelling circus of industrial workers continues to charm buyers remains to be seen. Right now, companies are going where the road takes them.  

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