Business

The Truth About Brand Marketing: It's for Construction Companies of All Sizes

A brand is ‘the intangible sum of a company’s services, values, experiences, reputation, people and purpose.’ Communicating that authentically is the key to finding and keeping clients and employees alike.
By Christie Chapman
August 2, 2023
Topics
Business

When it comes time to choose a subcontractor, supplier or other partner, whether you’re planning a multimillion-dollar project or something much smaller or larger in scale—what makes you go with one company over another? Especially when it seems so many offer the same thing—at least, from a technical perspective—at close to the same price?

According to people who have analyzed the thought processes that go into these decisions, the answer is frequently: You choose the company that makes you feel good. That impulse is at the heart of brand marketing. Across the spectrum, from executives at the largest companies to consumers making choices in their daily lives, we tend to go with a company whose reputation we trust, whose “vibe” we admire, and most of all—a company we believe will treat us well.

INFLECTION POINT

But brand marketing—and the positive stories it entails—isn’t only for potential customers. It can be just as important internally, particularly for construction companies suffering through a talent crisis. “Unequivocally, the industry’s number-one challenge is attracting and retaining a qualified workforce,” says Caitlyn Cook, director of marketing for Emery Sapp & Sons, an employee-owned group of contractors that work on complex heavy civil projects, based in Columbia, Missouri. “Brand marketing is one of the best tools construction companies can utilize to combat this challenge.”

More companies are starting to recognize this. “We’re at an inflection point in the industry,” Cook says. “Construction companies who invest in brand marketing and leverage the power of employer branding over the next decade are going to have a significant advantage over those who do not. It’s exciting to see the brand-marketing evolution beginning to take root across the country.”

Sheri Johnson, chief marketing officer for McCownGordon Construction, headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, agrees. “Construction is traditionally viewed as a conservative industry that’s slow to change, and that’s simply not accurate anymore,” Johnson says. “Branding is important for construction companies; we need to change that perception to attract new talent to the profession, educate customers about sophisticated new technology and also position our companies—and the industry—as exciting and vibrant contributors to economically thriving communities.”

WHAT’S YOUR STORY?

Before regaling the world with your story, it helps to consider what defines a company’s brand. According to Ashley Campbell, senior vice president at Washington, D.C.–based HITT Contracting, one of the largest general contractors in the United States: “Brand is the intangible sum of a company’s services, values, experiences, reputation, people and purpose.” In other words, she says, “It’s your firm’s personality.”

And it can be a crucial deciding factor when it comes to generating new business or earning loyalty. “While all general contractors may deliver a similar construction service, the experience of working with each builder is unique,” Campbell says. “We sell construction services, but what we’re really providing is a building experience. It can be frustrating when general-contractor proposals are reduced to simple fee comparison, commoditizing our services. Brand marketing gives us the power to differentiate our firms and position our value in the client’s mind.”

On a practical level, you can think of brand marketing as telling the overarching story of your company, compared to more narrowly focused marketing activities designed to, say, drive website visits or social-media engagement. “When I discuss the topic of brand marketing—or marketing in general—with industry leaders, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about what marketing is and how companies should invest in it,” Cook says. “In its simplest form, the brand of a construction company is forged in the field, and marketing is how they tell their story.”

All those other marketing efforts feed into a company’s story, like the different threads of a plot. “A brand is the perception your customers and other key stakeholders have of your company,” Johnson says. “It’s composed of all the touchpoints they have with your business, from your signage to your website to your email marketing to the interactions with your associates, and even your philanthropic work in the community. Every touchpoint makes an impression and helps form their opinion of your brand, so it’s important that all marketing tools work together to shape that brand perception.”

A real-world example: the multichannel brand-marketing campaign focused on people and their stories that Campbell’s team at HITT rolled out in 2017.

“On the cusp of our 80th anniversary and a new leadership team, we produced a campaign called ‘80 Stories,’” Campbell says. “It featured our values, clients and people, and utilized print and digital ads, paid and earned media, social media, event experiences, promotional materials and more. It remains one of the most successful brand campaigns for our firm.”

STORY ELEMENTS

If your brand is your company’s story, how do you make sure it’s a good one? Each brand, by definition, is unique—but experts on branding and customer relationships say there are a few common themes you’ll find among successful brands.

Empathy: Martha Marchesi is chief executive officer of JK Design, a full-service creative agency whose clients include Johnson & Johnson, Prudential, Tiffany & Co. and other household names. “Like people, companies that demonstrate empathy—the ability to understand and be sensitive to the feelings of others—are more successful at making meaningful emotional connections,” Marchesi says. “It’s critical for any brand to demonstrate empathy to attract new customers, encourage repeat business and boost brand loyalty.”

Demonstrating empathy is especially important in the construction industry due to the high-risk nature of the work involved. “For example, companies developing residential projects need to take into account the preferences and feelings of the people who will live, care for families and pets and even work in the houses they’re building,” Marchesi says, adding that customers who trust a company might even be likely to pay a premium for their services.

“Empathy can also help construction companies build stronger bonds with their own employees,” Marchesi says. “Construction workers face many on-the-job risks, from slips and falls to heavy-equipment accidents. There are also non-physical risks, such as permitting and compliance issues, that can contribute to stress and uncertainty on the job. The more empathy a company can show to their employees, the more engaged and secure those employees will feel—and the more likely they will be to stay on your team for the long term.”

Empathy can include a company staying close to its roots and not veering from providing what customers want for the sake of being trendy. As an example of that, Campbell points to the workwear company Carhartt. “Carhartt isn’t just durable gear for trades workers—it’s a cultural phenomenon,” she says. “If you grew up in a small town like I did, you know that Carhartt jackets are ‘country cool.’ This heavy-duty clothing brand calls themselves the ‘heart of workwear’ and has evolved since their founding in the 1800s, but always staying true to their purpose.”

Marchesi offers another example of a company in the construction space whose brand is rooted in empathy. “One of our clients, Braen Stone, is a terrific example,” she says. “In business for almost 120 years, they’re one of the largest suppliers of construction materials, and they’re also a family business. That sense of caring and understanding is central to their brand and comes through loud and clear in their messaging. For example, they take a strong empathetic stance on their website with headlines such as ‘building relationships is our business’ and on their social-media platforms with stories of their community involvement and employee-recognition events. They know these things are important to customers and employees alike, so they make a point of clearly communicating them.”

Among construction and engineering companies showing empathy to their employees, “Turner Construction also stands out,” Marchesi says. “They’re known for their exceptional service and overall excellent Glassdoor reviews. Their website highlights their commitment to volunteering, creating a welcoming and diverse workplace, as well as making a positive social impact, which shows their customers and people that they understand their concerns and share their values.”

Responsiveness: While a large company might have the money to bring in third-party branding experts and design a cutting-edge website or museum-worthy logo, sometimes all it takes to endear yourself to customers is a promptly returned phone call. Marc Warren is president of Customer Follow Up Inc., which he co-founded with his wife, Tracy, in 1997. The Pennsylvania-based company’s specialty is in-depth phone interviews that allow them to chat, probe and get a feel for how customers perceive their clients, many of whom are construction companies.

“Over our 26 years, we’ve interviewed thousands of clients in the construction and engineering industries,” Warren says. “They all want the same thing: for a company to do what it says it will do, in the time and budget they said they would do it, and if anything changes, to let them know immediately.”

He notes that some brand-marketing efforts focus on high-visibility items such as website redesign at the expense of more foundational efforts. “Some of these sites are very nice—there might be photos taken by a drone camera, or a time-lapse video showing a construction project’s progress,” Warren says. “But instead of putting a lot of money into the latest bells and whistles for your website, it might be better to focus on making sure your client service is as strong as it can be.”

Warren thinks smaller companies—with fewer clients and lower call volume—might actually have an edge when it comes to providing sincere, responsive client service. “It’s all about: Do you return my phone calls in a timely manner? Can I reach someone in leadership if I need to? Do you do what you say—for example, if you say you’ll return my call on Friday, do you follow through on that? And if something comes up to prevent that, will you communicate to let me know?” Warren says these are goals companies can strive for regardless of their size or budget.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

You’ve got a good story, and you’re ready to tell it. How can your company get started, whether it’s the first chapter or a new volume?

“If companies are considering investing in brand marketing, I would advise them to make sure the foundation is strong,” Cook says. “Structural elements of any company’s brand begin inside the organization and include things such as core values, the mission statement, the company’s strategic plan, your brand-positioning strategy, a verbal/visual brand system and guidelines—and, last but not least, a strong internal or third-party marketing team.”

Next comes selecting your tools. “Once the foundation of the brand is in place, companies should evaluate which tools and channels will most effectively support their business goals,” Cook says. “Some common brand-marketing tools include the company’s website, social-media channels, traditional media, mobile apps and events.”

While much of the talk about brand marketing focuses on a customer’s or an employee’s emotional experience, Cook also makes a more quantitative argument for construction companies to prioritize their brands. “The March 2023 CMO Survey by Gartner showed that the average marketing budget for business-to-business services businesses was 7.85% of overall budget,” she says. “However, the average budget for the mining/construction industry category was just 3.8%, earning the construction industry the bottom ranking. I would challenge leadership at construction companies to consider their investment in brand marketing. Over the next decade, there is considerable opportunity for brands to make their mark.”

by Christie Chapman

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