The softer side of marketing

Design and construction firms are finding more subtle ways of promoting themselves to their target markets
August 11, 2010

Some fast-paced design and construction companies are enhancing their standard marketing tools, such as firm brochures and direct-mail newsletters, with innovative approaches to get their message out.

These A/E/C firms are "breaking away from traditional methods," says Michael Reilly, a Boston-based marketing consultant who works extensively with A/E/C firms. "In traditional marketing, the same tools are used in the same way with the same audience. The faster-moving firms seem to find something that's unique to them. It's an extension of their own personality — and that's engaging by itself."

Owners and developers are "more sophisticated and informed than ever about the choices they have when they select their teams," Reilly says. "You have to be on their mind at the time of selection. They see who is active in their favorite associations, who's winning awards, and who is working for the companies and institutions they admire. If you're going to be remembered, you'd better be different."

Low-key marketing initiatives are often viewed as knowledge-sharing. For example, G2/ Mulvanny Architects, Seattle, invites consultants it works with on a regular basis to its office for wine and cheese — and information sharing. "Their key people meet our key people," says Carla Thompson, the company's marketing director. "We're asking consultants and contractors to look for opportunities for which we can market both firms," she says.

The meetings typically begin with the host and guest firms each showing a slide presentation of its work. After initially talking about projects with which both Mulvanny and the guest firm have been involved, an attempt is made to move the discussion to possible future joint venture projects.

Thompson says the get-togethers help to familiarize consultants with all of the dozen project types with which Mulvanny is involved, and give them an opportunity to meet principals of the firm with whom they are not acquainted. "Mostly it's about getting people to know each other — a networking opportunity," she adds. The sessions have been responsible for bringing Mulvanny not only additional opportunities, but opportunities that have led to work.

Sharing knowledge

Gilbane Building Co., based in Providence, R.I., conducts customer forums for current or previous clients involved in particular market sectors. It invites a maximum of 25 people to join Gilbane executives and representatives of design firms with which it works.

Gilbane has held sessions focusing on the biopharmaceutical industry for 10 years and on the higher education market for several years. Invitees typically hold titles such as VP engineering or senior director of facilities.

Prior to each forum, potential topics are proposed, and the program is organized based on the responses. A maximum of four topics is covered during the sessions, which generally last a day and a half.

The meeting begins with a sharing of best practices that serves as the basis for further discussion. "The forums create peer-based knowledge-sharing in which customers learn from customers, and from Gilbane, while Gilbane also learns what is important to these owners," says Albert Potter, Gilbane's senior vice president of marketing.

Potter regards the sessions as a "low key marketing" activity, but more importantly as knowledge-sharing. "We recognize that in order to be viewed as providing strategic value to our customers in a particular market sector, we need to be seen as having knowledge pertinent to that sector." A key objective of the forums, Potter notes, is that participants leave the meeting with a feeling they have gained knowledge from Gilbane's openness to being accountable to customer feedback.

A related activity is Gilbane's customer satisfaction feedback system. At least three times for each project — at the end of design documents, at 50% completion and at final completion — the company asks clients to rate Gilbane in a number of performance areas. This information is compiled into a database that is primarily used internally, although summary data has been shared with selected customers and design firms. "This is new turf for us," Potter remarks. "We're kind of exposing our underwear."

Exposing expertise

Kansas City-based A/E HNTB also builds its marketing activities around the trusted advisor theme. "Our goal is to get exposure for our expertise," says company spokesperson Barbara Powell. "We want to give back to our clients, who sometimes depend on us to keep them abreast of the latest developments." One way HNTB does this is by providing HNTB speakers at industry conferences. "It's important that we share our expertise with the industry," Powell says.

Suffolk Construction, Boston, holds client service seminars to educate the company's project managers and field staff on how to work more effectively with clients and other Building Team members. A recent seminar featured a panel consisting of owner representatives of three local universities.

Kim Gori, Suffolk's marketing vice president, says the seminars are not intended to be a marketing tool, although they could result in more- satisfied clients and potential new business.

Contractor Barton Malow Co. planned its new 110,000-sq.-ft. Southfield, Mich., headquarters to be able to host industry-related meetings, while at the same time placing its design/build capabilities on display. This capability is facilitated by the $22 million building's four-story atrium and adjacent cafeteria.

In its first year, 27 outside events were held in the building, including conventions and seminars for the Michigan chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the Associated General Contractors, according to vice president Sheryl Maibach.

Barton Malow did not have suitable facilities for larger meetings in its former location, an adjacent multi-tenant office building. During the new building's initial year, the company did not charge for the use of its facilities. It now charges for groups larger than 25.

Repaying the community

William Barry & Son, a Danvers, Mass., CM and professional service firm, has gained recognition as a result of its philanthropic activity. The Berry Fund Charitable Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit corporation, was organized by employees 10 years ago. It raised $101,000 last year, assisting more than 1,300 individuals. "It's basically a way of giving back to the community," says company marketing vice president Carolyn Miller.

Employees make donations to the foundation in lieu of exchanging gifts, and the company underwrites all administrative costs. Subcontractors and other firms with whom Berry works are asked to support the foundation with money they would otherwise use to purchase gifts. "Our subcontractors have been more than generous," Miller says.

In communities where it operates, Berry identifies institutions such as hospitals that have specific needs. In addition to funds, donations might consist of material items such as books for a reading program or clothing for abused women. The fund attempts to target organizations that are not assisted by United Way or other major charities.

Berry, which had a work volume of $250 million in 2002, has 225 full-time employees. A core group of about 25 is most actively involved with the foundation, but all employees are encouraged to contribute services to it, such as purchasing and wrapping items to be donated. Publicity about the fund is directed primarily to potential contributors.

As an indication that design and construction firms are taking a more active interest in marketing, Ronald Worth, executive vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Society for Marketing Professional Services, notes that SMPS membership is growing at 10% to 15% annually. Worth cites an increase in the number of "white papers" and electronic newsletters marketers are using.

Finally, there are the gimmicks, which are always fun — and often get attention. Fairfax, Va.-based Hitt Contracting, Inc. sends clients and potential customers a CD containing an interactive game that, with the click of a mouse, highlights information about the company. Players who find an icon of a Hitt truck can e-mail the company and get a model Hitt truck in return. About 20,000 CDs were mailed, and 10,000 model trucks were distributed, according to marketing manager Andrea Fitch.

Skanska USA used a baseball card theme to publicize information about its people and projects. Nine-card packets contained photos and information about rookie and long-term employees and current and past projects.

Mechanical engineer Syska Hennessy Group has revamped its Web site to list 20 markets in which the firm is involved, providing direct links to specialists to whom questions can be e-mailed.

Building on basics

Robert P. Smith, chair of AIA's Practice Management professional interest area, concurs that firms need to explore ways to make their in-house expertise known. He thinks architects typically "don't want to roll up their sleeves and do those things that aren't much fun" — such as cold calling and preparing a detailed marketing campaign. " 'Innovative' approaches work only if you're doing the basic things well," he contends.

"I'm a bit leery when I hear about 'innovative' marketing techniques," Smith says. "That type of thinking tends to distract from bread-and-butter type things you need to be doing to help your firm prosper. The things you've needed to do for the past 30 years are still valid. You need to be in front of clients on a regular basis, to help them understand that you are an expert in the kind of problem for which they need solutions, that you're easy to work with, have confidence that you're cost-effective, and care about their dollars and schedule concerns."

A/E/C marketing tools at a glance

Technique or concept Firms using this technique Description
Information sharing G2/Mulvanny Architects Hosts meetings with consultants and contractors to seek joint project opportunities
Gilbane Building Co. Forums allow clients to share information with each other, and with Gilbane
HNTB Company's experts share their expertise at industry conferences
Provides facilities for meetings Barton Malow Co Host role exposes attendees of industry organizations to company's design/build capabilities
Community philanthropy William Berry & Son Employees and business partners provide funds and goods for local institutions
Interactive CD game Hitt Contracting Players learn about the company, and have a chance to win a reward
Baseball card packets Skanska USA Company information is communicated in a memorable format