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Do you need more work to be profitable? Do you have trouble attracting the kind of customers that allow you to make the margins you are looking for? Do you struggle with seasonal ups and downs? Are you looking to grow your company?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you should be working on improving your marketing efforts. Surviving a recession, earning a healthy profit, preventing slow periods in the field, and attracting quality people all depend on a smart and effective marketing program.

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In addition, if you ever hope to sell your company to either a key employee or an outsider, or to pass it along to a family member, you'd better have an effective marketing program in place. In most small- to medium-sized construction companies, lead generation revolves around the owner. Without a strong marketing program, much of the business's value will walk out the door with you when you leave.

Don't confuse marketing with sales. Marketing creates name recognition and generates interest in your company, while a sale is the interaction that turns leads into clients. A marketing department generates quality leads; a sales department closes the deal. Advertising, public relations, Web sites, brochures, job-site signs, and direct mail are all aspects of marketing; selling happens person-to-person with a prospect. You're not really in control of your business unless you are in control of your marketing.

Building Your Brand

What makes your business special? The answer to this question should be at the center of your marketing efforts. If you don't communicate the unique qualities of your business, your company won't be memorable, no matter how sophisticated your marketing campaign is.

In marketing, we talk about building brands, or ideas that are memorable and that generate interest within the marketplace. For instance, Simpson Strong-Tie is a powerful brand known by most builders. But what makes it so special? After all, it's just a bunch of bent metal products that almost any sheet-metal shop in the country could make, right? Well, no: The company's engineering and its full range of products help you do your job and make your job easier. It's the trust you have in the Simpson Strong-Tie brand that separates this company from its competition.

In the same way, you need to separate your company from your competition. There are a lot of remodelers and builders out there; your distinguishing characteristic can't be "quality work and great service at a fair price," because everyone says that. Most successful small- to medium-sized construction companies offer those benefits. So, again: How is your company special?

One of our clients, Harrell Remodeling, is a successful design/build residential remodeler in the San Francisco Bay area. Among the characteristics that make this company unusual is that the founder, Iris Harrell, happens to be a woman. Harrell Remodeling also has a unique company culture; it builds familylike relationships with its clients. To differentiate itself still further, Harrell Remodeling has chosen purple as its company color. The resulting impression is that everything about this company is special — it's a design/build firm, it's a construction company with a woman owner, it boasts a unique culture, and it outfits its crews in purple uniforms. While there are a number of residential remodeling companies in the same area, the perception is that there is no firm quite like Harrell Remodeling, because the company emphasizes these differences so effectively in its marketing program.

Don't Muddle Your Message

Your marketing materials should emphasize whatever it is that makes you different. Promoting the owner of the business is often one of the easiest ways to do this, because you can link the company's personality to that of the owner. The downside of this strategy kicks in when it's time to sell the business or retire. A powerful part of the brand leaves with the owner. That's why it's a better idea to emphasize your goals and plans for the business.

Not only do effective marketing tools highlight a company's unique qualities — they do it to the exclusion of almost everything else. To generate interest, your message must be simple and easy to understand at a glance. Mixing in "quality work and great service at a fair price" just creates noise and gets in the way of your real message. There is a time to communicate details, but it's not now — save them for the sales process (see "Nine Principles for Building a Powerful Brand").

A Good Logo Brings Focus to Your Brand

Whether you have $5,000 or $200,000 in your annual marketing budget, a balanced approach begins with a versatile company logo. An effective logo (sometimes referred to as a brand mark) should be visually striking and memorable and should work well in color and in black and white; in digital and print formats and on fabric; and in any size. A good logo should have a bit of art in it, too. Most of all, it should communicate your brand.

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In addition to using your logo and communicating your brand (the qualities that make your company special), you should make sure your marketing program includes the following, all of which will be explored in more detail in the rest of this article:

• lead-generating activities that make that phone ring

• elements that build name recognition

• strategic alliances, formal or informal, with vendors, suppliers, architects, and other companies that would benefit from win-win relationships

• sales tools that improve the effectiveness of the sales process

This kind of balance will help ensure an effective and efficient marketing program.

Nine Principles for Building a Powerful Brand

1. Keep it simple. One big idea is best. People are overwhelmed by sales pitches. To get noticed, your message must be basic.

2. Word of mouth is the way most brands are built. It's very difficult to build a brand through advertising alone, but PR (public relations) and events are two ways to mass-produce word-of-mouth marketing. The results of a PR program are not always predictable on a case-by-case basis, but in the end, the payoff is huge.

3. Focused brands are more powerful than diffused brands. Different is better, and different and focused is better yet. Don't dilute your brand by trying to be or do everything — that's a big mistake.

4. Somehow, some way, you have to be different. Attach your brand to what makes you different or special. If you are not really that different, find something small and make a big deal of it.

5. The first brand in a category has a huge advantage. Nothing beats being a market leader, but being number two isn't bad either. If you are nowhere near the top, find a narrower niche and become the market leader in that market (an example of this would be to focus on kitchens only, or on green building).

6. Avoid sub-brands at all cost. A sub-brand is a new product with a successful, existing brand name tacked onto it. Sub-brands don't work in the long run and suck the life out of parent brands. Here's an example: Your company ACME Remodeling is successful and you want to diversify with a new, handyman company. Don't call it ACME Handyman and run it out of the same office. Instead, create a new, unique brand and make this division or company something special.

7. Quality is important, but not as important as the perception of quality. Although vital, quality alone doesn't win in the marketplace. Being different wins. Companies led by production-driven leaders often make this mistake.

8. Be consistent and patient. Building a strong brand takes time. Know who you are, write it down, and don't get bored.

9. Put your brand definition in writing to stay on course. Doing this is critical to staying focused. A tag line that communicates one big idea (if nothing else, it reminds you of who you are) is important; so is having a visual style guide. And use a written brand definition as the litmus test for all of your marketing projects.

Generating Good Leads

Marketing to your past customers should be a very significant part of your overall marketing program. Not only does new work often come directly from your past customers, but so does your most important marketing commodity: referrals. Across the remodeling industry (and most other industries as well), an overwhelming number of leads and projects come from either past clients or referrals from those people.

Keep in Contact

The kinds of activities you should focus on are generally inexpensive, custom activities that target the people who love you already. Examples include project-completion and anniversary gifts, fun events (like open houses), interesting follow-up print or e-newsletters, updates about decorating tips and trends, free checkups, and so on. To be really effective at generating referrals, these activities can't just be nice, they need to be surprising, too.

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For instance, check in with customers three years after completing their project "just to see how the project is holding up" and fix the small things you find — for free. They'll be so amazed they will never forget; if you're lucky, they'll tell others about it. This takes some organization and dedication on your part, but you'll see remarkable results in the quality of your referrals.

Don't underestimate the ability of people to forget anything — even you. To generate a stream of leads from your past customers, you need to remind them periodically that you are still around. The key here is to be proactive with your clients. Just offering a warranty isn't enough.

Find Fresh Sources

Even though most of your leads will come from past customers and referrals, you still need to focus some of your marketing efforts on turning anonymous cold prospects into hot ones. If you don't, you run the risk of "fishing out your pond" — exhausting your pool of prospects. This is especially true if growth is one of your company goals. In order to find fresh sources of customers, you need to be committed to these low-return but still-valuable marketing investments.

One important area of focus is what I call the job-site hot zone. Of all the people you don't already know, your customer's neighbors are the warmest prospects you have. Most likely they have been seeing your trucks and workers and the commotion they make for a period of time. You can focus on generating leads from these people by making sure that you have a consistently branded effort at the job site, with job-site and vehicle signs, worker uniforms (at least hats and T-shirts), and job-site flyers. A clean, organized site will also help your company's image.

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In addition to this on-site branding, a direct-mail campaign (postcards, letters, and the like) to the 50 to 100 houses around a project can be very effective. Phrase the notes tactfully; for example, tell the neighbors that you are going to be working in the area, that your crews will be as considerate as possible, and that if they have any issues, to please contact you. A number of affordable list-providers are available for most metro areas in the United States (you can look up addresses based on their proximity to an anchor address). This radius direct-mail technique can be effective at the beginning or the end of a project — or at both points.

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Advertising vs. Public Relations

Another valuable tactic for expanding your market is making effective use of PR. Almost every newspaper in the country has a home-and-garden section, and each one needs content to run between the ads. Help these papers out, either by hiring a PR firm to help you write and place articles with your local print media, or by developing a working relationship with feature writers and photographers in your area. Publications love great photography. Events, design trends, human-interest stories — if it's interesting, it's news. And if it's news about you, you're building your brand in the marketplace.

PR is generally cheaper and more credible than advertising; I have yet to see advertising outperform PR efforts when measuring dollars spent against eventual market exposure. So if you're spending more than $5,000 on traditional display advertising, I highly recommend that you consider taking at least half of that money and spending it on PR efforts instead. Of course, there is always an element of luck with PR, but roll the dice enough and it inevitably pays off in ways that traditional advertising does not.