Let's get this straight: Parr Lumber is, and intends to remain, a pro-oriented building materials dealer. But that doesn't mean it will ignore the chance to take in a few extra bucks from the right kind of retail customer.
Thus it was that commuters in the Portland area and other parts of Oregon and Washington this past year saw billboards, noticed bus signs, and heard radio promotions touting Parr as the place to go for fences, decks, windows, insulation, and serious remodeling work. These largely humorous ads were clever enough on their own to merit an Honorable Mention for advertising in the ProSales Excellence Awards competition, but it's the thinking behind them that deserves as much attention.
Parr Lumber is part of Parr Co., which is based in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro and has 35 stores spread out over the West. Parr's 22 lumberyards aim for an 80%-20% pro-retail mix. In recent years, says advertising and marketing director Jennifer Swick, the company decided its best retail opportunity came from serious do-it-yourselfers–people who felt confident doing big projects and who wanted the kind of products and expertise that the big boxes lack.
The challenge was to keep Parr pro oriented but not make it so forbidding the serious DIYer would be scared away. The result has been a subtle shift exemplified by Parr's change in slogan. The old one was: "Where the Builders Go." Now it's: "Go Where the Builders Go."
The ads revealed a similar shift. "We wanted to create a campaign that showed the lighter, friendlier side of Parr," Swick says. "We wanted the headlines to catch your attention and have people in them, rather than focusing on products or stores."
Thus a billboard touting fences avoids brand names in favor of a picture of the kind of guy next door you'd rather not see in the morning, combined with the question: "Too much neighborly love?" A promo for siding declares "Mama needs a new pair of shingles!" And a radio ad playfully notes that a utility belt makes a great fashion accessory for men while helping conceal unsightly bulges.
The ads' strong, simple visuals made them naturals for a campaign that ran heavily to billboards and bus placards, supplemented by radio ads on stations that target men aged 25 to 54 (classic rock, country, and sports talk stations got the most air time). Portland's newspaper got nothing; it was deemed too expensive, and TV also was shut out. Product manufacturers' co-op funds paid for roughly half the total campaign.
Parr's website got into the marketing action, too. All the ads sported buttons urging people to visit Parr's site and hit the "Click to Win!" button, which took visitors to a page where people could win stuff like a grill or a $500 gift card in exchange for telling about themselves. Swick used the entry form as a way to judge which medium boosted site visits the most. (The answer: All contributed similar amounts.) Parr's website also contains a Project Center in which DIY folks can download how-to articles, use online design tools, view videos, and even link to local governments' permit offices.
Like a lot of dealers, Parr faced tough decisions about whether to advertise at a time when revenues were receding so rapidly. Typically, it spends between 0.25% and 1% of its revenues on marketing. "We really believe in staying strong to the marketing," Swick says. "But as we went into contingency planning, [marketing] was always back on the table. We did pull back our ad budget about 20% for 2009, but all the media cut their rates as well, so we were able to have the same level of campaign we had in the prior year."
And Swick believes the $600,000 ad campaign was a big reason why Parr's retail sales held up last year. In a Portland metro market where building permits plunged 43% from 2007 to 2008, Parr's overall sales dropped only 28%.
Swick plans a market research study soon to get solid numbers on how well the ads worked, but anecdotal evidence leaves her confident. "We had people calling and sending in e-mails talking about our campaign," she says. "We've never had that before."