"Advertising can't change minds," says Josh Kaye, marketing director at American Lumber. "Instead we asked, 'What truth about American Lumber do customers most need to hear?'"

The result was a slogan that says a lot about American Lumber in just five words: We Want Your Small Orders.

That tagline, combined with the trademarked phrase "Our warehouse is your warehouse," delivers a mighty attractive message to lumberyard executives who feel that big companies treat them like second-class citizens when they make modest purchases.

The campaign focuses on something the company already does well: serving dealers who buy small amounts of lumber and building supplies.

The key element of the campaign is an ad (shown at left) containing a giant photograph of an order tag stapled to a stack of lumber. American has been running four versions of this ad since last fall. All four–plus the website, trade show booth, and a direct-mail postcard campaign–hammer home the same message.

Seeking "The Sales Moment"

American Lumber sells building materials to professional dealers, chain stores, independent lumberyards, and home centers from Boston to Baltimore. It has 40 employees, half of whom work packing and unpacking orders at the company's 22-acre facility on a railroad spur in Walden, N.Y.

American Lumber had done little advertising in the past. The wholesaler didn't even put its own phone number on its delivery trucks, to avoid awkward calls from individual contractors. But tough economic times require new strategies. American decided to advertise–after it did some research.

"Excellence in advertising requires a precision focus on the customer's most salient need–the reason he or she is going to call us rather than our competitors," Kaye says. To that end, American hired The James Group, a marketing strategy research firm, to help identify its customer's most pressing needs and what Kaye calls "the sales moment," in which a particular need drives a customer to pick up the phone.

The James Group interviewed some of American's best customers to identify what made these customers loyal. "The temptation is figure out what people want who you are not selling to," says Kaye. But American Lumber wanted to identify its core strength: Its strongest customers.

Those folks ranked American highest in customer service. "The comments that had the most emotion in them were on small orders and custom orders," Kaye says. In contrast, when The James Group studied competing wholesale distributors, it found many weren't focusing on smaller numbers.

"Some customers were hesitant to ask for small orders," Kaye says. "Competitors were treating these orders as undesirable." That's logical from the wholesaler's perspective because an order as large as a mill pack can be taken out of the warehouse and put onto a truck, with no unpacking and little risk of dirtying or damaging the lumber. "But it's not adequate to the needs of many dealers right now," Kaye notes. In contrast, American Lumber has no minimum size to the orders it will take. "As long as it can be safely shipped, we will ship it," he says. If it costs extra to ship a small order, American Lumber will pass that cost on to the customer, but it promises to not load up on charges.