by Robert Wilkos
Building our company into a brand name was not on our minds when we took the first steps in that direction. We simply wanted to differentiate ourselves from our competitors.
During the last six years, this evolutionary process has changed our company — and our thoughts about branding — forever. As a result, we have managed to build the Peaden name into the most recognized brand in our market.
Peaden Air Conditioning is located in Panama City, FL, with our service territory smack in the middle of Florida's booming Great Northwest. Still, it's a minor market (#159 nationwide). We are “country contractors” so to speak, and major industry changes or trends don’t usually affect us until much later than the rest of the country.
In the late 1990s, the major issues swirling around our industry included utility intrusion, consolidation, giant retailers entering the HVAC market, and manufacturers-turned contractors. These were real threats, and any one of them could have changed the face of our market place overnight. We wondered how we would compete with one or all of these newcomers.
Would we roll up our sidewalk and go home or figure out some way to profitably compete on a new playing field?
We sought exclusive product agreements, but these arrangements
became increasingly rare.
Therefore, we committed to a devising a strong marketing plan. Because we didn't want other dealers with the same product reaping benefits from our advertising efforts, we enrolled in a program offered by Nordyne called, “Brand within a Brand,“ where contractors could privately-label Nordyne products with their own name.
This idea wasn't new to me. I became familiar with this concept and put it into play in the late 1980s while managing another company. With a long-standing and excellent reputation in our market, creating a line of Peaden brand equipment seemed like a really good way to stand apart and be the sole beneficiary of our marketing efforts.
Teamwork and Preparation
For us, building a brand was a road less traveled. The process would have been difficult, if not impossible, to execute without assistance from Nordyne and Remsco, a locally-owned HVAC wholesaler. With their help, we unveiled our Peaden Signature Series systems in 1999.
From our experience, private labeling doesn’t diminish the manufacturer/dealer relationship; it strengthens it. To this day, our relationship with Nordyne and Remsco is second to none, and we have all benefited from this marketing concept, as have our customers.
Taking this step was far from easy. There were some concerns about reactions from existing and new customers, as well as our staff. Fortunately, these concerns were either answered in short order or never materialized into significant issues.
Essential to the launch of the Peaden Signature Series brand was a concerted effort to do our homework before entering the market.
We sent a dozen of our key staff members to St. Louis on separate trips to inspect the Nordyne facilities and to ask all the necessary questions. At the same time, we worked hard on our label designs so that they were attention-getting, but not obtrusive. As a result, we had more information at our fingertips than we normally would with other national name brands.
The preparation was a must because it was our name going on the equipment. The due diligence allowed our staff to become comfortable with the plan. Once this happened, everything that followed became easier.
We coached our comfort consultants, service technicians, and the entire staff. They needed to believe in the private label concept and the products we were offering.
As far as our customers were concerned, we knew there would be questions. We just didn't know what they would be. However, we felt confident telling them, “This is the product that we have selected to carry our name and reputation.”
Then, we waited for the feedback, both from our customers’ living rooms and our office.
Confidence was crucial to the sale, but our reputation was the key. Although there were a few awkward moments in the beginning, they were easily overcome. When our customers responded, “Okay, that's good enough for me,” we knew the program would be successful.
A Value-Added Product
We sell our Signature Series systems as value-added products. Each system and/or unitary piece includes a six- year warranty to coincide with Nordyne's six-year parts warranty. There’s also a complimentary one-year Energy Savings Plan.
Packaging products and services together has worked well. It allows us to educate our customers on the importance of maintenance during the first year of ownership because tune-ups are built into each product price.
We also bundled service agreements with the nationally recognized brands that we offer, such as Amana and Trane.
The renewals of these Energy Savings Plans (ESP) have remained close to 90%. Our ESP customers now exceed 5,500. In fact, nearly 10% of all households in Bay County, FL have a Peaden Energy Saving Plan.
Before we embarked upon this approach, our total plans numbered approximately 1,500. As a result, total revenues have nearly tripled!
Adding a Second Label
A year after rolling out the Signature Series, we were invited by Goodman to private-label their equipment. While this opportunity was a complete surprise, we didn't hesitate to jump at it. Thus, the Peaden Pro Series was introduced in the latter part of 2000.
While few companies private label two lines from two different manufacturers, it hasn’t proven to be a problem for Peaden. We have more than 20 years of experience with Goodman products, and our Pro Series systems are positioned and priced as a no-frills, economy line. This rounded out our brand line-up, giving us competitive products at both ends of the price spectrum.
In addition to the Signature Series and Peaden Pro Series systems, we began installing thermostats with our name and phone number on the front cover. These thermostats are included in all new system sales. Last year, we added a line of privately-labeled filters and will add more products soon.
The Peaden labels in a residence, plus helpful stickers and a magnet for the refrigerator, work together to create a constant reminder inside and around a home or business. They represent mini-billboards that can be easily seen by neighbors, relatives, friends, and all potential new Peaden customers. The labels are also just as visible as any national label.
If location, location, location is the key to real estate, then frequency, frequency, frequency is essential to a good marketing campaign. We take advantage of both.
Our marketing efforts get us into new doors and, once in, we make sure our customers don’t forget us. One of our slogans has been, “Creating customers for life.” A lifetime is exactly how long we want to be our customers’ contractor of choice.
Private Labeling Isn’t A Stretch
We’ve attended our fair share of sales-related trade seminars, and believe that it’s our comfort consultants and service technicians who lead the equipment selection and purchase process with a consumer. If you accept that basic fact, then exclusive products and private-labeling isn’t much of a stretch. In addition, if selling is all about selling yourself first, and you believe in your company and the products it offers, private-labeling can be a perfect fit.
You might ask: Is that all it takes to build your company into a brand? Honestly, we don't know. We’re an HVAC contracting firm. We took the advice that many sales experts freely share, and put a totally different spin on it. However, we don’t believe that just putting your own name on another's piece of equipment is all there is to branding. It‘s only part of the story.
Our drive for customer service excellence has been and remains a top priority, as well as maintaining our well-known reputation. We believe that branding our name only works if everyone in the company believes in our ability to provide great products backed by exceptional service and maintenance, and then works hard to make certain that it happens.
Also key is our on-going marketing and advertising campaign. It covers a wide spectrum and it’s all about us, our products, and our services. Private labeling is more successful because of our marketing efforts, and our marketing is more successful because of our private labeling.
Our efforts, accomplishments, and mistakes have brought the Peaden team closer together. The Peaden team is a tight unit and includes not only Peaden employees, but also key personnel from our distributor and manufacturer partners. Our partners know everything about us inside and out, and they’ve been essential to our success.
While Peaden looks a lot different today than when we started the private-labeling program, there’s still much more to learn.
Dare to be different! Ask yourself: What name would you rather be promoting today? Yours or another company’s?
The most famous line from the movie, Field of Dreams, is “Build it, and they will come.” This phrase, plus a good dose of marketing, also applies to building your own HVAC brand.
Robert Wilkos is the business leader of Peaden Air Conditioning in Panama City, FL. Peaden is a member of ACCA, Excellence Alliance and the Service Roundtable. Wilkos can be reached by email at [email protected].