Creating a New Architectural Category

Case Study: Cambridge Architectural

Cambridge Architectural was a newly-created entity owned by a conveyor belt manufacturer. Cambridge had persuaded its investors that there was an architectural market for woven wire mesh based on a growing number of applications in Europe. But after a year of effort and a million dollar marketing budget, sales were unremarkable.

Cambridge had been relying on a New York ad agency and a Baltimore PR firm, both of which were generalized services without a specialization in building products. Their work product looked beautiful. They had polled architects to determine what they thought of the product and found that architects loved the jewel-like sparkle. So, ads featured close-ups of the shiny woven patterns. The PR firm, meanwhile, had invited architects from New York City to a cocktail party in the city where mesh crafted into unique pieces of furniture were featured. Architects could get a hands-on experience with mesh for the first time and admire the textures and play of light up close and personally.

Neither the ads nor the PR worked to bring in any serious inquiries.

Cambridge hired LarsonO’Brien to conduct a Creative ESP. What we learned presented real challenges. Architects were generally unfamiliar with the material. The only common use in the U.S. was in elevator cab interiors – and that type of rigid, tightly-woven mesh didn’t typify the open, flexible weaves used in large-scale exterior applications. We knew architects were excited about mesh, but were simply not considering the material for projects. We also learned that owners were reluctant to spend money on mesh that was simply going to cover brick, metal, or pre-cast – any of which were perfectly acceptable facade materials on their own.

How were we going to get owners to spend money they didn’t have on something they didn’t need?

The Strategy

As is often the case, the solution to Cambridge’s sales problems became clear when the problem was fully understood – Cambridge had made some serious mistakes. For example, they were showing mesh being used in a manner that was not representative of how they wanted it to be used by architects. They were trying to be clever, but they were simply being confusing. We also recognized that showing close-ups of the woven metal represented a disconnect between what the customer might be buying and what Cambridge was selling. In effect, Cambridge was selling mesh, but architects "buy" are facades, shades, security screens, et cetera.

Our strategy was to close the gaps between seller and buyer by making Cambridge’s offerings more responsive to architects’ needs. We planned to accomplish that by identifying functional categories and explaining how each has value. Facades, for example, provided solar heat gain reduction and lowered the cost of cooling commercial buildings. They also provided ventilation. Parking garages, for example, could be ventilated with greater visibility than louvers provided. That should give an important measure of personal safety to patrons and improve revenues as a result.

In all, we conceived of seven discrete functional categories. Additionally, we recognized that architects already loved the mesh, itself. So we stopped selling it for its visual appeal and began to sell it as a system, addressing architects’ natural concerns about loads building and attachment devices. We decreed that a mesh system consisted of the mesh pattern, the attachment hardware, and the application.

This distinction served three purposes. First, the pattern and attachment could be the same on a parking facade as on an office shade system. We wanted prospects to know that was okay. This became especially important when we got solar heat gain coefficient tables for various mesh patterns. Second, we wanted architects to specify our attachment systems and not design their own. We knew the engineering and we wanted to stand behind our work. And third, we wanted to set a course for architects that our competitors couldn’t follow. They didn’t have engineered attachment systems or solar heat gain coefficients. We were going to force them to sell their products according to Cambridge’s standards.

The Work

Prior to implementation of a new print ad and PR campaign targeted to architects, LarsonO'Brien created a new sales literature package and website to formally codify and reflect our new strategy. "Open to Your Ideas" was chosen as a new tagline for Cambridge to reinforce the nature of Cambridge mesh and the company's willingness to work closely with architects to help realize entirely new applications for mesh according to their vision.

The sales brochure provided beautiful architectural examples of the various functions of mesh, compared the installed cost of mesh to alternative products that serve similar functions, and detailed Cambridge's robust services to assist architects with this new category of building material.

The website featured a sophisticated asset management tool, designed to capture lead data from prospects and to facilitate sales efforts.

With these elements in place, LarsonO'Brien went to work to fully leverage the new strategy in PR. Feature stories with Cambridge Architectural bylines were written by LarsonO'Brien and published by leading architectural trade magazines. The articles centered around the functional nature of mesh and the projects benefitting from the new building material. These articles were careful to always reinforce Cambridge's defined functional categories and components of an architectural mesh system.

Two new AIA CES presentations were written and produced by LarsonO'Brien – a general primer on architectural mesh and a course focused entirely on the use of mesh as a shading system. These programs were designed to educate architects on the aesthetic potentials and functional values of mesh and offered to firms in lunch and learn format and to individual architects as streaming distance education courses.

Cambridge's new print campaign series was launched in 2009. Each ad featured an actual architectural installation of mesh and clearly promoted the mesh's primary function within the context of its application. LarsonO'Brien's "A Cooler Shade of Green" print ad won Best of Show in Architectrual Record's 2009 Excellence in Advertising Awards.

A quarterly e-newsletter was designed and launched to further develop ties to prospects. Now, once a quarter, the latest Cambridge project and news was delivered to the inbox of thousands of prospects and customers. The e-newsletter generated such a high volume of in-bound phone calls from prospects that Cambridge requested that LarsonO'Brien specify the exact time the e-newsletter would be disseminated to ensure the company had additional resources working the phones. Within three years, opt-in subscribers to this e-newsletter ballooned from 2,800 to more than 18,000.

The Impact

Architects began to think of mesh as a signature element for their projects. Sales on the order of thousands of square feet of material came pouring in monthly. Competitors adopted many of our models and had their own success. The effect was good for the entire category because mesh became mainstream – unusual and bold, but not uncommon.

Within six months sales doubled. At the end of the first year, they doubled again. By the end of the second year, the categorical model used by Cambridge was the norm. Sales continued to rise until they exceeded a ten-fold increase over the levels achieved when we first began working with them – and the investors soon cashed in.