Take Your Show on the Road | Harvard Business Review
By Leonard Fuld | October 21, 2013
Once in a blue moon, a brainstorming session produces an idea that is so blindingly good that people wonder not only “why aren’t we doing that already?” but even: “why isn’t everyone?” As someone who helps businesses conduct “war games” to inform their strategy-making, I suppose I see these moments more than most people; the whole point of these exercises is to devise new marketplace forays and anticipate competitive responses. But still, they are very rare.
So I’ve been especially impressed that one such idea has come up repeatedly in separate games we’ve staged recently. It has made me think I should consider it more closely, and share it more broadly.
The idea is as simple as this: why not have a mobile demonstration van for products, to take a fully-equipped, immersive selling experience to customers’ own sites? The managers who express this idea in our simulated competitive games aren’t thinking of some simple shelving-units-on-wheels format – the kind of oversized salesman’s bag that’s been hauled out to prospects for decades. They’re envisioning well-designed, self-contained environments, tricked-out with the latest high-tech, high-touch technology.
Take the demonstration vans now being used in the UK by Tyco Security which makes products like security cameras, monitors, and access control systems. The company already had a demo center outside London and a slick tradeshow setup to showcase how these work together in an effective system. Its goal for the vans is to replicate the same kind of experience for the customers who can’t come to them.
The beauty of these vans, and the reason I believe they’ve been dreamt up by managers in very different businesses, is that they perform a wide variety of marketing functions. First, they show the product in the best light, in the hands of an expert user. A food company, for example, outfits vehicles with entire kitchens to demonstrate the most effective and creative ways to use its specialty food ingredients in food service operations.
Just as important, the product is not presented as an isolated thing, but as part of an integrated system that solves a problem. The Tyco vans, for example, also feature building management products from other companies to show how the cameras and so forth connect seamlessly with them. “It’s important for our customers to have hands on access to integrated systems,” the general manager of the business explains, “so they can conveniently evaluate the most appropriate solution for their application.”
The vans are also used to provide education and training. Many products can be complicated to operate or dangerous if used incorrectly, and a van can save a customer from traveling to a training center. Providing education on the broader problem the customer is trying to solve gives the vendor a chance to show why its company’s products are better, safer, and more effective. Thinking even bigger, a vendor can consider what training a customer wants its employees to have in general, and provide it in a convenient environment that also carries reminders of the vendor’s product. A heavy equipment manufacturer, for example, brings trucks to its customers’ plants and provides rigorous safety classes for factory workers. This has helped cement the manufacturer’s brand as the most safety-minded player in the industry. Bringing the skills development that customers should be investing in anyway right to their parking lots is the kind of value-adding service that helps lock in channel partners.
I should note, by the way, that the word “van” doesn’t do these vehicles justice – some are as large as 18-wheelers. And sometimes the experience they bring isn’t even contained within the trailer. One industrial producer of state-of-the-art equipment packs its big mobile units with collapsible exhibits which it can set up quickly at construction sites.
And let’s not forget that the vehicles are also rolling advertisements. Is that a sufficient reason to invest in one? Probably not for your company. But if you think no company would invest in a truck and driver just to make brand impressions, you’ve never seen the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile roll by. This giant hot dog on wheels was originally built some 75 years ago just for the visual chuckle. Not surprisingly, 25 years ago, the company discovered the power of putting “ambassadors” on board, and having them criss-cross America taking part in festivals and parades.
As the Wienermobile shows (and also the LL Bean Bootmobile), there can even be a certain amount of excitement generated by the travels of a company’s mobile unit. Cisco Systems, known for its digital telephone switches and routers, had four 25-foot vans touring the country from 2004 to 2011, to events put on by its channel partners. Its Network on Wheels program showed off new products, emphasizing applications most relevant to a given event (often focused on one vertical industry). To let people know when a van would be in their area, Cisco created Twitter accounts for the vans, which managed to attract over 2,800 followers. The social media channel was another source of feedback to help Cisco hone its marketing messages.
Retailers complain about showrooming, where customers visit expensive brick-and-mortar stores to educate themselves about offerings, only to leave and order their choices from cheaper sellers online. At the B2B level, vans have turned this dynamic on its head, investing in assets explicitly to provide showrooms that educate and raise awareness. The expectation is not that the visit will end with the ka-ching of a cash register. The point is to enrich the customer’s relationship with the brand.
So if you’re in a B2B business – and perhaps even if it’s B2C – spend some time thinking about an idea that keeps coming up in competitive simulation exercises. I see it as a quietly effective strategy that has been rolling along, largely under the radar. It isn’t the version of “mobile marketing” that is all the rage now in business press – but it might be the best way you’ll find to drive sales.
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