By Phil Zaleon
Kitchen and bath dealers frequently ask about the
best way to market themselves effectively. The answer is
rarely black and white; rather, it depends on a number
When operating a kitchen and bath design firm, there
are certain “givens” to running the business: telephone
service, bank accounts, electricity, computers,
insurance, Internet access and assorted other “musts.”
What some dealers fail to realize is that a marketing
plan should absolutely be considered part of that “must”
list. It should be as integral to the business as
telephone service, since, without the marketing plan, a
dealer may soon end up not needing the telephone.
The days of relying solely upon referrals and the
Yellow Pages to bring in business are over. The
competition is too strong, the buyers are too savvy and
today’s kitchen and bath dealers are too busy. Anyone
undecided about the need to make marketing a priority
should look at marketing as a parallel to what their
business requires them to do every day.
When they begin a new project, most kitchen and bath
dealers start out by meeting with the clients to learn
about them. In this meeting, they want to discover what
their goals are and why, what their budget is, what
their expectations are, and how they can help to make
the clients’ dreams come true.
But while this seems obvious when dealing with
clients, many times, kitchen and bath dealers and
designers fail to follow the same plan when dealing with
their own business. Being successful takes planning, and
dealers should always start any kind of growth plan by
asking themselves: “What are the goals for my firm, and
why? What is my budget to meet those goals? What are my
expectations? And, how will I make those dreams come
When working with clients, dealers require them to
develop a realistic budget to do the job properly. The
design is then created, staying within the confines of
that budget. The design is committed to a blueprint, or
plan. The blueprint then becomes a guide for the
project. It may be adjusted or fine-tuned along the way,
but it is still bare bones for how the clients’ goals
will be met.
Kitchen and bath dealers can apply this same concept
to marketing their firms. They need to develop a
realistic budget; design a marketing program within the
confines of that budget; commit the program to a
marketing plan, and use that plan as a blueprint, making
adjustments as necessary, but following the plan to meet
the goals set at the beginning of the project.
Developing a Budget
There are two ways to determine a marketing budget:
as a percentage of sales, or as a fixed cost. Those who
employ the third way (decide what seems wise when an
opportunity presents itself and cash happens to be
available) don’t have a marketing budget and may find
themselves wasting a lot of potential marketing dollars.
Mark Ergmann, of Coastal Kitchen and Bath Design in
York, ME, makes his marketing and advertising budget a
fixed cost. He explains, “I treat my marketing and
advertising like I do the rent or my electric bill. I
cannot afford to put it on a sliding percentage scale.
If I don’t market, clients won’t come. So, I have to be
consistent regardless of the prevailing economy.”
Most of the industry, however, tends to spend a
percentage of gross sales, with that percentage ranging
from 3% to 8%, and sometimes even higher. A successful
marketing program keeps the percentages down. Sales that
exceed estimates lower the percentage spent on marketing
in relative terms. For example, a $50,000 marketing
budget (that was determined as 5% of estimated sales of
$1,000,000) that is successful and helps to bring in
sales of $1,500,000 is in actuality a 3.3% marketing
budget, not the original 5% as estimated.
Larry Lowenthal, president of Gilman Screens and
Kitchens, in San Francisco, CA, determines his budget as
a percentage of sales. However, he first pulls out the
Yellow Pages (about 1.5%), then looks at co-op
opportunities before making his final calculations. “If
I decide to spend 5% of my estimated gross sales, it
typically is closer to 8 or 9 percent once you add back
the Yellow Pages and co-op,” he notes.
Gary Lichtlyter, president of Lemont Kitchen &
Bath in Lemont, IL, takes a hybrid approach. “We do a
combination [of percentage of gross sales and a fixed
budget], beginning with a percentage approach. We then
look at what we have done in the past and we shift those
priorities while adding new ones,” he explains.
Dan Luck, president of the Madison, WI-based Bella
Domicile, Inc., says he “develops a marketing budget
each year with a specific goal or series of goals that
the company wants to achieve for that year. Once that is
determined, a wish list of opportunities is drawn up
with cost assigned to each opportunity. The list is
pared down based on forecasted revenues and actual
priorities for that year. We try to stay within the 3-6%
Although most dealers want to market their
businesses, they rarely find the cash to make it happen.
Every firm should include marketing expenses when
costing out a project. Or, as Steve Whitsitt, an
industry photographer puts it, “every hamburger you buy
at McDonalds includes the cost of all those TV
commercials. Kitchen dealers need to do the same thing –
include their marketing [and photography] expenses in
each kitchen they sell.”
Spending the Budget
When deciding where to spend marketing dollars, it’s
important to consider who the firm’s intended audience
is. Dealers are most effective in their marketing
programs when they’ve already determined their target
Luck ensures all Bella Domicile employees know their
target customer. He explains, “We have a written
description of who our ideal client is and most
marketing/advertising decisions are based on pursuing
that ideal client.”
For example, a high-end dealership looking at the
luxury market within a specific geographic location will
market itself quite differently than a dealership more
focused on taking care of the lower-end remodeling jobs.
Likewise, a dealer in Manhattan would need a much
larger budget to get the same exposure as one in Kansas
City, simply due to the cost of media.
Several key media choices are particularly well
suited for marketing. Each opportunity listed below
offers its own unique benefits and shortcomings.
Television may include local television stations,
cable and satellite systems. It should be noted that
advertising on television or cable requires an
understanding of how the system works. For example,
running ads on HGTV or TLC is only possible on a cable
system. Satellite dish owners watching HGTV or TLC will
not see that ad. This is why it’s important to find out
the cable penetration in your community and the
percentage of satellite dish owners.
The only way kitchen and bath dealers can potentially
reach everyone with a television (cable, satellite dish,
or even an antenna) is by advertising on the local
affiliate stations. However, considering the extensive
range of many local affiliates, this may not be the best
use of money, as many people seeing the ad may be out of
range, geographically speaking.
There are benefits to advertising on television, most
notably the ability to reach a lot of people quickly.
Television can also provide dealers with an immediate
response – to the right message, such as a specific
sale. Remodeling your showroom and selling old displays?
Television is a great way to sell them.
Dealers cannot, however, expect that after one day or
even one week, a television commercial will fill the
showroom with buyers or even potential buyers.
Television advertising helps disseminate the brand being
advertised, and begins to make the advertiser an option
in the minds of consumers. But a consistent message
disseminated over a longer period of time is essential
to bringing customers in.
Television also tends to be costly. However, it has
proven very effective for a number of kitchen and bath
Mark Ergmann is a firm believer in the benefits of
television advertising. He states, “Living on the coast
of Maine offers few options to reach my potential
market, so I turned to TV, more specifically cable, a
few years ago. I appear in my own commercials, not
because I have an ego, but because I believe if a client
is going to spend $50,000 or more on a new kitchen, they
get to know the designer/owner.” He continues, “I do
get extraneous inquiries because of the reach of the
commercials, but some of those have turned out to be
Radio, as with television, brings a high reach
audience, and makes it easier to reach a more carefully
targeted audience. To be successful here, however, it’s
important to consider the personal characteristics of
listeners of various kinds of music and radio programs.
The thing to remember is to find the station that
reaches your intended audience – not your personal
Radio also provides the opportunity to reach an
audience at a specific time. For instance, you can
target potential customers when they are driving to or
from work. A less expensive option might be to target
those who work during the overnight hours, since it’s
easier to get low-cost or no-cost spots during these
Producing a simple radio spot is typically much
cheaper than a television commercial. Always ask for
free production; many stations will provide it as part
of the advertising package.
One of the down sides of radio is the nature of the
business itself: Radio is not visual. So, although radio
gives users 60 seconds to make a case, this medium
doesn’t lend itself to showing examples of one’s work.
However, it is a great vehicle for sending listeners
to a memorable Web site. Listeners are typically doing
something else, like driving, cleaning or working and
are in no position to write down a phone number, but a
Web address that is memorable can stay with them long
after the ad is finished.
“Clutter” is another problem on radio – it can be
challenging to stand out among so many other ads. And,
like television, over-reaching one’s geographic region
is a potential problem with radio advertising.
That said, radio can be a good option, depending on
what is being sold, how it’s being sold and to whom.
Bill Camp, CKD, owner of Triangle Design Kitchens, in
Raleigh, NC, began advertising on his local Public Radio
Station almost five years ago. He says, “I followed the
advice of a marketing professional, expecting little or
no return on what I thought would be a short-lived
experiment. The response I received was overwhelming –
‘I heard you on the radio, which led me to your Web
site, which led me here,’ seems to the mantra from my
customers. Using public radio as a part of my overall
marketing plan has been a great success.”
Newspapers offer some great opportunities because
they tend to cater to the industry with special
remodeling and home improvement sections. And, they
reach a large number of people.
Dealers have the opportunity to showcase their work
with photo-graphy in this medium, however, newspapers
typically only include black and white images, and, when
compared to magazines, offer poor quality reproduction.
Full-color ads in newspapers (when available) tend to
add 50%-100% to the cost of the black-and-white version.
The way newspapers are printed can also cause
problems with color photography as the color plates can
shift during printing, causing a ghost-like effect on
Newspapers allow advertisers to target to an extent
by allowing advertisers to choose the section in which
they advertise. In addition, many metropolitan areas
have geographic sections within the daily newspapers, as
well as special neighborhood weeklies or monthlies.
Ads are generally affordable, which tends to add to
the clutter in the newspaper. Like radio, newspapers
place their ads in close proximity to one another,
adding to the confusion of the messages. They will also,
as a rule, offer free ad design. This means your ad and
your competitor’s ad are being created by the same
designer. Is that something you are comfortable with?
Matt Grundy, owner of Builder Specialties in
Montpelier, VT, advertises in two places in the daily
paper, as well as five other publications. He states, “I
believe newspapers are a great advertising vehicle for
Builder Specialties. We are not just a high-end kitchen
design firm, we also provide full remodeling services.
The newspaper keeps me in the face of the community day
in and day out. It is also a great way to reach the
second homeowners who live here only part of the year.
It’s all part of our branding in the community. When
someone is ready to build, our advertising makes them
come to us. Then it’s up to us to close the deal.”
Since magazines are a more high-end form of
advertising, they are a good fit for luxury and high-end
dealers. Most large metropolitan areas have a number of
lifestyle magazines, including some that are specific to
the kitchen and bath industry. In addition, there are a
host of national magazines that can provide
One of the greatest strengths of magazine advertising
is the audience, which is generally a more affluent
segment of the population. Additionally, advertising can
be presented in full color.
Magazines allow dealers to directly target types of
readers based on their interests. By choosing to
advertise in the local lifestyle magazine, a dealer can
reach the affluent segment of the population. The
practice of “recycling” magazines – that is, taking them
from the home to the office – also gives ads a longer
shelf-life and an extended readership.
On the other hand, magazine ads don’t generally have
an immediate impact on business. Therefore, running a
sale on a certain cabinet line is not the kind of
advertising that’s best suited for magazines. Rather,
magazine advertising should be used for image and
branding a firm.
The cost is higher than newspaper ads, and there are
typically additional costs associated with ad
development and production. Magazines should be used as
a supplement to other marketing, in branding a firm.
Lowenthal has found that magazine ads work well for
him. “We have seen some customers actually bring the
[magazine] ads in with them,” he notes. “We can do
color, which is a huge plus when you’re selling design,
and there is a feeling of consistency with magazines –
our ads maintain our look and feel, and our brand, and
they are ‘out there’ for a long time.”
Direct mail has been a mainstay of the industry, and
whether sending postcards, letters or newsletters,
dealers using this form of advertising have the ability
to directly target their communication. Homeowners can
be targeted based on income level or gender, or by the
age of the actual home. Allied industries such as
interior designers or architects can also be targeted
through this medium.
However, in this medium, the message and packaging
are very important. Bev Adams, CMKBD, president of
Interior Intuitions, Inc., in Denver, CO, believes
“Direct mail is great, as long as it is personalized. We
send professionally written letters, along with
professionally reproduced [pages from] publications
where Interior Intuitions has been featured. These are
mailed unfolded in 9"x12" white envelopes to our list of
past and potential clients, along with other allied
professionals on our list, including the press.”
Bear in mind that a direct mail campaign is only as
good as the list it’s being sent to. Direct mail
traditionally elicits only a .5% to 3% response rate,
and a poor list drives down that number.
Another marketing outlet is the Yellow Pages.
Lichlyter is not a fan of the Yellow Pages, while
Michael Teipen, CMKBD, Allied Member, ASID, president of
Kitchens by Teipen, in Greenwood, IN, sees the Yellow
Pages as “the only place to find a number.” However, he
adds, “we have only been able to trace a few leads [back
to it]. We even put a new phone number in the [Yellow
Pages] ad to help us trace calls.”
And Lowenthal says “we [advertise in] this every
year. I believe it is the best advertisement.”
Kitchen and bath dealers may also find varying levels
of success marketing themselves by using the Internet,
home shows, seminars, public relations programs, local
cultural arts programs, as well as through printed media
such as brochures, pocket folders, business cards,
Dealers also must monitor their media and track their
leads. It’s essential to keep an eye on where ads are
placed, where they run and how they look. Just as
clients demand quality and value in their kitchens, they
expect to see the same in marketing materials, since
this forms their first impression of a business.
Perhaps the best way to constantly re-evaluate and
refine your marketing plan is to get in the habit of
asking everyone who walks in your door how they found
you. Remember, there is no reason to continue with any
given marketing channel if it isn’t bringing in
Philip D. Zaleon is founder and president of Chapel
Hill-based Z promotion & design – a full service
integrated marketing and creative agency focusing on the
kitchen and bath industry. Prior to founding Z promotion
& design in 1996, Phil held the position of
v.p./research & development for a new
technology-based communications firm.
He can be reached at Z promotion & design, P.O.
Box 17291, Chapel Hill, NC 27516; Telephone:
919-932-4600; Fax: 919-932-4447; E-mail:
email@example.com; Web site: