Cover Story: DR Shines Bright for SunSetter1 Aug, 2012 By: Thomas Haire Response
Jonathan Hershberg says the retractable awnings manufacturer used direct response to create both a brand and a market.
“Direct response means everything to us. It’s the driver for our business,” says Jonathan Hershberg, founder and co-CEO of SunSetter Products, a Malden, Mass.-based marketer of retractable awnings for homes. “We could not have created our brand — our category — without it. It was a very niche category and product in the U.S. No one had promoted retractable awnings and what they could do for a homeowner’s lifestyle. Since 1989, we’ve spent more than $200 million in DR advertising to build our brand and business, and there’s no way we would have been as efficient or as capable of educating consumers without it.”
Along with his two original partners in the business — co-CEO Ido Eilam and Les Snader, who runs the business’ dealer operations — Hershberg has overseen SunSetter’s growth into the predominant marketer of retractable awnings in the United States. But, prior to founding the company in 1988, Hershberg had already owned a successful business in a similar space — manufacturing and selling awnings for travel trailers and motor homes (which he eventually sold when he started SunSetter).
That experience helped when, after traveling to Europe, Hershberg noticed a big difference between homes there and in the U.S. “Europeans were utilizing retractable awnings in their homes much more often,” he recalls. “They were living and entertaining more outdoors, and those awnings were a major factor.”
But, in the late 1980s, though the DRTV advertising revolution was well underway, direct response was not front of mind for Hershberg and his partners.
“When we first started, we didn’t know anything about direct response,” Hershberg admits. “We really fumbled around trying to find the best way to bring the concept of retractable awnings to the U.S. market, and we knew building awareness was the first step.”
The SunSetter team initially tried to market directly to the do-it-yourself space, before then targeting building material distributors in a B-to-B-to-C play. When neither worked, the company tried again — through direct response.
“That’s where the business finally took hold,” Hershberg says. “DR allowed us to educated people in a cost-efficient way. And we’ve maintained the same two-step strategy since starting in DRTV: the advertising offers a free information packet, now with DVDs, as well as the opportunity to buy direct. It gives us the opportunity to communicate directly with consumers and understand their needs.”
The Value of DR
That consumer engagement was crucial — and remains so — for a company selling a product that many homeowners may think of as a luxury, if at all.
“What DR advertising allows us to do is to popularize not only the concept of retractable awnings, but also explain how they could improve how people used their outdoor space in a very efficient way,” Hershberg says. “It also helps our efficiency, in that we measure the effectiveness of every ad placed.”
The ability to explain the product — to show it in action — has been crucial. “This is a product that needs TV to help consumers visualize the problem — an underutilized deck or patio area — and how it is an affordable solution,” Hershberg contends. “Selling directly to consumers via TV provides an excellent value opportunity for us. Many of our customers didn’t know there was a solution to their problem before they saw our ads, and even if they knew about retractable awnings, they thought they were more expensive.”
Having a product line that remains fairly standard — even as it has expanded during the past two-and-a-half decades — with few accessories has helped SunSetter keep its pitch easy to understand. “People saw the simplicity and the pricing, and it made awnings more attainable, something they could easily visualize in their own homes,” Hershberg says.
As DR advertising has added more of a Web-response mechanism in recent years, Hershberg says that has created even more opportunities for SunSetter to explain its products to likely customers. “The Web is not only a great way to get people to contact us, but we’ve seen more people becoming comfortable using it as a true research tool,” he adds. “In fact, in many of our TV ads, we prompt consumers to go online and do their research. Most of our customers still order on the phone, but use the Web to educate themselves at their own pace.”
Moving Into Dealer Space
The company is not only utilizing TV, its response mailers, telephone sales and the Web, but it has also put together a network of local dealers — 600 around the United States — that help the company sell to consumers who are uncomfortable with self-installation. So what’s the result of SunSetter’s expanding marketing universe?
“We’re having our biggest year in history,” Hershberg says, crediting the DRTV efforts, along with the dealer program. “For a number of years, we were serving only do-it-yourself customers via our DR advertising, and it was successful, while helping us build a strong brand name. The name got so strong that dealers started calling us, wanting to sell our products at about the same time we noticed a growing base of consumers who were looking to have the products installed for them.”
About six years ago, SunSetter began selling via retail dealers at the same prices. “We found it was ideal for some consumers,” Hershberg says. “Now, we are applying some of those DR skills we’ve learned over the years to recruit more dealers, since dealer sales are — right now — the fastest growing part of our business.”
SunSetter has also helped those dealers utilize direct response marketing to better reach their local customers. “We’re using what we’ve learned through DR to advertise on a local level for those dealers. We help them analyze campaigns, utilizing the same tools as we use on our national direct campaigns,” Hershberg says.
SunSetter works with dealers on local TV campaigns and also on inserts for shared mail programs like Valpak or Money Mailer (Response, June). “Certainly, most of our dealers offer a number of different products, but as we’ve become more involved in their marketing and helped them manage their businesses better, our product has become more important,” Hershberg says. “We have a dealer locator on our website, we help them know if the different marketing programs are working with our analytics expertise — it’s a ‘win-win’ for all. Being a SunSetter dealer pays!”
Less About Look, More About Results
All of this sunny talk doesn’t mean the SunSetter team hasn’t run into its share of difficulties over the years. But Hershberg says those campaigns that haven’t panned out so well are really the best learning opportunities they’ve had.
“For us, the campaigns that have been least successful tend to be when we’ve concentrated on a glossier, more refined look,” he says. “Those campaigns don’t seem to resonate as much as the more informational, real-world DR look.”
He recalls one campaign, specifically, from 2006. “We decided to try a larger, more traditional agency,” Hershberg says. “It was not DR-oriented, at all. And, while the campaign looked beautiful, it didn’t resonate with consumers. The agency simply didn’t speak the same language as us, and they were not as promotionally oriented.”
That prompted the SunSetter team to seek out an agency with which they could have a “close” and “open” relationship, according to Hershberg. And the company found that in media buying agency DRM Partners. “DRMP really understands where we want to go and has worked hand-in-hand with us,” Hershberg says. “We share all of our information with them, and they have access to our sales by channel. Together, we look at everything — creative, station choice, spot or show length. And they worked with us to create algorithms to target our allowables in every combination.”
Though the company went through a period late in the last decade where, Hershberg says, “We thought we weren’t going to be able to grow anymore,” SunSetter, with DRMP’s help, “dug deeper.”
“Now, we’re more profitable than ever,” Hershberg contends. “We’re on calls with DRMP every week, tweaking the plan. Our media manager works with them, looking at our campaign on both a station-by-station and creative basis. They know when we want to renegotiate rates or redirect spend. It’s a very responsive relationship.”