Removing the Masks

With their “We Build” campaign, Rich Thompson and the ITW Welding marketing team use online video to put faces and places in the place of arcs and sparks — changing marketing in the welding segment. Photography by Mike Roemer

“In the past six years, we have changed and evolved in so many aspects of the way we do marketing that it’s hard to quantify the changes and the effect we’ve had as an enterprise marketing team on the welding platform,” says Appleton, Wis.-based Rich Thompson, vice president of marketing, North America, for Chicago-based ITW Welding. “What really helped was the discovery process we did around our Miller brand in 2012. Using some proprietary models I’ve used in the past, this discovery around our brand and competitive brands took us from the internal opinion, legend, and hubris that sometimes come from experience, to a customer-based view of the brand and a predictive view of where it would go.”

Miller: We Build campaign
Miller’s “We Build” campaign includes a compelling social media component
(seen here on Facebook and Instagram) that drives conversation between the
brand and “hundreds of thousands” of users, according to Rich Thompson.

Thompson joined ITW — a century-old business — six years ago after stints in executive roles with DuPont (­Response, September 2006) and Newell Rubbermaid. As the leader of the marketing and brand management efforts for ITW Welding’s $1.7 billion portfolio — including brands such as Miller®, Hobart®, Tregaskiss®, Bernard®, and more — Thompson is a vocal proponent of multichannel, performance-based campaigns utilizing both new and legacy media.

Perhaps the greatest example of the evolution led by Thompson and his team is its “We Build” campaign for Miller Electric, one of ITW’s most prominent divisions. “Developing the strategy for a fully integrated campaign was critical, and it had to be one that had legs — designed as a centipede, in that the campaign can go in many directions without its center ever changing,” Thompson says. “From this came ‘We Build,’ launched in summer 2013, integrated across each of our messaging channels: print, video, web, social, experiential, and motorsports. Our brand portfolio manager, Becky Propson, has managed our campaign wonderfully, and we’ve found ways to breathe new life into it each year.”

The “We Build” campaign changed the game in Miller’s competitive space — both in form and function. A customer-focused effort flipped the overwhelming use of “arcs and sparks” imagery — as Thompson describes it — on its head, making Miller’s customers the stars of its campaigns. At the same time, the extensive and successful use of online video and social media belies the old-school image you might have when thinking of the welding market.

Thompson says, “The greatest compliment we could ever receive is that our competitor, Lincoln Electric, rushed a lookalike campaign that tried to copy some of our elements within 30 days of the ‘We Build’ launch. Thirty days after that, another big competitor, ESAB, rushed out a campaign out that did the same. They tried to copy the structure of what we did, but never captured the soul of what ‘We Build’ is really all about.”

Authenticity and Partnership

The authenticity of the ongoing “We Build” campaign is one of the keys to its success. Authenticity is also one of the words that comes to mind when chatting with Thompson, who is an open book about his background, his responsibilities, and his goals at ITW.

 “My responsibilities include marketing leadership through market insights and customer relationship management (CRM), creating strategies and creative expression of those strategies through our four key brands — Miller, Hobart, Bernard, and Tregaskiss — overarching digital marketing, and experiential forms of marketing through our tradeshow, roadshow, and motorsports marketing programs,” Thompson says. “This includes go-to-market activities around product launch and dynamics with our distribution channels. I am privileged to lead a talented team of 20 professionals from all different marketing and business disciplines that help form and make our strategies and tactics come to life with great effect.”

Thompson’s history in marketing consumer products informs his efforts at ITW.

“My background is one of marketing, general business and product management, and leadership in senior level roles beginning in the pet supply industry, then on to major national/global brands at Newell Rubbermaid (now Newell Brands) and with DuPont for itsTeflon® brand,” he says. “Having several experiences in managing and owning P&Ls, ideation (Thompson is a two-time patent holder) of various new products and bringing them market, brand management, and direct response marketing have helped me to successfully transcend industry each time I have made a career move. No matter the challenge, through application of solid marketing and business principles, I have learned and applied the ability to be able to flex them to the markets I serve without breaking or sacrificing what makes them effective.”

Thompson’s consistency is a great fit at ITW, a publicly-traded company (NYSE: ITW) that was founded a century ago in Chicago and has grown to more than 750 decentralized business units. ITW Welding — Thompson’s division — brings in more than 12 percent of the company’s $14 billion in annual operating revenues.

ITW Welding and its brands comprise one of the world’s leading manufacturers of specialized industrial equipment, consumables, and related service businesses — with operations in 57 countries and more than 50,000 employees.

The Miller brand — started in 1929 as a one-man operation by Niels Miller — is headquartered in Appleton, Wis., and builds advanced, solution-focused products that meet crucial needs for welding safety and health. Given the success of the “We Build” campaign, it’s no shock that, according to Miller’s website (, “We’re about the partnership and the work. Our products are designed with our users for manufacturing, fabrication, construction, aviation, motorsports, education, agriculture, and marine applications.”

Thompson adds, “ITW is a company rooted in 80/20 principles, as well as its ‘toolbox’ tools that leverage focus, measurement, and the ability to change to market dynamics for what the customer wants.” 

We Build ad camgaign
Miller’s “We Build” print ads carry the same look and feel
as its digital and video efforts, making them instantly
recognizable to the company’s target market.

Building “We Build”

Though Thompson believes in ITW’s overall approach, he did see plenty to work on when he joined the company. 

“As much as these principles are lived throughout our decentralized divisions in welding and the six other ITW platforms and is the sauce for our success, I initially found when I got here that some of the measurements we needed for marketing performance were not in place,” he says. “As much as we need to measure market share, that is not a measure of brand strength and stature in the mind of the consumer. You can have strong market share, but the way your brand promises are seen through the eyes of your consumer may be in a more precarious position.”

Thompson saw that for ITW Welding’s brands to grow market share and brand success, additional metrics would need to be added to the company’s efforts to measure marketing success. “Other levels of performance for the brands and marketing efforts had to be introduced,” he says. “Stewardship and discipline around what the message is for our brands and products had to be formed and adopted in our organization to ensure success.”

What are the key metrics the ITW Welding team is using today? Are they based on particular marketing tactics — or on the particular media outlet being used? 

“We use a myriad of tactics, with performance-based measures used in all of our advertising,” Thompson says. “Perhaps its most clearly done in how we measure engagement on video in the ‘We Build’ campaign. Each video we create is complementary to a print ad. The message is never disjointed and allows us to easily measure share, views, and engagement — both on our own website and on social media.”

The “We Build” campaign is the driving force behind Miller’s success in recent years — but it was also Thompson’s proving ground as the “new guy” leading a well-established marketing team.

“The story of how ‘We Build’ came to be is one that still makes me shake my head in disbelief,” Thompson says. “In August 2012, we went to New York with our marketing team for meetings. As part of the trip, we took the team to the 9/11 memorial — it was a solemn, but important, moment for our whole team. While we were there, I looked up at the Freedom Tower under construction. I took a picture and a concept began rolling around in my head. Our director of research saw this and said to me, ‘What’s going on? I see those wheels turning.’ My response: ‘I think I have a campaign for us.’”

Thompson and the team returned to Wisconsin a day later — but the night of their return, he awoke with a start at 2:15 a.m. “I had two words running around in my brain: ‘We Build,’” Thompson recalls. “I ran down to my home office, where I keep a white board. Right away, I had the words, the style of print ads, and six stories in my head.” 

The campaign would be about “ingenuity with an emotional bent,” Thompson recalls. “It’s not about us, it’s about them. I drew a huge arrow to the ‘WE.’ I stayed up for 45 minutes to sketch out ads,” he says.

Thompson faced two big hurdles with bringing the “We Build” campaign to life: an upcoming meeting with long-time agency Two Rivers Marketing, and a looming budget cut. 

“Our agency came in for the meeting,” Thompson says. “They were doing one campaign a year, and they were always different. While the work was good, Miller’s brand image was all over the place — I wasn’t sure who we were.” 

Thompson recalls telling the agency leaders in the room, “I know this is not the norm for you, and I hate bringing my own cake to the birthday party,” as he went to the board and started writing. 

Thompson adds, “Our brand manager was looking at me like I was insane, and after I finished mapping out the ‘We Build’ campaign on that white board, the agency — of course — asked, ‘Shouldn’t we talk through this?’ I responded that I’ve talked it through — I’ve looked at the data, at our customers, etc., and this is the path we must blaze.” 

The second challenge — sharing the concept with the company’s president at the time, Mike Weller — seemed even more daunting given rumored marketing budget cuts. “We’d done some mockup ads with the agency, so I called Mike and said, ‘I want to show you an idea. I just need five minutes,’” Thompson says. “I brought six ads and started walking through idea of what ‘We Build’ is all about. I told Mike that we have to put ourselves at the end of the sentence rather than beginning. We need to celebrate the men and women of the welding industry.” 

Thompson remembers what happened next rather vividly. “He said, ‘Stop. You don’t have to say anything else. Whatever you do, don’t stop what you’re doing. We’ll figure the budget out,’” Thompson says.

As the “We Build” campaign launched, one of the keys to its initial success was a full rebuild of the Miller website “to a fully operational CRM system,” Thompson says. 

“Our digital marketing director, Sue Feldkamp, and her team set us up from going to the leading manufacturer website to one that is experiencing meteoric growth in visits — with more than 11 million visitors per year, more than 800,000 unique visitors each month,” Thompson says. “Plus, our social media platforms — Facebook and Instagram, our YouTube channel, and LinkedIn — have hundreds of thousands of active users that share our message past our initial reach. We’re retargeting effectively through our web page for those who may be searching for a product solution. Full use of our CRM systems allows us to not only to connect with sales opportunities, but to stay in constant connection with our end users in a way our industry hadn’t seen before. The insights we use through our proprietary tool and other research helped us completely change our approach to tradeshow and roadshow marketing.”

We Build campaign video
From featuring projects as massive as the Freedom Tower (above)
to welders making a living out of their own homes, the “We Build” campaign
builds a community around the Miller brand.

Video Becomes Central to Success

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the multimedia, multichannel success of the “We Build” campaign is how powerful online video content has become for the Miller/ITW Welding team.

“Video is a key component of ‘We Build’ — and, really, any marketing effort we make,” Thompson says. “Though our industry is still a major consumer of print advertising and still influenced by it, getting information in welding is turning more digital, especially being influenced through video by messaging or learning.”

Thompson says the nature of the work is a key to this. “Welding is a very visual job,” he says. “Welders learn from each other and their projects. Miller gives them new ideas and avenues through products that address pain points and solve problems in welding through our website — and especially through our very active YouTube channel. We also help promote that through project sharing amongst our customers through ‘We Build.’ The campaign has been successful to the point that welders can pick a particular welder’s project they like and that welder then becomes the next feature in the campaign. At the same time, there has to be a unifying message. Welders see themselves as a unique family — one that we understand, and we put them first in our considerations.”

Thompson shares examples of some recent campaign successes to show how “We Build” is not only creating a community around the Miller brand, but also converting major sales successes.

“In 2017, we added another wrinkle: the hashtag ‘#WHYIWELD,’” he says. “The campaign allowed welders to create project galleries to show what they do and talk about how they do it, with a chance to win a spot in a ‘We Build’ ad. Not everyone is a welder for NASCAR or on the Freedom Tower, but they relate well to each other no matter the job. It allows welders to talk about why they do it, and show us how they do it.” 

The company garnered “tens of thousands of entries,” according to Thompson, and consumers picked the winner: a welder from Long Island, N.Y., who works out of his garage on smaller projects. “He was featured in a print ad and video entitled ‘We Build Imagination,’” Thompson says. “Overall, the #WHYIWELD campaign blew away all of our KPIs (key performance indicators) by better than 10-15 percent.”

 Another campaign — this one from 2016 and product specific — also earns mention from Thompson.

“We measure conversion through these campaigns,” he says. “For instance, when we launched the Multimatic® 215 multiprocess welder, we took to our outlets with a completely different kind of video. Let’s promote it in the ‘We Build’ form, but let’s make this Sherman tank look like a Porsche. Let’s make this welder look like a luxury car in a one-minute video.”

The company debuted the video during the holiday season in 2016, including a special rebate and bonus. “Our first step in judging performance is usually taking a look at video views and shares, but with this promotion, the sales performance change was immediate,” Thompson says. “Prior to the video, we were selling an average amount units per day. After the video hit, that number doubled immediately. We had our customers salivating over the product with this video that didn’t look like anything else we’d done. It became our most viewed video ever, with 430,000 views in the first month.”

Staying the Course

Though Thompson works in the welding market today, he says the three biggest issues he faces as a marketer are no different than those he’s faced elsewhere.

“First, making sure that each effort is fully integrated into the fabric of our messaging platforms and serves the brand in a way that creates real differentiation — not because it seems cool at the time or pleases a few internal audience members who ‘think’ they know better,” Thompson says. “Let the fact-based audience insights stay front and center, and you help your strategy come alive.” 

Second, Thompson says, “Make sure that if you do deploy an initiative, you can measure its effectiveness,” before shifting to the third issue he’s consistently addressing. 

“Familiarity can breed contempt,” Thompson says. “If you are successful with a long-term, integrated campaign, be careful of the internal siren songs that would have you change because they may be bored with it. Could you imagine if Visa did that with ‘It’s Everywhere You Want to Be,’ or Nike did that with ‘Just Do It.’ It takes tremendous discipline — and sometimes courage — to stay the course with proven strategies and expressions in the face of that.”

Knowing the trouble spots and warning signs about possible pitfalls comes with experience. Thompson says the ideation and execution of the “We Build” campaign reminds him of his time working on the Teflon brand at DuPont.

“There were some initial similar data and insights I had seen that our team could leverage in creating our path forward,” Thompson says. “What was different was we had much of our digital infrastructure in place to do so, unlike the situation we were in at ITW/Miller. In many ways, we were starting with far fewer budget resources than at DuPont. At times, we joked that we found ourselves in an Apollo 13 situation because we had to make the best with the little we had around us. Some investments came, and others were cut due to situations outside of control, so we had to make $1 look like $3 with our efforts.”

ITW Welding’s agency — yes, it’s still Des Moines, Iowa-based Two Rivers Marketing, even after that first meeting — has been crucial to those efforts. “I give a lot of credit to Amy Hutchins, Brad Olsen — and especially Drew Jones and later Tony Lieb, their two key creative directors there,” Thompson says. “I still remember the campaign planning session in fall 2012 with them. I’m sure it was a bit of shock. I applaud both their patience with me and their embracing of the campaign and adding their creativity to make this campaign come to life the way it did and help it make it as effective as it is.”

Thompson celebrates his team’s success — and says external recognition was the “ultimate nod” to the group’s efforts in the “We Build” campaign.

“Winning of the 2015 North American EFFIE Award for marketing effectiveness in the agriculture/construction/building category — a first for ITW Welding, as well as ITW overall — and Silver American Marketing Award for Integrated National Campaign was fantastic recognition for us,” he says.   

Rich Thompson Profile