Regardless of what the demise of the dot-coms might suggest, in today's world business and the Internet are inextricably linked. In the U.S. alone, more than 150 million people have access to the Internet, and do everything from purchase airline tickets and order pizza to research family history and vacation destinations. Simply put, the Internet is big business.
Coatings manufacturers are well aware of this reality and are working to make their Internet presence an impressive adjunct to their traditional business methods. "In our opinion, the Internet is the perfect medium for marketing our company and products," said James McCadden, vice president of sales, U.S. Coatings Company.
The Internet is one of the best marketing tools available, according to Mark Thomas, manager of product marketing for Tnemec Company, Inc. "The Internet is not just another marketing tool," he said. "Its ability to instantly communicate information to customers and provide useful tools for them is unmatched by other media."
Brian Marks, director of marketing at Rhino Linings, USA, Inc., agreed, and believes that maintaining an Internet presence is necessary for success. "We consider our web page to be a very important part of our business," he said. "It gives a person an ability in real-time to get information that they would normally have to send away for."
It's All About Information
Simply having a web site, however, does not guarantee an increase in brand recognition and sales. "A successful web site needs to be clear, concise and easy to navigate," said Scott Falivene, a freelance web page and graphic designer. "It has to offer something to the customer and respond to the needs of the consumer."
Coatings industry consensus holds that information is key to successful sites. "The primary mission of our web site," said Eileen McComb, director of corporate communications at Benjamin Moore, "is to be the number one site for information on paint and paint related products. It's our voice to the world and our consumers 24-7."
Ms. McComb added that Benjamin Moore's recently revamped web site makes a point of addressing its information towards the company's major end-user groups-the DIYer, the professional painter, architects, designers and industrial maintenance professionals.
Among the information listed at www.benjaminmoore.com are a dealer locator, MSDSs and a section called "My Project Notebook," designed to help DIYers get started on their painting endeavors. "We're trying to make customers understand that the brand is there to help support them in any paint related activity," said Ms. McComb.
Duron's web site also focuses on providing information and services. "From a philosophical standpoint, Duron has taken a specific tack with regard to the Internet, and that is the delivery of information and services that makes it easier for customers to shop in our stores and buy our products," said Gary Saiter, director of marketing and e-commerce at Duron. "It's an integrated philosophy with our 250 stores."
Much like at Benjamin Moore, Duron's web site (www.duron.com), delivers basic services such as MSDSs and targets architects, designers, consumers, painting contractors and commercial and industrial maintenance professionals. "There are specific parts of the web site designed to appeal to each customer type," said Mr. Saiter.
Another major advantage of using the Internet to disseminate information is speed. A web site allows for an incredible amount of information to be released to customers almost instantly.
"What used to take months to get out to the field in print form can now be done in literally hours," said Mr. McCadden. "The chemical coating industry continues to undergo rapid changes in resin technology, VOC regulations, safety standards and waste disposal regulations. The Internet, via our web site, www.uscoatings.com, is a fantastic way of conveying these changes to customers in a very timely manner."
With the ability to spread information to an infinite number of people, some coatings companies may be concerned as to just how much information should be released.
"When we were developing the web site, we debated the issue of how much information to put on," said Mr. McCadden. "One camp felt that we may be giving too much information, allowing our competitors to see too much. The other camp felt we should put as much out there as possible knowing we can compete head-to-head in the marketplace. We, as a company, decided the correct stance was to make the site as easy to work with as possible. We have taken the philosophy of giving the customer what he wants, when he wants it and where he wants it."
How does one know what a customer wants? Maintaining an e-presence provides coatings makers with a means to interact with customers not just on a group level through the web page, but on a personal level as well. Web marketing truly is a two-way street.
"We strove to create a user-friendly site that customers can access for up-to-date information on Tnemec products," said Mr. Thomas. "But it is also an excellent way for customers to communicate with Tnemec's various departments and its representatives for advice on product and system recommendations."
Benjamin Moore's web site also takes advantage of customer interaction. "We maintain an e-mail loop so people can ask questions. Our goal is to answer all inquiries within 24 hours," said Ms McComb.
When the Internet was still in its early stages, many companies hopped on the bandwagon and launched web sites but didn't really know what to do with them. Many web sites had flashy bells and whistles, but contained little actual information and functionality. After the dot-com explosion and subsequent fizzle, many companies have retooled their web sites so that they offer their customers a valuable information tool with a variety of services, in a format that is easy to use. E-epoxy.com, an e-business site, offers its customers both technical information and the opportunity to purchase products online. The site contains technical info, in terms of product specifications and MSDS, that is downloadable from the web site.
"The key to our web site is ease of navigation," said John Everett, global leader, e-epoxy.com. Other features of the site include industry news covering pricing information, new products and commercial developments. The site also has a monthly e-newsletter that is sent out to people who have signed up for it. It contains information for the epoxy buying and technical community.
One of the site's unique features is that existing and potential customers can access products and prices without registering beforehand.
"You wouldn't buy a book from Amazon if you couldn't see the price, why should we be any different," asked Mr. Everett. "We have taken away the smoke and mirrors." E-epoxy.com is able to do this because it sells recognized, standard grades not highly specialized materials.
Custom Customer Service
One of the main functions of coatings suppliers' web sites is to provide customer service and technical support.
The coatings and colorants business unit of Degussa AG is now meeting this need with a comprehensive service site. At www.coatingscolorants.de and www.coatingscolor-ants.com customers can access information in six languages, including Mandarin Chinese.
The core attraction of the web site is its large database, according to company executives. It includes information on the company's broad product portfolio, and technical data sheets and makes these available in a user-friendly format. The site also offers users regional news and contacts, download offers and a comprehensive online library.
In addition, Degussa's specialty chemicals company is combining its extensive activities with specialty products for colorants and coatings as well as adhesives and sealants in its "Smart Formulating" web portal, www.smart-formulating.de or www.smart-formulat-ing.com. It provides industry-specific access and a professional information forum for seven different Degussa business units.
Solutia has also taken the concept of customer service a step further with its new additives web site, www.solutia-additives.com. It is designed to help its coating customers in North America solve a broad range of product formulation problems. Its "Problem Solver" feature allows customers to find solutions for specific formulation issues. Web site users can search for information by the application benefit required, coating system or resin chemistry. This feature is supported by an extensive database that includes information on more than 40 application benefits, 20 different resin chemistries and four different types of coating systems.
"That's the philosophy behind our web site, providing solutions for our customers," said Frank Jakse, marketing specialist in Solutia's resins and additives business unit.
Air Products Polymers, L.P.'s new emulsions web site, www.airproducts.com/polymers, offers formulating solutions with its interactive product specifier.
"We have developed an interactive product specifier that allows customers to enter under a foam application (such as CO2 blown flexible slab foam using polyether polyols) and select a recommended additive package or modify the package to meet a specific application need (such as delayed reactivity)," said Patrick F. Loughlin, global marketing manager for polyurethane chemicals.
Specific features added to the polyurethane web site include product information such as MSDS, technical data sheets, complete product listings and recent technical papers. Additional features offered are online ordering and online sample ordering.
"Using our online ordering features known as AP Direct, customers can access specific information pertaining to their account including pending orders and account history," added Mr. Loughlin. "The site is also designed to meet the needs of our global customers and offers customized areas for each region of the world."
Avecia has reported that its Internet-based additives selection tool (AST), launched by its pigments and additive division in Sept. 2001, is now attracting 500-600 visits each month. More than 500 paint and ink manufacturers registered at the site, www.avecia.com/ast.
To use the AST, users log in their application, solvent and pigment details and AST advises the optimum Solsperse hyperdispersant, together with a suggested starting dosage. The system also offers application guidelines and notes and options to order a product sample or request a technical visit.
"Avecia launched its additives selection tool last year in response to a need identified by its customers," said Andrew Grantham, additives marketing manager.
The AST offers 24 hour technical support and gives formulators online recommendation to match the best Solsperse product for their specific application. In the latest upgrade to the site, the AST homepage offers links to online technical literature and MSDS in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and English.
There are many advantages to offering customer service online. Companies can constantly update product and service information. It can also provide support in a variety of languages, which is essential in today's global marketplace. One of the most important benefits is the constant availability of services. A web site, unlike a brick and mortar company, is open 24 hours a day.
"From the customer's perspective, they can respond when it is convenient to them (during lunch, on the train, etc.) and also have 24-7 access to order status and history information-rather than having to fax or speak to someone's voice-mail," said Mr. Everett.
"The key advantage is that information is available 24 hours a day to all registered users," said Mr. Grantham of Avecia. "This has proved invaluable to many of our customers working across different time zones. They also know that the information is up-to-date which is important given the large number of new products introduced into the range every year."
Many companies pointed out that the web site was by no means a replacement for their existing customer support network. "We are just giving (our customers) another option to get their problem solved," said Mr. Jakse of Solutia. "We still have our full staff of technical service experts. The Internet is just one of the tools we have available."
Mr. Loughlin of Air Products stated that although the 24 hour accessibility of the web is appealing, online customer service should be used as an enhancement not a substitute for one-on-one interaction. "Online service also allows us to focus our valuable technical resources on assisting customers with more value added activities rather than processing requests for samples or literature," said Mr. Loughlin. "In cases where it is necessary to talk to a technical expert, this is also available."
As customers realize the benefits of having information online and users become more comfortable with using the sites, many companies have plans to branch out into new markets, offer e-commerce capabilities and expand their level of online service.
Degussa's recent web activities are only the beginning. "We have a real e-business vision and plan to serve our customers even better and faster through the Internet," said Thomas Hermann, head of coatings and colorants. "Specifically, we are planning an online order management option." After a pilot phase in America where approximately eight percent of the total sales are managed online, order management will be rolled out worldwide, he said.
"We aim to make our site as interactive as possible and be responsive to customers' requests for additional features," said Mr. Grantham of Avecia.
A key area for growth in the coatings business is Asia, and specifically China. It would come as no surprise that companies are now making their sites multi-lingual-including Chinese-to provide global customer service. Degussa's coatings and colorants web sites include Mandarin Chinese information and Ross Mixers has launched a new Chinese-language web site, www.mixers.com.cn, designed to assist Chinese-speaking process engineers, plant managers and entrepreneurs in the process industries.
Chemidex.com, a knowledge-based service provider, has plans to release a Latin American web site in 2003 and a site for the Asia-Pacific region is in the works for 2004.
E-epoxy.com has plans to enter the Chinese web marketplace as well. The company has plans to provide a valuable resource for this market-one where Mr. Everett says there is a lack of information.
"An area we are exploring at the moment is China; we are surveying e-attitude and e-capability," said Mr. Everett. "There is a vacuum for information in China and many are trading products over the Internet too. We started off in Western Europe and the U.S., and expanded globally with the exception of China and India. Due to the positive feedback within nine months of the launch it made sense to broaden the reach."
As customers become more proficient and comfortable with the Internet, it is likely that companies will continue to expand their web offerings.
Sometimes a web site allows for a connection to the customer from a communication standpoint that is in some ways better than human interaction at a distributor outlet, said Mr. Saiter of Duron. "It's one thing if a customer has an issue, problem or complaint to go to the store, but quite another to go to a higher level of the company. The Internet opens up that channel."
Few Sales-For Now?
The major purpose of all this communication is, of course, to sell more products. With that in mind, plus the fact that more and more business is done via the web every day, it's interesting to note that, for the most part, coatings companies do not sell their products over the Internet.
In some cases the reason why is quite simple, as it is with Rhino Linings. Rhino Linings' products are sold through a network of independent dealers, meaning that there is no set pricing for the company's list of products. "Our dealers set their own pricing according to their local market so there is no uniform pricing," said Mr. Marks. "That's why we don't sell on the web site."
Benjamin Moore's products are sold only at independent retailers, and the company remains committed to that market. "We don't see this as a transactional site because of the fulfillment and shipping issues," said Ms. McComb.
The company believes its distribution network is the best way to get customers what their projects require. "All the auxiliary materials you might need are at our dealer stores," said Ms. McComb. "We believe that the one-on-one conversation with a dealer is better than shipping paint online. There are issues about spillage, containment and added costs from shipping you don't want to pass on to the customer."
Ms. McComb did say that while she doesn't see the coatings industry's web presence becoming totally transactionally-based in the near future, she does believe that incorporation of a web-sales system is not out of the question. "We would move in that direction if our world demanded it," she said.
Some coatings companies are already starting to make moves in this direction. According to Mr. Saiter, Duron was the first major paint company in the U.S. to have an e-commerce capable web site. "Customers can order online and they have the choice to have it delivered or pick it up in the nearest store," he said.
He stressed though, that this is mostly done on a local level, as the costs involved in shipping coatings and related materials over large distances is prohibitive.
Still there are a few smaller companies, like epaintstore.com, that are starting to sell home improvement products, including paint, online. Mr. Saiter believes that this may force the larger paint companies to adopt a similar method. "I think in the next few years selling paint online will re-emerge, once people get a little more realistic about it. People need to understand that they are interfacing with a brick-and-mortar establishment enhanced by the Internet, not an Internet-only company."
In addition to www.duron.com, the company maintains another web site, www.paintersadvantage.com, designed specifically for the small professional painter. "The painters advantage program is something we designed to be specifically targeted to the residential repaint contractor," said Mr. Saiter. "It offers a whole array of service, for what is essentially the small entrepreneur, to help them with marketing materials, printing, taking credit cards, health insurance and a whole raft of other things." All of the services are all deliverable online, according to Mr. Saiter.
Color is key
Another issue that makes it difficult to sell paint online is color matching. With every potential customer possessing a different printer and monitor for their computer, the ability to provide an accurate portrayal of what a color will look like on a wall is practically impossible in the current technological climate. It is this uncertainty that leads many coatings companies to shy away from displaying their color palette online.
"We have very high expectations for color and color matching and the technology just isn't there yet," said Ms. McComb. "Our palette is not up on the web site because we don't want to disappoint the consumer with inaccuracy."
"With all deference to the fashion industry," she continued, "if you pick out a blue dress, whether its robins egg or a little more towards turquoise, it's not such a drastic thing. When you paint your house, it's a little more permanent. We don't want to set expectations and then have people go to the dealer and say, 'that isn't what I saw online.' The dealer is the way to go to ensure that the color is accurate."
Though its entire palette is not available online, Benjamin Moore does allow visitors to its web site to play around with color in a more general sense. Users can paint a virtual room with different color families to gain a general sense of what a room might look like.
"We have a color tool now that let's you focus on color a little bit, to play with a color family but not with specific colors," Ms. McComb said. "We are cognizant of the limitations of color technology online," she said. "Our hope is that we'll keep moving forward and hopefully help increase the color selection for users. It's a necessity." She said Benjamin Moore would like to install more enhanced technology by the end of the year that focuses on a wider variety of color.
Mr. Saiter of Duron agrees that color is a major issue online and said that while Duron does provide some color selection online, the company doesn't include the full palette. "We have still not made the decision to offer our entire color palette online, because we still have concerns from a technical standpoint," he said. "Printers can't print in consistent color and monitors can't show it."
Mr. Saiter does believe though, that as customers come to understand the current limitations of online color samples, they will embrace what's available until better technology comes along.
What It All Means
Whether or not it's economically sensible or even technologically feasible to sell paint and paint products online, from an information and communication standpoint, web marketing is an important a tool to the success of a coatings business.
"It's definitely a very important resource for us," said Mr. Marks of Rhino Linings. "It's probably the starting point for most consumers and potential dealers to get a good idea of who we are and what sort of business we run."
It's also interesting to note that most of the coatings companies that Coatings World spoke with all had similar ideas about the importance of web marketing and how to run a successful web site. Could that mean an e-business doctrine has formed for the coatings industry?
"If we all have the same ideas, it's a convergence," said Mr. Saiter. "It wasn't that way a few years ago."