By Harley Rolfe
The dilemma is that a commodity business like self-storage doesn't breed "hard-nosed" marketers. Yet the day may arrive when marketing is a necessary discipline in the successful operation of a storage facility. Without the pressure of performing under fire and the promise of a career payoff for the victors, few people brought up in the self-storage industry have marketing credentials, and people who do know something about marketing are not likely to be well-grounded in the industry. Both are blind to each other's specialties. So how do we engineer an amalgam between the two?
The real question is whether the self-storage operator will go to the marketing information source or the source will go to the operator. Since the need is generated within the operator, I believe he must search out the marketing source.
A Change in Scale or a Change in Kind?
In the same way that our government sponsors a War College to teach the practice of armed conflict, there is also a study of how to prosecute one's business in the face of competitive conflicts. But a number of storage operators don't buy the idea that there's very much to marketing. They risk trying to conduct their business in a new competitive environment as if nothing significant has changed. Yet, we know that when all the operators in a commodity market are so oriented, nasty price wars result. We talked about those dynamics a couple of columns ago.
For most people, self-storage has been a pretty benign business, and the addition of competition doesn't seem like it will change things all that much. What goes unrecognized is that when a competitive squeeze arrives, the character of the market (behavior of sellers and buyers) changes. So how can a self-storage operator determine what the real marketing McCoy is? Let's discuss the three sources of marketing information:
1. Academia: The business schools conduct a dual program. There is the teaching role, ministering to the needs of business students in learning the marketing process as one of the major functions--and costs--of business. The other is the broader search for methods that generally make the marketing process more efficient. For instance, 50 percent of the price of a product at retail goes towards marketing. (That's somewhat misleading because marketing includes distribution and transportation costs, plus the promotion expenses you would normally expect.) It relates to all those things that are post-manufacturing.
The current marketing darling--the Internet--makes those academic guys drool as they try to divine what role it can play in improving efficiency. These institutions are often instrumental in proposing suitable legislation to improve the operation of markets. Other movements that get their attention are the move toward "big box" retailing (Home Depot), supermarket evolution (Super Wal-Mart), mall retailing, etc., and the issues involved in maintaining and improving market efficiency--a major component of which is the encouragement and preservation of competition.
2. Professional or career marketing: This is the job of the marketing practitioner. He usually has formal training (see above) in the marketing process with specific courses in the mechanics of marketing (product planning, market strategies, market/sales research, new-product introduction, assessment of markets, (such as competitive conditions, demographics etc.), media selection, sales channel determination and the like.] These people have a solid exposure to the academic side, but also develop a good dose of the practical or grimy side of active market experience. The job of the professional marketer is to sell stuff for his employer--usually in competitive circumstances. I count myself in this category.
Let's stop a minute. Notice that the objectives of the academic folks and practitioners are contrary. While the first group is looking out for what is best for society or the public, the next group's mission may be at odds with the general good. What is good for any group may not always be good for each individual. Professional marketers are mainly preoccupied with the welfare of an individual supplier. The academic side loves competition as a means to foster the best interests of society. The practicing marketer only has eyes for his employer or client. He helps them thrive in whatever market situation they find themselves to defy the ravages of wide-open competition.
3. Anecdotal: Also less respectfully called "gadget" or "whiz-bang," this is marketing information that is mainly bright ideas. "Joe tried this. It worked for him. It will work for you, too." It tends to be somewhat sensational rather than a studied evaluation of what and how to apply a proper set of business techniques, but it is often quite interesting. At the moment, the only self-storage-specific material in this category is a book by Fred Gleek, entitled Secrets of Self-Storage Marketing Success--Revealed! In addition to the book, Mr. Gleek publishes a regular self-storage marketing newsletter and has conducted a number of seminars. He is the only person providing this type material for the self-storage owner.
Now the question becomes, "Which do I need and why?" Here my bias shows. It's a matter of how you define your ownership/manager role. I suggest that the most intimate, proprietary aspect of your (or any) business is how you succeed in a competitive market. Nothing can be as vital as how you are besting your rivals. The "how" of success in a competitive market is the "family jewels." To be dependent on others for those basics is perilous.
I wrote my book and do these columns to try to fill in the blanks. Frankly, most people that have reviewed the book say it is too much to ask an operator to absorb. I'm puzzled. How people with thousands or millions of dollars at stake can seriously say that the material is "too much" when their choice is to be subjected to tough price competition and, perhaps, lowered facility valuation, baffles me.
By knowing the principles underlying effective marketing, you can identify the predictors of market success and compose or choose approaches that have an excellent chance of fruition. For consistent marketing success, you need to know why programs work. What are the driving principles that make them go. Knowing those principles allows you to make discerning choices from among often-quixotic options and recommendations.
Who's the Coach?
The analogy I often use cites the role of a coach vs. the players on his team. The coach knows the rules, can analyze the opposition, knows the other coaches' tendencies, knows the strengths and weakness of the various players on both sides, and has knowledge and an approach to the game he has honed over the years. He can develop a game plan and show his team how to get the job done. His players do none of those things. They study the game plan as designed by the coach, practice the drills necessary to fully use the plan, then, on game day, execute. If things don't go right, they don't adjust the plan, the coach does. So the question for you is: Are you the coach or a player? If the latter, then who's the coach?
Missed some previous issues? Check the web at www.hardnosed.com.
Harley Rolfe is a semi-retired marketing specialist whose career includes executive-level marketing positions with General Electric and AT&T. He also owned lodging and office facilities for more than 20 years. Mr. Rolfe holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Wabash College and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Indiana. He can be reached at his home in Nampa, Idaho, at (208) 463-9039. Further information can also be found in Mr. Harley's book, Hard-Nosed Marketing for Self-Storage.