In my most recent post about marketing for manufacturing companies, I argued that one of the most important marketing functions is deciding what to make. Yesterday, as I was doing some research for my new book, I came across a couple of companies that are in good shape precisely because of what they make – as opposed to how they make it.
The first is American Lawn Mower of Shelbyville, Indiana. The company makes reel-style lawn mowers – the type where the wheels are directly linked to the blades so that they cut the grass as you push them in front of you. (The very fact that I feel the need to explain this shows what a small niche we’re talking about.)
Prior to World War II, there were about 50 companies in Indiana alone in the non-powered reel lawn mower business, but by the mid-1980’s power mowers came to dominate the market. The management at American Lawn Mower toughed it out, however, and proved through vigorous sales efforts that a market for their products still existed. Today, the company dominates that market as the only American maker of reel mowers.
The design hasn’t really changed much since the company was founded in 1895. What’s changed is the way the mowers are marketed.
How could a reel mower be more desirable than the powered variety? For starters, it’s not really about cutting grass. It’s about getting exercise! Furthermore, reel mowers are the ideal eco-friendly machine. They don’t use fuel, either directly or indirectly (in the case of electric lawn mowers). They don’t generate smog and they have a zero carbon footprint.
While these arguments may sound a bit silly, they sustain a $40 million market, where American Lawn Mower has the lion’s share.
Another contrarian is writer/consultant David Allen of the David Allen Company. At a time when many business people are spending hundreds of dollars to out-do one another with the latest electronic gadget, Allen is making a fortune teaching people how to get things done using paper sticky notes. (In all fairness, this is a gross over-simplification of Allen’s elegant system. It makes use of plenty of computer-related techniques, but paper plays an important role).
The bottom line: When profits are down, it’s natural to look at “the numbers” to wring just a little bit more efficiency out of the manufacturing process. But sometimes, what’s needed is a little creative thinking about new niches for tried-and-true products that already exist.