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Interesting U.S. research on hardwood buying decisions

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WMC by Richard Lipman
Richard Lipman is president of the Wood Manufacturing Council. For more info email rlipman@wmc-cfb.ca
The Real American Hardwood Promotion Coalition was formed in 2019 to identify opportunities and challenges in promoting the American hardwood industry. Their initial work has focused on conducting and analyzing research that considered consumer attitudes towards the purchase and use of American hardwood products, as well as those of imitation products that compete for their market share. They recently held information sessions and I was keen to hear what they generally have learned - some interesting things from various potential customers, which will help them communicate their message.
The coalition gathered insights from various research methods and from numerous target audiences (including architects, contractors, home renovators, designers, millennials and GenXers) to assess perceptions of hardwood attributes as well as those of competitive products and to understand, which are the most influential in driving consumer decisions. These research results will form the foundation of a new brand identity for the American hardwood industry. Domestic consumers are influenced by competitors positioning their products as better than hardwoods. The hardwood industry has become the target of advocacy organizations, so with the formation of the coalition, their industry is poised to face these challenges head-on.
The current challenges faced by the hardwood industry include the rise of competing products; particularly substitute products, which has resulted in shrinking domestic hardwood markets. They note a spread of disinformation. Faux wood producers and environmental activists have negatively impacted consumer perception of the quality, value and sustainability of hardwood products. The coalition is developing marketing strategies designed to take back hardwoods share of the domestic market. They will work to increase domestic markets and sales by raising awareness of the benefits of real hardwoods, enhancing consumer/prosumer perception of hardwoods’ value and improving industry stability/profitability. The coalition noted that “these are audacious goals that will not be accomplished overnight,” so this is the start of a multi-year effort. To be successful it is imperative that research sets the stage.  
The industry has done research before. Previous efforts in 2017 and 2011 surveyed thousands of consumers/prosumers, who said hardwood is durable, attractive, long lasting, and ads value and beauty to their homes. But did their industry listen? They focused their previous marketing messages around carbon neutrality and sustainability.
The 2020 research confirms previous research results. The coalition noted that as long as industry listens, the path forward will be exciting and will be successful long-term.  The next step is to develop the brand, logo and marketing playbook, to be revealed soon. By focusing on research results showing how consumers come to decisions about the products they purchase, the opportunity for the industry to connect with them becomes clearer.
The 2020 research did identify some new insights that previously were missing. They looked closely at what homework prospective purchasers undertake and what influences their designing and buying decisions. Where are customers turning to for their information? Customers are influenced by home renovation shows on HGTV or similar networks. They look at Pinterest and Houzz for ideas, read renovation magazines and visit kitchen and bath stores. Home décor or social media sites are additional parts of the journey that boost a client’s design savvy.
It is important to note how younger renovators depend on online resources - no surprise. But what was astounding was the percentage of people who visited big box and home improvement stores, like Loews and Home Depot - essentially 80 per cent or more in all age groups. They go to look, touch, learn and ultimately be influenced to begin their purchasing. This was the most common source of inspiration and information. As this was being learned, hardwood industry volunteers visited these stores to observe hardwoods vs. competitive products, like tile and carpeting. They noted the need to have more space devoted to hardwoods and that industry can be much better represented throughout the stores. There are hardwood boards (red oak, poplar), flooring, cabinets, moldings and millwork, but there is not strong messaging about why to purchase those over other products.  
Industry has always been proud of, and has placed a lot of emphasis on hardwood being the best green product, based on science. However, while consumers value the concepts of sustainability, renewability and environmentally friendly, their purchase decisions more often comes down to sheer dollars and cents. The coalition was surprised to learn that an important audience, like millennials, rank environmentally- friendly materials low in their decision-making process. Industry needs to listen to the research and respect that focus on practical considerations like cost and overall budget restrictions. By engaging this key audience with details on the authentic beauty of hardwood and the lasting value it brings to their homes, the materials will promote the qualities that matter most to them. At the same time, prosumers told us one of their clients’ main concerns is for their family to have a healthy product in their home. This is an interesting bridge from sustainability-related product attributes to a more consumer-relevant concern. The coalition noted that the concept of the healthy home differentiates hardwoods from the competition, as only they possess the natural product attributes that help satisfy the needs for a safe and healthy home. This interesting benefit allows the coalition to take advantage of environmentally friendly benefits in a way that is more immediately relevant to consumers - the need to care for their families. The healthy home can be a game changer and it is an area they intend to spend more time and attention on.  
Creating an emotional connection is so important to the success of the marketing and communications strategy. If everyone wants the look of real hardwoods, it is important to guide them from wanting the look into a buying the products and to minimize their consideration of other products. The coalition acknowledged that current hardwood marketing highlights product attributes and the differences with competitive products, which allows opportunities for purchasers to consider a much wider variety of alternatives.
Why is creating this emotional connection so important? When consumers first start to consider making a purchase, they do so from a much more emotional and intangible perspective. They think about look and feel or how it fits with their personality. They consider colors and textures of the finished product, without thinking much about the actual product that creates that look. The coalition aims to meet consumers at their point of inspiration, when they are first considering their project and their vision for the end result. This ensures hardwood is part of the consideration set early on.
Industry needs to get the right message to consumers at the right time. To tell the story, the coalition will need retail partnerships and must leverage the audience and insights of social media influencers. They need to create opportunities for consumers to visualize, experience and aspire to their naturally authentic, healthy hardwood home. The coalition must challenge the misperceptions and objections around hardwoods and equip industry and retailers to sell a wide portfolio of hardwood products.     
There is good news in the findings – there are high ratings for hardwoods. The coalition’s research subjects rank hardwood high as an attractive product that provides warmth and the right looks to homes.  Hardwood products are durable and lifetime lasting and healthy for your home. The fact that everyone loves hardwood gives the coalition the opportunity to engage consumers early in the decision-making process and steer them to choose hardwoods over other products. Unfortunately, their weakest attribute is the perception of value for money.
Material quality is still a factor, but initial cost becomes most important to many consumers, being the biggest factor decision maker in influencing purchasers’ final decisions and substitute products play an important part in that decision. There is a common misconception with faux wood that close enough is good enough, so it is a better value than real American hardwood products. Since fake hardwood looks so real, it’s hard to justify real hardwood is the best value. Consumers want the look of hardwood but they accept alternatives.   
It appears from the research that consumers are waiting for hardwoods to engage and educate them in a manner that influences their purchasing decisions. Sometimes you just have to ask the right questions and more importantly, pay attention to answers.

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