If You’re Marketing in the DIY Sector, You May Need to Check Your Ethics

Posted on 4/2/2019 10:07:15 AM By Ujjval Vyas

Marketing products for the DIY residential and building construction sector poses interesting ethical questions for manufacturers of materials and systems, especially when it involves science-based messages.  This may seem counterintuitive—after all, science-based claims should be self-explanatory, so where do ethics come in? But on closer examination, it becomes clearer why marketing to the DIY consumer calls formore focused attention from members of the adhesives and sealants industry.

Unlike commercial markets, where manufacturers are selling their products to sophisticated buyers, in the DIY sector buyers possess almost no relevant scientific knowledge.  In fact, the buyer in the DIY market for any product based in chemistry or science is a babe in the woods. 

Every time I go into a big-box home improvement retailer, I am always struck by how much I depend on smart sales people to help me separate the wheat from the chaff.  Should I get that fancy new “green” paint or the amazing new wheatboard cabinets to put in my kitchen?  Luckily, a savvy and informed sales person can level with me and let me know that the paint will smudge at the slightest touch and the wheatboard will suck up moisture like a wick.  But not all buyers know that they need to question the functionality and value of products beyond their perception-based claims, and not all salespeople are knowledgeable enough or willing to stick their necks out to protect the consumer.

The homemaker, the weekend home improvement warrior, or even the local contractor who comes to the big-box DIY retailer is likely ignorant of underlying product chemistry or the way in which that chemistry affectsfunctional attributes or interacts with other product sets.  Because buyers’ lack of technical knowledge puts them at a disadvantage,marketing to them becomes an ethical decision for manufacturers.

In many industries it is not only acceptable but encouraged to prey on the ignorance of the buyer.  The dietary supplement, homeopathy, investment brokerage, and wellness industries count on the consumers of their products to be easily fooled.  GNC and Goop are just two examples of direct-to-consumer players that are more than happy to entice their customers with all kinds of pseudoscientific assertions.  As a more mainstream example, I recently purchased some ibuprofen and to my surprise the packaging included an irrelevant claim that it was gluten free.

Unlike these sellers, manufacturers in the adhesives and sealants industry live in the world of chemistry and science.  Competition in the industry is based on research and development related to scientific innovation.  Improved functionality, decreased costs, increased value per unit, or disruptive new solutions are all at the core of the industry’s existence.  Competitors keep other market players honest and are motivated to make sure that commercial buyers are aware of meaningful differentiators. 

In general, the highly competitive environment doesn’t allow marketing misrepresentation or omissions to become the primary basis for a sustainable business or marketing strategy.  But this all changes when an industry based in scientific clarity and innovation is marketing to buyers who are uninformed and easily fooled.  If science doesn’t matter, companies no longer have the proper context for keepingtheir competitors honest about their marketing claims or functionality.  This creates an ethical conundrum: do we pander to the uninformed consumer, or do we maintain our rigor at the risk of losing business?

Recognizing this problem is crucial to making sure that marketing, research and development, and business strategy are aligned if products are being sold in the DIY sector.  Educating buyers and presenting them with the kind of information that helps them make informed judgments about what to buy and why is not only the ethical thing to do, it can also be the core of becoming trusted brands for preferential purchasing. 

In commercial markets, the demand by architects that manufacturers produce low- or zero-VOC products, eliminate plasticizers, or pay for Environmental Product Declarations poses real challenges for manufacturers.  These demands cause the supply to be driven by perception alone without regard to actual value.  Once a small segment of the market can generate disproportionate returns based on pursuing and abetting such perception-based demand, the whole market sector is forced to service that perception in order to stay competitive.  As a result, research and development abandons value-based innovation in favor of servicing these perception-based demands.

In the DIY sector, too, many buyers clamor for options, attributes, or information that is irrelevant or even anti-scientific.  When faced with such temptations, it is easy to follow the maxim that the customer is king and allow marketing and even product development to service this misguided demand.Then it becomes all marketing on all sides at all times.When a science-based industry dealing in innovative solutions becomes purveyors of “lifestyle” products created to service passing fancies, it risks distancing itself from its core values.

Each science-based company must decide how to wrestle with this problem. In the DIY sector especially, itis worth considering what type of thinking rules in the marketing department,especially when the marketers don’t have science backgrounds.If the question is “How do we promote our products for the DIY market?” the answer should consider the ethical commitment of the company to protect their most vulnerable customers.

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