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Jessica: Hi, this is Jessica with Build Green Live Green and I’m excited to welcome Amy Gath, the VP of Marketing and Strategy for Formica to do our podcast today.

Amy Gath: Hey, thanks for having me Jessica! This is great.

Jessica: I’m so excited I got to meet you down in Florida earlier this year at the Material Bank sales kickoff was great to kind of share ideas and hear from you and you’ve got some great insights and you certainly changed my perspective on Formica as a company because I just had some kind of preconceived notions about you know it being strictly a high pressure laminate or HPL company and you guys have really branched out since then. Can you talk about some of your newer product categories and how those came to be?

Amy Gath: We absolutely have and I will say Formica turns 110 years old this year and certainly our history is high pressure laminate but back in 2019 we were acquired by a company called Broadview Holding out of Europe. And what the Broadview family has brought to us is a whole range of new products. One of them is the brand Fenix which is an acrylic based surfacing technology. It’s Italian, soft touch. It is really amazing. We’ve also gotten paired up with Trespa. Which is an exteriors company and I think folks know it from the large panel geometric exteriors as well as they have a planks exterior product and then of course it’s brought us more Italian design with another laminate company Arpa. So it’s been fun to have this kind of broader family of surfaces to bring to the North American market.

Jessica: Yes, I’m familiar with Trespa. I think they are like lab tops?

Amy Gath: That’s correct.

Jessica: Phenolic, yeah?

Amy Gath: Yep, yep.

Jessica: Alright. Yeah, so it’s kind of like they compete to some degree on the interior space with our PaperStone product. But you know just kind of super durable. Well, that’s fun because that kind of takes you into a new challenge if you’ve been in the HPL world and you bring all these new brands in and, of course, CaraGreen we have 15 different brands that go from you know acoustic, solid surface, phenolic composites. recycled glass. So now I’m kind of used to that but a lot of manufacturers have one product category. So what were your challenges on the marketing side when all these new products come into the fold? What did you have to change to kind of to to address those or adapt your marketing strategy to be able to include all of those new categories?

Amy Gath: I think it was a couple things first. It was really understanding where each product fits with the customer base and having a really tight positioning and ah and a good kind of insight based understanding of who the customer is for each product was really the the key piece. And then making sure that they didn’t overlap. To some extent you don’t want them to to compete with each other, I don’t want to cannibalize myself. So. Key piece to that was just around insights and then from there really understanding kind of the right channel. As an example, in Europe Fenix is very much a residential product and so for Formica, which for the past at least 50 years, maybe not in our in our origins, but for the past fifty years has been more of a commercial focused product. This has been exciting because Fenix has really allowed us to get back into the residential market and talk to a whole new set of consumers. So you know the challenges have been around that are we tight in positioning? Do we understand the channels where they play? And then of course with exteriors, that’s an entirely new set of rules so learning that category and learning that set of customers as well has been a good challenge for us and I think it makes us better marketers. One, we learn how to learn all these things and two, it really challenges us to be kind of tight and concise about each of our brands.

Jessica: So let me ask you this because I feel like I address this often in you know my role at CaraGreen, is when you talk about your customer I feel like we sell to one group of people and we market to another group of people. And you feel that same way that you know, in our case we market to architects and designers because we want them to specify us on the commercial side and then we end up selling to the installers. And do you have that challenge too because when you say customers, I’m thinking to myself “Well are they marketing to end consumers, are they marketing to A and D and end consumers? And how does that challenge your marketing efforts?

Amy Gath: Absolutely. We very much face that. So we do market to both architects and designers who specify on the commercial side but we also do some marketing to installers and fabricators and of course we sell to distributors. So it is a challenge and I think the challenge is to really think about and allocate the dollars so that everybody is getting what they need. On the residential side, again, we market to the homeowner but we sell to the kitchen and bath dealer or to the distributor who sells to the kitchen and bath dealer. So again, how do we allocate the dollars? How do we tell the story too so that kind of that marketing is consistent and I think that’s a really big deal on the residential side. Making sure that the story that we’re telling those homeowners those end users is the same story that kitchen and bath dealers are telling them or that distributors are telling their kitchen and bath dealers. And so part of that too is how do we spend our money and how do we allocate the time of our sales team.

Jessica: Well, yeah, and that was actually gonna be my next question about about marketing. So when when Covid happened, whether it’s still happening or not is is a debate I guess, but when that happened and everything shut down there were a lot of strains put on sales and marketing, obviously. But how did your marketing budget have to shift right? I know how ours did internally right? The things that we used to do and we weren’t able to do anymore, we had to kind of reallocate those dollars. So what shifts happened for you guys at that time and which were successful, which were not, and how has it changed your marketing strategy today?

Amy Gath: Absolutely. I you know what I think there are some real silver linings coming out of the pandemic and one of them was it really forced us to rethink how we’re reaching our customers, our consumers and you know try some things that we might not have tried otherwise. I think an example would be certainly trade shows. There were no trade shows really for 2 years so for us those dollars then became reallocated to digital things to reach people at home and so we reallocated to digital selling tools. We did a fully virtual launch where we did almost 1000 people party online with samples and snacks and box openings. But it was something we never would have tried had we not been forced to. We still want to do this launch. We know it’s still important. But we can’t have a trade show and we can’t have live events. So what do we do and really coming out of that I think we learned digitally what works for us and I think we are much more confident in our digital platform investments because we know this is where our consumer is and this is what has been effective. And we also have a better sense of kind of how to monitor the analytics. What are the what are the KPIs that really matter? So that is truly a silver lining and it’s been kind of fun and you know some of the dollars have gone back. We’re going to go back to NeoCon this summer and exhibit again there but other dollars you know we’ve not taken fully back to some of those tactics that we pursued pre pandemic.

Jessica: And so we had a similar experience kind of on the sales side of things. You know, all of a sudden we had invested in in these online platforms similarly and some of them were ending up driving our pipeline to an extent I had not expected or or seen before. I didn’t realize exactly how limiting you know in-person interaction can be in terms of the time commitment and the financial commitment required to generate a project lead. That project lead generation now can be done virtually and we’ve had success with with Material Bank and you know a couple other platforms that have brought us those, kind of found these projects digitally that I don’t, we didn’t have a way to get them, to extract them online.

Amy Gath: I think that’s a really good point and I think you know one of the benefits of some of these digital tools has been we now have data that we didn’t have before and so there is this kind of better understanding of what’s working, what’s not working and where people are specifying or buying. And so you know that is a huge benefit of this switch.

Jessica: I agree. And we touched on this briefly I think when we were in Florida, but I never get to ask you I just kind of stated it on behalf of us because I know I use the data analytics that I’m getting from these platforms to make decisions about what we’re going to stock and buy and what’s trending and what’s popular. Do you do that same thing now that you have all this data that you can look at? Does it inform your decisions about you know, new colors to introduce and things like that?

Amy Gath: It absolutely does. And it also informs much earlier, what pieces of our launches are really working. And so you know I know if I’m giving out one hundred plus samples of Beige Elm that I just launched every month, this is really a launch item that’s successful and so this is a direction we want to go further. I think the nice piece too is it’s a good heads up to our supply chain forecasting guys like “hey look, we’re seeing these go out the door. We probably need to really watch the inventory and make sure we’re prepared for this going forward.” I love to have that kind of resource at our fingertips.

Jessica: Yeah. I think data, we really got into data, I would almost say because of the pandemic when we started just having time to to look at things we probably didn’t look at before. And now we’ve got the opportunity to to kind of dig into some of this and then we now we’ve had to build infrastructure around that because it is so important to see you know? Okay, so or in something as simple as like Pantone announcing its color of the year and then all of a sudden you’re like okay time for a new collection aligned with that or something like that.

Amy Gath: Yes.

Jessica: And it’s also we do a lot of digital content like blog posts and you know podcast, newsletters and so we use that data to inform how we market as well.

Amy Gath: I think that’s really smart. I think it is exciting for us in this industry because previously really as consumer products have been very kind of one leg up on us because they get Nielsen they get IRI every day they’re seeing that data and so they’ve been able to be much more kind of tight in their marketing and this is really elevated, for all of us in this category, our marketing efforts. I think they’re much better and I think we’re much smarter about our products about our customers, our consumers.

Jessica: Well that kind of leads me to the consumer side of it, is also kind of like the business side of it, but I wanted to ask you about what you’re doing about sustainability because that does seem to be a big thing that consumers are asking for. And basically you know ESG funding, all that kind of stuff, is really taking into account sustainability whether you agree with it or not, it is happening and certainly with your experience with Italy and Europe they are very focused on it. So what are your initiatives there and how do you guys address sustainability at Formica?

Amy Gath: Absolutely. I mean we’ve been, I think, one of the huge benefits of Broadview has been their focus on sustainability. And they have a whole group so our R and D center of excellence is called Nemho, next generation material house, and within this so it’s a big group targeting sustainability and so what that has given us is resources for us to really understand where we sit as a business and so now we do a yearly lifecycle assessment, really understanding how we’re performing with regards to the environment and we look at carbon emissions. We look at water usage and we look at energy usage. And then every year we’re holding ourselves to goals to reduce carbon emissions, to reduce water usage, and to reduce energy usage. And that’s been pretty exciting and so we’re putting that out in a paper every year and it is a much bigger focus for our team as well. I think what’s been great too is, and you all see this right? The specification community is now demanding HPDs, EPDs, lots of documentation and so now we have the data to support all the documentation and really tell the story to the design community as they make decisions.

Jessica: Yeah, that’s great. Yeah I mean sustainability I think obviously that’s a key part of our business and it’s kind of sort of one of the the platforms of this podcast. But no, I think you know sustainability obviously is. It’s easy to look at it at a product level and people can say you know… (dog barks) Okay, now we’re gonna bark. People can you know laminate you know, but you know focus in on the product and you know, kind of poke holes in a product category. But I think what you’re talking about is sustainable is looking at sustainability holistically at the company level where your biggest impact is across the board.

Amy Gath: Umhmm.

Jessica: And that is a much more you know cohesive, complete way of looking at it which is great. So that’s good to hear. Go ahead.

Amy Gath: I was gonna say you know I think that is part of an education that we as people who sell to the A and D community have to them is to remind folks that it’s not just a one product thing. Look at the overall impact of the portfolio of the company of because you know it is a bigger effort. And certainly with AIA’s you know design carbon neutral by 2030 um, you can’t just focus on one product, you need to look at the bigger picture of whom you’re partnering with.

Jessica: And yeah and the footprint of the overall thing and kind of the ethos of the companies involved. And in my industry, one of the big topics is you know in stone and in that part of what we do, the stone and sintered stone and quartz, a topic is silica. Crystalline silica and silicosis and that’s not about the end consumer and that’s not about the manufacturing process, necessarily. But it’s about everyone in between that process from when it’s manufactured to when it gets installed. Is anyone endangered in that process and that again is kind of part of that more holistic look at things.

Amy Gath: Right. Nice.

Jessica: Okay, my last topic that I want to cover with you and I just love this from a marketing standpoint. It’s everywhere right now. It’s you know everyone’s talking about it. But you’re such a smart lady and you know you’ve got this marketing challenge and all these different aspects and then all of a sudden 2023 hits and here comes ChatGPT, all this discussion about AI, what Google’s doing. What is your take on this and how is it going to change the way that you guys do marketing going forward? I don’t think there’s a definitive answer but I’m just interested to get your thoughts.

Amy Gath: Yeah, so I mean one thing I would say is we’ve been playing with versions of AI since 2017 and where we really started playing with it was on the search component of our website. Really kind of learning the people who are visiting our website, the kind of questions that they are asking, and then making sure that we’re delivering answers that are relevant to them. And so I would say that kind of AI has been amazing. Because it allows us as marketers to better serve the needs of the people who are coming to us to learn about our products or to learn about our services and so I’m super excited about that and I’m super excited about AI just making us smarter about our consumers and their needs. ChatGPT is really interesting. I think I did mention to you when my kids were like ‘oh this means I don’t have to write papers anymore’ and I think it’s interesting because it certainly is a tool for helping us expand capacity. Marketing teams are notoriously small and every year there’s always more to do but I think the the caution becomes you don’t want everything to sound the same and don’t want to lose like that unique brand voice that really is why people choose brands.

Jessica: I agree. I think, to me, it was you know one of those things that I sometimes have to try to rein in my personality right? And just be more informative and less myself. But now this is like a switch flipped and it’s like personality is the thing now. Your personality and you and your identity and how you’re unique is what’s going to differentiate you from what these AI bots are going to provide to everyone. So I was in my social media platform the other day looking at some posts and there’s this AI caption generator. I was like all right, so I hit it. Now that’s good, that is really good and I thought oh my gosh we are going to totally normalize the voice and the information and it’s going to, as much as it’s unique, right now and it’s good. It’s going to become so common that what is our differentiator gonna be? And I think it’s the forward thinkers that are gonna figure out how to use it but keep your uniquity and your brand identity and your personality as part of things. So I’m fascinated by what I’m reading about it but I think it’s gonna be a really big challenge for marketing departments, especially those who haven’t embraced change, have been slow to embrace change and, you know they don’t like new things. This is coming on hot and heavy and fast and it’s going to leave a lot of people in the dust.

Amy Gath: I think that’s absolutely right. You bring up so many good points and I think you know one of the challenges to marketers in general is you need to be a constant learner and you need how to you need to learn to learn fast. And this is one of those areas learn to learn fast so you know how to maintain your unique brand voice and how how to use this tool or not to use this tool.

Jessica: Absolutely and I’ve seen a lot of you know, a lot of information around this and it is evolving and it’s kind of like who’s gonna be the big winner? Who knows, it’s not just happening on the information space too like there’s a few things in the marketing world kind of happening at the same time right?

Amy Gath: Umhmm.

Jessica: You’ve got this Ai thing that’s happening. It’s also happening in the image space. So you and I talked before the call about DALL-E which is that image generator.

Amy Gath: Yeah.

Jessica: That’s fascinating too because now there’s this ability to create these images and what does it do to graphic designers and marketing people? You know, they have to shift now too to learn how to incorporate it. And a lot of schools have already started finding ways to not ban. You know if someone wants to write your essay. You know, using ChatGPT that’s fine, but my opinion is if they do that, when they get into that classroom they should have 20 questions they have to answer specifically about their essay because the point is not can you write a great essay. Are you learning, right? Are you learning the information?

Amy Gath: Yes, right.

Jessica: So you can still assess whether they’re learning. If they have a bot write their essay and they can’t answer those 20 questions that’s an F. If they have a bot write their essay and they truly understand it and then they can answer those 20 questions.

Amy Gath: Well done. Yes, I agree.

Jessica: So I think we’re gonna have to adapt.

Amy Gath: We absolutely are and I think part of the the exciting piece is it teaches people how to give good direction right? The best outcomes from chatGPT or DALL-E is going to come from people who really can articulate what a vision is. Either for the brand or the graphic or the essay, right? So that is a piece to learn how to give really good direction and be clear on what the vision is.

Jessica: I agree and I actually was reading an article. We use a marketing agency Black Bean and they’re out of Canada. They’re really really good. They’re really just dialed in and they have a couple good articles on on AI and these chat bots that I was reading today and one of them was about how it’s gonna be really good for like an outline right?

Amy Gath: Umhmm.

Jessica: Give me an outline on a podcast or say a blog post about the changing landscape of high pressure laminate and how it’s evolved over the last fifty years. And then all of a sudden you get this outline and you’re like okay I can work with that and then you fill in the blanks. And then that’s you writing it but they gave you that guidance based on what the general population probably wanted to hear. So I think areas like that where you can get a combination of like that that guidance it’s like having the world’s best advisor at your fingertips.

Amy Gath: Mhmm. I think that’s a really smart use of it. And you know using that tool to better understand your audience. To your point, chatGPT has scanned thousands, millions of kind of people’s requests to get to this. I like that.

Jessica: So I think you know what I’ll wrap up with is you know our industry is generally slow to adapt and move. They’re not the first movers. And I think you know with some of the things that we’ve talked about today, the first movers are going to be the successful ones and it’s going to be people that are forward thinkers like yourself that say let’s do this. Let’s take a flyer on Material Bank. Let’s take a flyer on AI chat, whatever it is, but let’s take that risk because we have to move quickly because it’s going too fast right now to stay behind. You’re going to lose if you stay behind.

Amy Gath: That’s right. Businesses need to keep learning. That’s how you live for a hundred and 10 years as a company and a hundred and ten years more.

Jessica: That’s great. Well, thank you so much for being on today. We covered such great stuff and you were so concise and informative in your responses. I can’t thank you enough.

Amy Gath: Ah, thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.

Jessica: And if you want more information about Amy and Formica you can go to…?

Amy Gath: www.formica.com

Jessica: And you guys also have you’re on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Amy Gath: Yes.

Jessica: Are you @ formica?

Amy Gath: At Formica group. Yep.

Jessica: Okay, perfect. Well, thank you very much. This is Jessica with Build Green Live Green.

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