Marvin's experience center in Boston
Courtesy Marvin Windows and Doors Marvin's experience center in Boston

With the rise of e-commerce and technologies like 3-D animation and virtual reality, it would seem that buyers no longer want or need to see a product or home feature before purchasing it. They can envision it on a headset, app, or website, learn all they need to know, and make the selection. However, manufacturers, marketers, and retailers are finding that a large part of the buying population still prefers to touch and feel products firsthand, especially big-ticket and custom products like appliances, furniture, and building materials.

In fact, some experts believe this consumer preference may be part of a larger buying trend centered on experience. “The world is a chaotic and sometimes scary place these days,” says Wayne St. Amand, CMO of marketing intelligence firm Visual IQ, a Nielsen company based in Needham, Mass. “More of us are seeking meaning and experiences that will help us make sense of things.”

According to St. Amand, companies that want to successfully market their products and services need to create opportunities for people to literally try out their brands using a mix of digital, traditional, and experiential approaches. Many building products manufacturers are taking full advantage of this trend—and then some. Companies like Kohler, Toto, and Huber Engineered Woods are developing new and creative ways to educate, inspire, and attract consumers and the building community at large. From experience centers equipped with usable steam rooms and showers to public lavatories in the heart of New York, today’s product manufacturers are offering far more than a transactional buying experience. The focus is on educating the buyer and making the decision-making process more personalized and enjoyable, which benefits builders, too, by simplifying the sometimes-tedious product selection process for customers.

The Kohler Experience Center in New York City
Courtesy Kohler The Kohler Experience Center in New York City

This was the goal for Marvin Windows and Doors’ first brand experience center, Marvin at 7 Tide, which opened in late 2016 in Boston. Working in conjunction with longtime Connecticut distributor A.W. Hastings, the Marvin marketing team created the 3,500-square-foot facility to look more like a high-tech art gallery than a product showroom. According to Miana Hoyt Dawson, marketing strategy manager at A.W. Hastings, the intent was to develop a creative space that would be inspiring and experiential, with absolutely no sales pressure.

“We were seeing this trend of people wanting more personalization,” Hoyt Dawson says. “Everybody cares about something different when they are creating their home. We recognized that Marvin didn’t have a platform to conceptualize the window from the ground up in the context of a homeowner’s personal style. We wanted to be able to demonstrate the possibilities.”

For Marvin, this meant ditching any traditional notions associated with picking out windows and doors. The manufacturer and its distributor teamed up with a design firm to add artistic details like a wall display of yellow felt roses that references Marvin’s logo and a deconstructed window mobile hanging in the entryway of the facility. Rooms are filled with beautiful furnishings and high-end finishes, as well as cozy touches like plush couches and a fireplace.

“The intent is to educate, engage, and inspire,” Hoyt Dawson says. “These exhibits are meant to stop people in their tracks and reset the expectation of what it means to look at windows and doors.”

Marvin's Boston experience center
Courtesy Marvin Windows & Doors Marvin's Boston experience center

Although no products are sold at the center, there are business resources available so builders, architects, and designers can help clients browse and price products, which often speeds up the decision-making process. “We don’t sell anything, and that’s a head scratcher for a lot of people,” Hoyt Dawson notes. “We see our role as supporting the brand experience throughout the region.”

Marvin also leveraged technology to make its experience center high-tech and “high touch.” When guests first arrive at the center, they receive a digital notebook that allows them to save, store, and retrieve any images or specifications they gather during their visit. One room in the facility, coined the Living Room, features a Product to Scale Projector that allows users to experience what a specific window might look like in their home and make any necessary changes in height and style as they view images on the wall.

Perhaps the most impressive use of technology, however, is Marvin’s Smart Touch Table. The device gives visitors the ability to build their own windows and doors by placing tangible building materials of their choice on the smart table. “You can actually hold a block of Douglas fir and feel the quality of the wood,” Hoyt Dawson explains. “Codes on the products change the configuration of what you are seeing on the screen within the table.”

Creative TouchPoints
Plumbing products manufacturer Toto USA is using a similar marketing tactic at Concept 190, an experiential San Francisco studio that allows visitors to test drive the company’s toilet systems. Unveiled in March 2017, the space houses four private working bathrooms that use moving art projections of iconic landscapes and sensors to give visitors who use them an “immersive experience,” according to Toto. The space also serves as a product research center.

Bryant Park restroom with TOTO display
Courtesy TOTO/Jane Kratochvil Bryant Park restroom with TOTO display

The manufacturer takes reservations and hosts public events at the location throughout the year. “It’s important to have that local touchpoint,” says Bill Strang, president of operations and e-commerce, at Toto. “Nothing is sold there, but we use it as an opportunity to herald what we are offering.”

Toto marketers have also teamed up with New York City officials as part of a public bathroom renovation project that launched in spring 2017. Located in Bryant Park between Grand Central Station and Times Square, the restrooms were redesigned to provide the general public with luxury amenities often found in high-end hotels. The space features imported floor and wall tiles, crown molding, energy-saving LED lighting, a full-time attendant, classical music, art from local artists, and fresh-cut flowers.

The facility is also outfitted with premium bathroom fixtures—all provided by Toto. Specifically, the space includes Toto high-efficiency toilets, urinals, flush valves, and faucets, as well as the company’s round-vessel lavatories and hand dryers.

According to Strang, Toto loved the idea of introducing people of all walks of life to its brand of products. “It brings us a nice opportunity to tell our story in soft tones,” Strang explains. “It’s not a billboard, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to display our brand without even being there.”

While Strang admits that some users might not notice the company’s logos displayed on the products at the Bryant Park location, it still provides plenty of opportunities for customers to experience Toto products for the first time. According to the firm, more than 1.5 million people are estimated to have visited the public bathrooms since they were redesigned.

The fact that Toto’s high-efficiency plumbing products can withstand that type of heavy-duty use speaks volumes about the brand’s durability, Strang says: “It’s proof of actual product use and, frankly, should give customers a sense of confidence that no matter where they put our products, they will run and run well.”

One-Stop Shop
Kohler has also upped the ante on its customer outreach and marketing. Its two U.S. Kohler Experience Centers (KEC) have been wildly popular with consumers. The facilities, in New York and Los Angeles, were designed as one-stop shops that cater to busy customers and building professionals, says Michelle Kilmer, Kohler’s director of stores and showroom marketing.

Kohler's experience center in New York City
Courtesy Kohler Kohler's experience center in New York City

“One trend we have seen in all of our customer segments is efficiency,” she says. “People want us to treat their time as a valuable asset, and these experience centers are set up to do just that.”

The centers feature more than 20 kitchen and bath product vignettes, as well as conference rooms and meeting spaces to support design professionals and customers. Kilmer describes the KECs as “high-energy retail locations” that are fully transactional and convenient. “The customer doesn’t have to shop a showroom and then find somewhere else to make a purchase,” she explains. “That makes us unique.”

The KEC location in New York, for example, spans 10,000 square feet and resembles a luxury hotel, complete with private, full-functioning bathing spaces that guests can reserve. By appointment, users can try out a vast array of Kohler products, including its Real Rain showerhead, DTV+ digital showering system, intelligent toilets, and a bathtub with bubble massage, hydrotherapy, and steam, to name just a few. The company estimates that about 5,000 visitors a month walk through the site.

According to Kilmer, the intent was to offer customers a spa experience that allows them to play with premium features like steam and programmable showering systems, which can be intimidating and confusing. “There are more and more technology-enabled and technology-integrated products, and it is difficult to convey what these products can do for customers and why they should care,” she explains. “This is a private, intimate space to test out all of the different features … and customers can spend as much time in there as they want.”

Building and design professionals can also use the KEC to try out products, as well as receive training on installation. “It is about understanding how to connect the trade to the consumers to the architect to the designers,” Kilmer notes.

Builder Benefits
These out-of-the-box marketing concepts have big benefits for builders and remodelers because they help home buyers narrow down their product selections before they enter the sales office, says Hoyt Dawson.

“The response of the professional builders we have partnered with has been very positive,” she says. “It’s been valuable for them because customers get more decision making done in one day than might happen in months.”

They also provide builders with an opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about the products they are specifying or recommending.

“I believe that today, you need to have experience centers because many of the products we have in the marketplace have a value proposition that is most readily understood by test-driving the product,” Strang says. “For the building industry, here is a wonderful opportunity to see how the faucet flows, how the urinal works. When you see that condition and understand the durability that it has, builders and contractors can have a sense of confidence in our products.”

In the end, experience centers provide one more way to keep home buyers engaged and satisfied during the building process. “We have seen a clear shift from people wanting information to people wanting to experience something as part of their decision process, especially in our industry,” says Hoyt Dawson. “These resources exist to validate concepts and accelerate decision making.”

Building Products to Go
Instead of building stand-alone experience centers, some manufacturers are taking their branding experience on the road. For example, door manufacturer Masonite launched its TrendLIVE mobile showroom tour last summer as part of its rebranding efforts. The mobile showroom tours the country, hosting events designed to engage all of the firm’s customer segments—builders, dealers, remodelers, architects, designers, and end users.

Masonite's mobile showroom
Courtesy Masonite Masonite's mobile showroom

“Masonite wanted to give customers a visual experience of how doors can transform and update the outside of a house as well as inside rooms,” says David Perkins, Masonite’s vice president of North American residential marketing. “We also helped to simplify the door-buying process for pros and homeowners by identifying door styles best suited to popular architectural home styles.”

The showroom is equipped with a TV monitor that displays trend-focused videos and content, along with design literature and product samples. To date, the TrendLIVE Trailer has visited eight states and 34 cities, yielding more than 1 million road impressions, according to the manufacturer. Since launching the tour, Perkins says Masonite has seen an uptick in all metrics—not only in brand awareness but also in awareness of how doors can become a style element inside and outside of the home. “Curb appeal is a hot topic now and what better way to talk about the benefits of changing out your front door than to actually show people,” he says.

Specialty building products manufacturer Huber Engineered Woods also offers a mobile truck tour, although its focus is solely on building professionals. Called the Prove It Tour, the mobile showroom experience is designed to give builders hands-on product education and training, performance comparisons versus competitive systems, and a deeper understanding of installation best practices.

Inside the vehicles, visitors see and interact with demonstrations covering everything from difficult flashing situations and airflow and air leakage to overall energy performance and water management. Built-in freezers help demonstrate how products perform in cold weather, along with other demonstrations that are set up outside the trailers for additional hands-on opportunities.

Experts are also available to answer any questions builders may have or challenges they may be facing. “It’s an opportunity to address important questions and discuss key topics while being surrounded by captivating visuals and displays that help illustrate each point,” explains Tracy Collins, event marketing manager at Huber. “Mobile marketing is an effective way to bring unique product experiences to the masses.”

Scott Long, director of marketing at Huber, adds that this is especially true for building professionals. “We believe we will see more mobile trucks and experience centers hitting the marketplace,” he says. “As the home building industry continues its rebound, builders are busier than ever and facing a variety of challenges. Many builders can’t take time off to attend a big national trade show, even if they wanted to.”