Friday, May 8, 2009

Marketing the Clayton i-house

Yesterday, my free blog taught Clayton Homes, the billion dollar industry giant, a lesson.

Promotion-wise, Clayton did the important thing just right though. They introduced their revolutionary i-house, the first affordable green manufactured home by a major manufacturer, at the Berkshire-Hathaway (owned by Warren Buffet) shareholder’s conference last week. A conference that had huge media coverage. There, the i-house caught the attention of Fox News and CNBC, which led to an article by the Associated Press.

The AP article was picked up by dozens -- soon to be hundreds -- of newspapers, including the article topping yesterday’s Yahoo News’ “most emailed” list.

So what did I do, a mere blogger, to teach them a lesson?

Well, when the AP article about the I-house was being viewed by thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands, Clayton’s website for the i-house got overwhelmed and many people couldn’t connect to it. They searched in Google or elsewhere for Clayton i-house and my blog site is at the top of the search list. I’m not sure how long it’ll be there, but who knows.

Let me give you their official i-house website site here, as today you shouldn’t have a problem connecting:

Back to my story. Clayton didn’t make any real mistake. People who had their interest piqued by the AP article -- especially those who consider buying such a home -- are going to be more interested than ever.

Of course, Clayton, could have taken some of the sting out of people not being able to reach their website, by hosting their Virtual i-house Tour on a few different servers, so people could have at least seen what the house was about, in this culture of RIGHT NOW.

After all, I predicted months ago, that the i-house could be the Prius of homes. Because of the name, “i-house,” the media is fixated on comparing it to the ipod. I’m sure that’ll work too, for publicity purposes especially. "I-house" sticks in people's minds better than calling it a Claytongreen or a Claytonius.

But, let’s face it, the i-house is more comparable to Toyota's introducing the Prius, than things done by Apple. People’s reaction to it is similar to what was said about the Prius.

People say things like:

“It’s a waste of money.”
“Wake up! It’s a trailer!”
“I saw the house and I absolutely love it!”
“It will never sell.”
"This looks good and seems to be too good to be true for the price."
"You'd have to be crazy to pay $ for son could make the same thing for $15,000." (Okay, I just made that one up but there are comments in a similar vein.)
“I’ve been waiting for something exactly like this!”

I'm feeling the same as the last comment. And I felt the same about the Prius too. The Prius had millions of people who didn't think it would ever sell. Even the GM guys smirked, maybe a little uneasily though. Other people were open to the idea, read about it, and found that the people who bought them, loved them. It lead to a whole new shift toward hybrid technology.

Can Clayton do the same, with the i-house, making an affordable, well-built green manufactured home catch on with the public? A home manufacturer doesn’t have the advantage of people seeing homes all over the place, as people see cars on the road, but there’s another way… It's my big idea, and if you can suffer through some other rambling, I'll get to it. Or, just skip to the end.

Clayton, like Toyota, has come a long way just by introducing the i-house. Already, there’s a whole new wave of interest, by many people who have never considered buying a manufactured home. That is, people wanting to make a big change in their life. Live in something that is energy efficient. Get some power from the sun. It appeals to frugal people. It appeals to environmentally conscious people. And it appeals to people wanting quality and style, for the money.

Wealthy people, who are most able to afford an efficient, green home with solar panels, have not taken the lead in green home buying, at all. About five years ago, when Toll Bros., the largest builder of McMansions, offered an upgrade to higher wall and roof insulation, less than two percent of buyers opted for it. What do they care about heating bills, right? Other people can't be impressed by insulation, like they can with granite counter tops (they do add value), or a dome on an eighteen foot foyer.

Things are changing gradually, whether it is people being proud that their Prius looks different, so people can see they are environmentally responsible, or Jay Leno talking about his wind turbine. The green revolution is going to take place among more average people, just as it started with the counter culture. With Obama, green is going mainstream, and fast.

Clayton did a smart marketing thing in separating the i-house website from their main Clayton Homes website. As the largest manufacturer of homes in the country, Clayton offers a lot of models, which can be confusing, and for me anyway, their main website is awful. The website for the i-house works better, looks better, and needed to be on its own.

Clayton isn’t alone in being a manufactured homes company that has a bad main website. Nearly all manufactured home companies do. For years, two of my favorite brands, Karsten (now owned by Clayton) and Solitaire (plain, kinda boxy outside, well made, inexpensive), didn’t even feature a single photograph of most of their homes. What did they have instead? Architectural drawings, and for some models, no drawing at all, just a floor plan.

To begin with, the manufactured home industry, and their dealers, were late in coming to the web. To this day, most smaller dealers of manufactured homes do not have websites that list inventory or salesperson contact numbers.

Alvin Toffler wrote a prescient book called FUTURE SHOCK (1971). He theorized that computer technology would create a third wave in changes in society. The first wave was agriculture, and the second wave, industrialization.

Toffler conjectured that the third wave caused by computers would throw society into the future at a speed never experienced before. The advancement of technology, the way people do things, such as learn, communicate, do business, would be turned on its head.

Consider the change that have taken place in the last two decades. Children and young adults who grow up in the computer age often have more facility with computers than their parents. Many jobs rely on ability and understanding of computers.

Along with Toffler, I had a similar sense of the importance of computers when I was 17 and went to college back in 1971. As a music major, I hated punch cards, and late nights spent in the keypunch room trying to type up a program. I struggled through a few courses, and many more later on, to learn what it was about. It wasn’t until I got one of the first home computers, that it became exciting. The web was was the best of all, since I've always loved information and learning, just not school so much, not enough to finish graduate school anyway.

Before the computer wave, parents with the same educational level as their children, were more skilled by virtue of life and work experience. That isn’t always true now, and this is the first time in history something like this has happened.

Computers have changed marketing too, with each advancement in computer speed, memory, and software. Things like the EBAY, Amazon, Craig’s List, YOUTUBE. They are changing society, the way we learn, work, buy, not to mention entertain ourselves.

Invariably, the blinding speed at which things change leaves old school marketing in the dust. Instead of being on top of the curve, or ahead of the curve, large companies lag behind these changes like just-tranquilized elephants.

How many self-made multi-millionaires were there fifty years ago, kids fresh out of college, or in the case of Bill Gates, dropping out of college, to be titans of industry? In the old days, unless you were handed family money, it was rare to make a big success until age forty or fifty.

Companies like Clayton tend to cling to what they are used to. When given the opportunity to display all kinds of detailed information on the web, at first they tried to make their websites like brochures, but on the web. Glossy and enticing.

I have no background in business, no MBA from the Wharton School or years experience running a business. But, I know what I want as a consumer in the way of information from a company when considering purchase of their products. Whether it is a new laptop, or a manufactured home, I know the kind of information I want before I buy, or in the case of a home, travel fifty miles to go see. And I don’t think what I want is that much different from what other people want.

I like a website that is easy to use, and there can never be enough photos of a home via a link. I also want video tours of homes. If it is a home that is new, an exciting concept like the i-house, I would like to see a complete video tour of the house, and a house that is set up in a real natural setting.

Why is that important?

At a dealer, the homes are jammed together on a lot, or right on a highway. It isn’t the best setting to see a home. But, come on, in a video, wouldn’t it be nice to see an i-house, not inside a building?

To be honest, I was seriously considering buying a manufactured home about five years ago, and then my stocks dropped, and I pulled out. Before that, I’ve had a long interest in them though. I’ve been reading about them for years, long before the internet.

So, what is my cutting edge idea for marketing the i-house?

Have one set up on a nice property, with an articulate greenneck like myself in residence, to blog life in the home every day. Maybe some live cam hours of everyday life in the i-house, or hours where people could be taken on personalized interactive video tours using a remote cam.

Of course, I would like to do this. But, the point is, even if I weren’t selected, I would like to see someone else do this.

How many of you out here would like that? How would you like to be able to ask questions, interactively, to a person who is living in the i-house, or read about their daily or weekly i-house related experiences on a blog?

Any people who want to contact me, aside from leaving comments on the blog which are always welcome: