Comparing Construction Products: Dispelling The Myths
Product comparison is an essential part of the specification process, yet construction manufacturers can seem reluctant for their products to be compared with those of their competitors’. Why is that?
In this third article about product data for manufacturers in the construction industry we look at the myths around product comparison and ask – why not compare?
Myth 1: Specifiers don’t want to Compare Products
There is some truth in the first myth, because specifiers are creatures of habit, they are busy, and time is tight. The last NBS Specification survey (2017) stated that 60% of respondents were reusing specifications from previous projects. If you can stick with the brand you know, why change things?
Specifiers have to compare products all the time, in spite of a desire to stick with what they know. Products change, become obsolete or unavailable, are not suitable for the project, or a cheaper alternative becomes available.
A 2019 survey by the Construction Products Association found that 41% of respondents had seen product substitution on at least a quarter of their projects in the previous year. The same survey is littered with quotations from specifiers describing how difficult it is to get accurate information that they can compare.
Specifiers need some element of product comparison, to select key attributes to match with and consider accurate and reliable information about alternative products so that they can make informed decisions.
Myth 2: Product Comparison is about Relationships
Traditionally, the relationship between manufacturer and specifier has been a very human one. Manufacturers fund sales teams to build relationships with architects and contractors. We know that people buy from people.
These relationships will continue to be important, however numerous recent surveys show that manufacturers websites and online sources are increasingly important sources of information.
In 2017 Specifiedby surveyed over 800 respondents and 98% said they look for products online. The CPA survey mentioned above gave manufacturers websites as the second most important source, after technical literature.
As our workforce increasingly contains more digital natives, specifiers will increasingly expect that the product comparison process is done digitally. We will not be routinely picking up the phone to check compatibility, conformance or installation competence – we will not have the time and the analogue process is risky and prone to errors.
Human contact is important, but not always necessary. As buildings become more complex and more regulated, standardized digital data exchange will be the interaction process of choice. We need to prepare for that.
Myth 3: It is difficult to Genuinely Compare Construction Products
Some may feel that comparison of construction products is difficult or impossible.
Consider price, for example. Price comparison needs to take account of the complexities of the procurement systems and variations in pricing across time. Or consider sustainability criteria. Comparing sustainability attributes of construction products can be undermined by the crudeness of environmental ratings systems and their reduction to a ‘marketing tick box exercise’.
There will always be exceptions, but the fact remains that construction products can be compared and are being compared, all the time – just not very efficiently.
Many attributes are easy to compare if presented in a consistent fashion - such as the information in your Declaration of Performance, for example, the certification and compatibility information, U-Values, dimensions and test data.
Comparison can be secure, verified and reliable. If information is provided directly by and sourced back to the manufacturer, the manufacturer can own their statements and comparison can occur with confidence.
Myth 4: E-commerce means Comparison by Price
In their State of Trade Survey for 2020 Q2, the Construction Products Association reported that 50% of producers surveyed expected increased investment in e-commerce over the next year. This was set against reduced planned investment in structures such as manufacturing plant.
Manufacturers are clearly thinking that e-commerce is disrupting our industry and they need to get on board. But do they understand it?
Many manufacturers will be thinking about Amazon as a classic example of an e-commerce platform. However, Amazon is heavily cost-biased because it is a commodifier.
Amazon only cares about transactions, it doesn’t care about the accuracy of data and has no governance process. As a result, if you think Amazon when you think e-commerce, you will primarily be thinking about cost comparison. To truly compare products we need to provide a breadth of credible attributes.
Specifiers are not only cost motivated; they just need reliable information to make other choices.
Myth 5: There is no protection against Illegal Imports of Construction Products
One of the challenges of e-commerce platforms that have no governance system is that the customer cannot assure themselves of the compatibility, compliance or even legality of the products they are choosing.
For example, as products sold in the EU need to have a CE Mark, there is a market for ‘fake CE Marked’ products in the EU, amplified by online sales growth. Responsibility for CE marking normally lies with the manufacturer (who puts the product on the market), but specifiers need to be able to recognise and choose legal products too.
‘Fake’ Products that are illegally branded and/or illegally CE marked often come back to manufacturers’ technical teams who, unlike the specifier or consumer, can identify them as fake. In this situation, whilst the manufacturer may not have responsibility for the product, they have lost the sale, and they also have lost credibility with the specifier. Everyone loses.
The only way to protect against illegal imports is to properly digitise the construction product sector. This isn’t the impossible challenge you might think; it has already been achieved in logistics.
In the logistics industry, TradeLens provides an instant record of what is in a shipping container throughout its journey, protected by a permissioning model encrypted by Blockchain.
Removing manual processes and the penalties for non compliance both have the potential to dramatically reduce costs. However, the decade-long effort to digitize trade has struggled to incorporate the sprawling number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which lack the scale or technical know-how to incorporate these platforms into their business models.
Once we digitise our construction product information, it isn’t too big a step from the shipping container to the products within it.
Transparency of a the single source of a manufacturers product data is a key component to protect the manufacturer supply and distribution chain. It might not prevent illegal imports of itself, but it will help identify them for what they are.
Myth 6: We can’t Control our Brand’s Online Presence
Your brand reputation is one of the greatest assets you have as a product manufacturer. However, controlling the use of your brand online has become an ongoing war of attrition.
You may remember being concerned about “Brand-Jacking”, a concept that came into popular use back in the 2000s when social media platforms grew in prominence, and brands registered accounts in their brand names to prevent others from registering them and impersonating them for humorous or nefarious reasons.
Social media is only the simplest form of ‘brand-jacking’. Scammers have the whole internet to use. Within construction, overt examples have so far comprised the humorous satire, or the disgruntled former employee. But the potential for your brand to be used to your detriment is much more serious and much more subtle.
Take for example a search on Amazon for ‘Kingspan Insulation’. The results bring up a series of offers for a number of products where the buyer does not know whether the PIR insulation delivered will be Kingspan, Celotex or Ecotherm. With no compatibility evidence, how is it checked? This is the product comparison problem writ large; the customer does not know what they are asking for; nor do they know what they are getting.
Enforcement bodies cannot police this battlefield. Trading Standards, Customs Authorities and Inspectorates cover a huge range of products and are not able to know whether a branded product is compliant, nor if the product matches the branding. So how do we win this battle for our brands?
Whoever wants to buy a product online needs to ensure they are buying the real thing. Correctly digitised product information will provide a unique link to take them back to the actual product they are buying, to all the information about it. The same unique identifier would be on the product so that its transport, delivery and installation can be tracked.
Secure, digitised and interoperable product information is the only way to protect misuse of your brand. It can expose fake products, it can prevent or track breaches in the supply chain, it can reassure the specifier that what will arrive on site is what they specified, and it will prevent unauthorised substitution.
Myth 7: Supplying Product Information to Platforms is Expensive
How much time do you spend uploading and maintaining content to various marketing platforms and your website? If you include internal and outsourced marketing staff, plus the third-party costs, how much are we talking a year? Thousands, hundreds of thousands? That’s expensive, and it’s very wasteful. Supplying product information to platforms in a manual fashion is definitely expensive. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Construction product manufacturers are understandably very wary of wasting money on digitization. This is largely because they were misinformed about what needed to be done, and were persuaded to invest in initiatives which relied upon paying third parties huge amounts of money to build ‘BIM Objects’ which have shown no tangible return on investment for many.
The 2018 UK BIM Alliance report on product data explained how the BIM object development exercise became a very expensive failure for many manufacturers. The obsession with 3D objects was largely misplaced, whilst the use of data that wasn’t structured or linked back to the manufacturers simply led to a lot of incomparable products with out of date information that could not be updated in a reasonable, cost effective way.
The BIM objects story doesn’t have to prevent manufacturers from profiting from digitisation. Profiting from digitisation doesn’t have to cost a lot of money; indeed by removing manual processes, it can save money and reduce risk.
Subsets of product information can be made available via API to any platform that you permit, at virtually no admin cost, no update cost. You’ll be able to instantly update your website to identify product changes, availability, obsolescent products and their substitutes. The only price you pay will be for the right to present that data, either on your own website, on a third party platform, or anywhere else it would be useful.
You already have the product information, you just need to structure it into one set of connected, secure information. After that, providing it in secure, accurate and updateable digital form is simple.
- Good product comparison is essential; specifiers need to compare products.
- Good product comparison can happen when your salesmen and women are not around, as well as when they are.
- Good product comparison is possible if it is done with secure, verified and reliable information, provided by and sourced back to the manufacturer.
- Good product comparison can be comparison by all important attributes; not just by price.
- Good product comparison via transparent manufacturer data can protect the supply chain and identify illegal products.
- Good product comparison can protect your brand reputation and ensure that what is specified arrives on site.
- Making secure, structured data available to comparison sites is a good commercial decision, reducing waste and errors and saving on marketing spend.
If you want to ensure that your products can be used in situations where they are compatible and will not be used in situations where they are not, the first step is to digitise your product data and make it available for product comparison. This makes sense from a safety point of view but it is also profitable.
What does the future of construction product comparison look like to you – and are you preparing for it? Have you changed your procedures already? We’d like to hear from you.
Share Your Views
Over the coming months we will be sharing a number of articles investigating how construction product manufacturers can solve the problem of product data management. Then later in the year we’ll be publishing a Plain Language Guide to Product Data, written specifically for the CEOs of manufacturing companies. If you’d like to know more about this project, please subscribe to this blog using the link below and we’ll notify you as new items are published.
In the meantime, we want to encourage as much debate about the challenges as possible.
- Please comment below with your views and share this article with the #ManufacturersPLG hashtag.
- You can also join the conversation on the 'ask the community' IET forum channel: Plain Language Guide to Product Data for Manufacturers
- We’re also hosting an Open Zoom Call next Friday to discuss this article. If you’d like to join us, please Register to join us on Friday 9 October at 11am-12 noon. The Zoom Call will be recorded and made available afterwards.
We look forward to hearing your views.
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