Director, World Natural Stone Association (WONASA) - Director, Publicaciones Litos S.L.
Consider the following:
1. Production of artificial stone, be it quartz or the new generation of ceramics in form of big format porcelain, is growing fast, and these products are here to stay. They will be a permanent part of the competitive panorama. Waiting for them to go out of fashion is like waiting below a tree for an apple to fall.
2. Being technologically innovative products, the new generation of ceramics will probably continue to offer new possibilities and new features, possibly making them even more formidable competitors.
3. The artificial stone companies will likely develop new applications and will surely look for new markets in response to the growing production and competition among different manufacturers. The ceramic industry has historically shown it knows how to be closer to their clients, be they architects, interior designers or final consumers, and are savvy marketing oriented professionals. Natural stone industry has mostly taken a B to B approach. The processing factories do not look beyond their direct buyers, not realising that wholesalers and fabricators are, in many cases, no more than processors of demand, they are very rarely creators of demand. If they can do more business in artificial stone because that is what THEIR customer asks for, then that is what they will deal with.
4 . A new generation of architects and interior designers want to do new things, use new colours and are open to experimenting with new materials. However, these professionals continue to have a very favourable attitude towards natural stone.
5. The biggest application for most granite companies has so far has been for kitchen countertops- an application in which artificial stone companies have made huge marketing efforts and will continue to do so in the future. That may be one key reason why demand for granite has fallen faster.
6. The funerary monument industry, more dependent on thickness stone, is a mature industry with little growth possibilities. In fact, a steady decline in its size over the years is being observed, as cremation becomes more common in the west.
7. For now the marble/limestone/sandstone etc. part of the industry has been relatively less affected, but it is a matter of time before the new generation of ceramics industry now growing fast in Italy, Spain and elsewhere, will soon start eating away its market share, in different markets and segments of application. More and more quartz factories are also coming up in different parts of the world.
THE RED LIGHTS ARE BLINKING FOR THE NATURAL STONE INDUSTRY!
Clearly, a new business model for the natural stone industry is needed, and a new way of marketing is not just desirable, but is of the highest urgency. The business model of the last four decades (basically, block-slab-tile) shows all signs of having come to an end. But why should it remain the same? Business models in just about every industry all over the world are rapidly becoming outdated in this globalised, technological fast changing world, it is natural that at some point that fundamental change also takes place in the natural stone industry.
So is it all over for natural stone? Is the natural stone industry the Polaroids, the Kodaks and Remington typewriters of the building materials, condemned to extinction? The latest dinosaurs?
Before one makes this dramatic conclusion, one needs to acknowledge that no matter what the natural stone industry does in the future, in terms of marketing and promotion, individually or collectively, a major part of the market share in the typical applications so far, such as countertops, facades, flooring, etc.is probably lost for a long time, and may not come back during the working lives of many businessmen. As of now everything suggests the natural stone industry will continue to become smaller in size, especially when measured in square metres, or even tons.
In comparative terms, natural stone is about 5 to 7% the size of ceramlc industry, according to most estimates. Therefore, natural stone, even in its best moments, has been no more than a niche product. The challenge is not just to maintain its status as a niche product, but, perhaps by reinventing itself, it should once again become a profitable industry for those who invest in it, and dedicate their professional lives in it.
So, given the current market reality and the much weaker financial situation of the great majority of companies all over the world,what can be done ?
Proposals to consider
1.Natural stone companies need to experiment more in and incorporate greater use of new finishes and new textures that new technologies now offer. One great strength of natural stone is a different finish or texture often gives a totally different look to the stone. Textures with 3D effects are currently more difficult to copy by the artificial stone industry. Moreover, a stone currently out of fashion, often has a totally different aesthetic look with a different finish, and the new look can help to revive demand for that stone. The new finishes and textures can also help to highlight differentiation of natural stone from the artificial (apart from hiding ‘blemishes’).The quarry owners need to take the lead in this initiative, they need to act as brand managers of their stones, instead of limiting their commercial efforts to selling blocks to their direct customers. However, one must be fully aware that this initiative is only a modest improvement to the prevailing business model, it is not a breakthrough new approach.
2. The industry people need to think of thickness as a unique strength of natural stone and not a weakness or a limitation factor, involving higher transport costs. The question that, therefore, must be asked is - what can be done with thickness stone? What high value products and commercial applications can be developed with thickness stone exceeding 3 cm, for example? Thickness as offering new possibilities and not a limitation, needs to be part of this different mindset.
3. The starting point of new thinking could be- What high value commercial product can be made with a block that is already available in the quarry and NOT, as is being done now, how to find a block that can best fit in the gangsaws / block cutters / multi-wire machines?
4. Those companies specialising in making funerary monuments already possess a unique set of skills that is not very common in the world- superb knowhow in what can best be described as ' industrial craftsmanship' in granite. This strength can be harnessed to develop new applications and mass products on an industrial scale and also offer complex cut to size projects in natural stone. The same goes for those companies currently focussed mostly on complex cut to size for flooring in other stones.
5. The new applications, and also the traditional ones, all mean significant change of marketing and promotion activity. If a company decides to make furniture out of natural stone, for example, then that company needs to think of itself as being in the furniture business, not in natural stone, and the promotion/sales effort should be in the furniture sales channels and furniture trade shows, or those specialised in interior decoration. The end product must define the sales and marketing, and the logistics, not the raw material.
6. Design will be a key important in developing new products. One will need to blend tradition with modernity to produce genuinely commercially attractive products. Not just combining light with dark colours for contrast, but also tune in with the minimalist tendency in the world using clean and curved cuts, instead of sticking to the local tradition of highly elaborate workmanship, which tends to be the case of countries in Asia and Middle East. This sensitivity will be especially key when developing the international markets. Every culture has its own ethos, its own traditions and preferences, but when making commercial products in today´s world, one will need to adapt and interpret skills in a modern way.
7. The industry needs to ask itself questions like- how can all the 'waste stone' in quarries be used for building low cost housing (especially relevant in the developing world)? The industry likes to think of itself as being environmental friendly, why not search for indigenous solutions to local problems, instead of only looking at export markets and traditional applications? More material, currently being wasted, could be used with these initiatives.
8. The industry people must urgently understand the importance of the digital world and dramatically increase its presence in the social media. The industry people need to assimilate the need for framing the argument for using natural stone on its own terms, instead of letting the choice being defined by the competition. If the choice offered to the prescriber or end buyer is to choose between the natural product and the imitation / synthetic /artificial, natural stone will win almost always. But if the choice being offered is between the modern and traditional (the competition often cleverly uses the word “outdated” instead of “traditional”), or a utilitarian argument is given, natural stone can lose the argument because the other side spreads its message using the vocabulary that suits it best.
The argument based on the concept of uniqueness against an industrially produced mass product, plays strongly in favour of natural stone, but is being grossly underutilised, if at all.
Natural stone has always been a fantasy product, its image of being indelibly associated with luxury is strongly ingrained in the DNAs of all ancient civilisations, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The industry people need to play to this argument, but in a modern, more sophisticated manner.
In other words, the whole game essentially reduces to being a battle of the mind, not between products. The Internet is the cheapest way and a powerful platform for creating trends, influencing opinion, apart from informing and being potentially effective. Given the fragmented nature of the natural stone industry, the relatively smaller size of its companies compared to the more capital intensive competitors, and thus limited in its ability to harness resources for marketing efforts, clever use of digital marketing is even more important for natural stone than for others.
9. The different associations need to dedicate a reasonable annual budget for promotion of natural stone on the Internet by means of social media marketing. But they also need to be very clear what is their target audience- by country, language, gender, profession, applications. Social media marketing allows for such segmentation, and even more sharper sophisticated targeting is possible. They need to choose what battles to fight, because the resources that are harnessed will be limited. They need to be clear what are the priority markets of the local industry of which they are representatives, and not just focus on blind arbitrary numbers.
This is a new world which most people of a certain age find it difficult to understand- therefore they could delegate this extremely important initiative to a younger generation, and try to identify genuinely knowledgeable social media marketing companies, not just hire smooth talkers, which abound everywhere. Digital marketing cannot be a one-time initiative either, a simple experiment that allows people to claim we are doing something-it must become one of the core, regular, activities of any association.
10. The industry must develop and foster closer relationships with architects and interior designers. Even this most basic of promotion and educational activity has been irresponsibly ignored by the vast majority of companies. One initiative, already being carried out in some countries, is to have an ANNUAL gala event in which architects and interior designers are rewarded for use of natural stone. This kind of event could be held in more countries..
11. Wherever possible, the associations can also organise open door events in which university students of architecture can be brought in buses to visit several factories (in same city for convenience) so that they observe with their own eyes the sheer variety of natural stones that exist in the world. Of course, it is desirable to conduct educational efforts among the future professionals, but if that cannot be done now, at least implement some simpler things.
There is so much more that can be done. There are many people in the industry with not only a passion for natural stone but also good ideas for the reinvention of the industry. Listen to them.
So much to do! And there is no time to lose.