Specialized vocations call for specialized gear. Just as runners talk endlessly about running shoes and musicians discuss guitars and amps non-stop, electricians and electrical contractors practically obsess over the pliers, screwdrivers, nut drivers, wire strippers, measuring tapes, label machines, fish tapes/poles, and power tools that stock their toolboxes. Still, such preoccupation is natural, considering these items constitute a substantial investment.

Results of a survey conducted by Renaissance Research & Consulting, New York, reveal that electrical contractors spent an average $1,500 on hand tools and $4,630 on power tools in 2011. In total, the marketing research firm reported these companies spent up to $82.8 million on hand tools and $57.9 million on power tools in what was considered an off year for purchases. Yet, price is not the main consideration for electrical contractors when purchasing tools.

In answer to a survey conducted by Eric Mower + Associates Group B2B's Contractor Specialty Group, 90% of the 500 respondents, including general contractors, electricians, plumbers, and HVAC specialists, ranked brand as “very influential” or “somewhat influential” in making purchase decisions. Furthermore, nearly half of all respondents rated brand “very influential” in their tool purchasing decisions.

“Tools that deliver the best results” and “trust” influenced brand purchasing decisions for 44% of survey respondents (Fig. 1). Familiarity and past experiences with the brand were cited by 36% of respondents as reasons for choosing a tool from a particular brand. Recommendations and requests, price, and convenience were named the least often by respondents.

“When buying tools, brands matter,” says John O'Hara, partner and leader of EMA's Contractor Specialty Group. “They want to look at the value of the brand. What are the results of it? Does it do what its marketing says it’s going to do? Does the tool provide the results it should provide? Is it worth the money, so to speak?”

Right when you need it the most

Survey participants from all the represented trades indicated they would pay more for a trusted brand and recommend it even though it costs more, but none more so than electrical contractors. This group responded most emphatically about brand importance, and are more likely to be brand “zealots,” meaning a person who is very brand loyal and brand focused.

In the survey, electrical contractors indicated they consider “delivered the best results” as the top reason why brands are important to them. They also stressed “availability”and “brand grew up with”more than the other respondents. Survey results also reveal that electrical contractors, despite making brand decisions alone, are influenced by seeing others use a certain brand more than the other respondents.

“I don’t care about price,” says Doug Sanford, owner of Sanford Electric, a Merrimac, Mass.-based firm that provides new installation and 24-hour/seven-day-a-week service for residential and commercial applications. “I go with the quality of the tool. No sense in getting something that’s not going to work well when you need it,” he says.

In this way, Sanford protects himself from Murphy's Law — if something can go wrong, it will. His busy work schedules puts reliability at the top of his list.

“Most of the time, things break down at a time when you can’t get something else to replace it,” he explains. “If a tool breaks during the day, you can always get another one, but it never does that. It always breaks right when you need it the most. So buying a tool that won’t easily break, even at a higher price, is worth it.”

Sanford remains loyal to the brand of tools his father bought for him when he was in trade school in 1977.

“His buying them for me made me get into the tool,” he says. “Other tool companies have come out with their versions, but I find these are still the best. The others just seem to mimic them. They’re easier to handle and work well with your hands. I find they last longer than most of the other tools, so the quality is there.”

Throughout his 30-year career, Sanford has gone through about 10 pairs of lineman pliers made by his preferred brand. “Out of that, I've maybe lost a couple, but they work well,” he says.

Still, Sanford's toolbox does contain a variety of brands. For non-electric tasks, he uses other brands, to which he also swears allegiance. When making buying decisions, Sanford looks for tools made in the United States, but laments that this quality is getting more difficult to find.

“I look for it because U.S. tools have a lifetime warranty,” he explains. “When you’re working with a tool, you want something that’s guaranteed to work right, and if it doesn’t, you get a replacement.”

From hand and mouth

When it comes to launching a new tool into the market, a strong brand trumps innovative features.

“We know that even a really strong breakthrough product with really awesome features may not be purchased because it’s got a weak brand associated with it,” says O’Hara. “If it doesn’t have a strong brand that contractors are familiar with and that they trust, it's going to have a very difficult time.”

Yet, electrical contractors aren't completely against trying tools from new brands or ones put out by brands with a weaker reputation. In answer to the EMA survey, 65% of the electrical contractors said they were “somewhat willing” to try new brands (Fig. 2). Thirty percent responded as “very willing” to try something new.

Despite brand preferences he's held since his apprenticeship, David Herres, a Clarksville, N.H.-based self-employed master electrician, keeps an open mind.

“I use some of the brands I used as an apprentice, but my ideas are always changing,” he says. “I prefer some brands, but sometimes a little-known brand will turn out to be quite good. When I come across something new, and it’s good, it will take the place of an old standby.”

Results of the survey indicate that there are ways to entice contractors to try new products. The electrical contractors who responded to the survey say that the best way for a tool to gain market share in the electrical construction industry is for the manufacturer to get it in their hands.

“These guys are tactile. Anything you can do that helps them to get their hands on it helps,” says O'Hara, who suggests that offering samples or even making a video of the product in action may work. “It has to be something that really describes it in a visual and tactile way.”

Online information is also an important strategy for brands. According to EMA's study, 50% of contractors responding to the survey use a smartphone, 49% use a laptop with mobile web access, and 21% use an iPad or other tablet for their jobs, suggesting more business purchase research and decisions are being conducted online from the job site rather than in an office at a desk. Tool and building materials brands are most important (65%) to contractors when they are on the job.

Recommendations from peers can also help a new or weaker brand. “One of the key things about adoption relates to sampling and word of mouth,” says O'Hara.

Word of mouth includes talk on the job site. “It has to be someone everybody looks up to,” continues O'Hara. “The trendsetter on the job site who a lot of the guys look up to, especially the younger guys. They'll follow how he feels about a particular brand.”

For the most part, Sanford's employees tend to use the same brands as their boss.

“I don’t know if it’s their own preference, or if they buy them because they see me using them,” he says. “But they have screwdrivers that they sometimes mix and match from whatever they can get at the time.”

However, when Sanford feels they've made the wrong purchase decision, he tries to set them on the right path.

“When I see them using the wrong type of tool or a cheap tool, I tell them to get a better one,” he says. “When you bring cheap tools to a job, it looks like you’re a hack. I try to guide people to get the right type of tools in the workplace.”

In addition, Sanford teaches classes on basic electricity at Whittier Regional Technical High School in Haverhill, Mass. By example, he recommends certain tools to his students.

“I really can’t specify a certain brand, but I bring in my own tools to show as examples,” he says. “I’m just trying to show them by example the way I was shown.”

When Sanford taught journeymen classes, he used to bring in manufacturer representatives into his classroom. Often, this is the way brand preferences begin. Many training programs have professional partnerships with manufacturers that sponsor curriculum and also donate their products for students use.

Last fall, the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), Washington, D.C., rolled out its first online training modules sponsored by a manufacturer of electrical products. Approximately 6,000 construction wiremen and electricians per year are expected to complete the training modules, starting this year. Another component of the agreement was that the manufacturer would provide materials for the lab portion. Despite the corporate sponsorship, the NJATC will make sure the lessons aren’t merely product placement.

“One of the things we're careful to do is not to let any of the training that we do to become commercial in nature,” says Marty Riesberg, director of curriculum development at NJATC. “There is an advantage to the training partner in seeing their product in the modules, but this isn’t something that’s going to reap benefits in this quarter's or next quarter's sales. This is really an investment in the future of the electric industry.”

Bidding changes everything

Brand value carries more weight for tool purchases than for building materials. Tool purchases often happen in the middle of a job. If a tool breaks on the job, it must be replaced quickly or work is stopped at the risk of missing the deadline. By contrast, building materials are usually specified during the planning/bidding period. Time pressure is a factor in both purchasing scenarios, but it stands to reason that brand loyalty, familiarity, and trust count for more when decisions must be made quickly.

According to the EMA survey, contractors report being less influenced by brand when purchasing building materials. Price and availability trump brand in the bidding process. Prior experience, price, ease of installation, manufacturing location (“Made in America”), and durability form a second tier. Surprisingly, energy efficiency was only chosen by about one-quarter of electrical contractors as one of their three top reasons for original brand selection.

For Sanford, price plays a bigger part in the bid process for building materials.

“When you're bidding, you have to get what you’re going for at a better price,” says Sanford. “The customer isn't going to let you go on a spending spree for the materials. So sometimes you can’t get the equipment you want.”

He finds that he can only recommend products. In the end, he can only hope they take his advice.

“It’s not my money, so I can’t always get the best.” he says. “I tell customers what they should get, and they decide if they want that or not. I let them know the price difference.”

However, Sanford will only back away from a preferred brand so far.

“I don't install anything that’s inferior,” he says. “If they’re going with something really cheap, I tell them that I’m not going to install it. I stand by that, and sometimes I’ve lost jobs because of it. It’s my name on it, so I don’t want to be responsible for something that’s going to happen down the line.”

According to the EMA survey, when it comes to substituting a brand, among the total sample, availability again trumps price and all other attributes as both the top reason and, on a combined basis, in the top three reasons for brand substitution. Compared to 2010, price declined dramatically (and significantly) as a top-three reason for brand substitution; ease of installation also posted a significant decline but one that was not as large. Prior experience and durability were significantly more likely to be cited as a top-three reason for brand substitution in 2012 than in 2010.

Small electrical contracting firms need more reassurance, and, more often, they cited attributes such as ease of installation, durability, (strong) manufacturer reputation, and manufacturer training and support as key reasons for brand choice. Being “Made in America” and energy efficiency are also more important to smaller firms than to their larger counterparts.

“I offer input to my clients, but in the end, I’ll go with what’s specified or what the owner wants unless I know for a fact that it is deficient,” says Master Electrician Herres. “There’s a lot of substandard junk out there, so if you go just on the basis of price, you may have a problem. Underwriters Laboratory (UL) listing and that of other organizations is helpful, but there are counterfeits on the market, so you have to buy from a distributor whom you can trust.”