Some years ago Larry the photographer and I went to the Washington Monument and asked 10 people in the line, "What is solid surface?" They were from every state and country, they were friendly and cordial and the only surprise I got from doing this whimsical piece was that one person actually knew what solid surface was. I wonder what the count would be today.
I've been in the industry since before our shop was one of the original "CFIs" (Corian fabricator/installer) and I have seen this scenario many times: 1) Consumer discovers solid surface (trade show, fabrication shop); 2) Consumer discovers all solid surface can do; 3) Consumer gets excited; 4) Consumer asks, puzzled: "How come I never heard of this stuff before?"
We all know the solid surface "story" and we all got bitten by the bug at sometime or another and got just as excited as our Consumer. We have been frustrated by the fact that nobody seems to know what it is we do and we have pondered how to get the message out. In the last few years the "Got Milk?®" (yes, it's a registered trademark) campaign has been analogized to our situation. I decided to look into the milk campaign itself to see if there was anything encouraging to be found. I confess I got so many dairy facts I felt like cow-ering under my desk. But at the risk of learning something about our own situation, I decided it was worth it.
The first fact I found was surprising, to say the least. In the words of the International Dairy Foods Association's "2004 Dairy Facts" booklet, "Total sales of fluid milk products in the United States have changed little in the past 20 years ' 2003 per capita sales ... continued a long-term decline." Considering there are 57 million more consumers than there were 20 years ago, this dry sentence reveals an industry in devastation, in near-total free-fall. And it gets worse. In every category, the industry is virtually disappearing. "The number of dairy farms has been steadily falling, from more than 117,000 in 1980 to about 58,000 in 2003." The number of milk cows fell by 55,000 in 2003 alone. Milk processing plants, 1,190 in 1982, are at 612 today.
The only thing keeping milk on our store shelves are government subsidies and, of all things, the mighty cow. The only statistic that has consistently grown has been how much milk we are getting out of each cow. "Once again the industry increased the national average milk per cow, now up to 18,749 lbs. [2,175 gal.]" As for government subsidies, we taxpayers are paying a lot more for our milk than what we pay at the store. Checks cut directly to dairy farmers run over $1 billion a year, which exceeds a cap that the Bush administration wants to raise to $2 billion per year. The Federal Milk Marketing Order system sets minimum prices that processors must pay for milk, and in 2004, in July in the Northeast, this price was $2.10, which translated to $3.50+ in the stores. And if a dairy farmer should not sell his entire "quota" for any month, the government steps in and buys it — or rather buys the store's consumer-packaged and higher-priced version of it.
Which brings us to "Got Milk?®" The celebrity mustache campaign, which just had its 10th birthday, is funded by the milk processors' trade association, with only some help from the dairy farmers. The processors, after all, have the biggest capital investments and have the most to lose from the ongoing dairy meltdown. Dairy farms can easily switch to other farming operations, and when the embargo on Canadian dairy cows because of mad cow disease hit home, they simply sold off a third of their herds for beef and made a tidy profit. The processors have no such options, and they are smart enough to realize that as far as government subsidies go, what politicians giveth, politicians can taketh just as fast.
A similar campaign has been discussed to solve our solid surface dilemma. The elements seem to be in place. Around 60 manufacturers of mostly quality product is a far cry from the old days when we could count them on one hand. And though the size of the industries are quite different (solid surface $1 billion worldwide vs. milk $70 billion U.S.), the demand is potentially there. More importantly, many of our manufacturers have hugely deeper pockets than any of the 300 processors funding the milk campaign.
Challenges? First, the manufacturers would have to have a true motivation to cooperate in such an effort. There are no signs that this would happen easily. The only time in recorded history that principals from all the significant solid surface manufacturers gathered around a table was February 1999, at an ISSFA meeting at The Riviera hotel, a meeting at which I was in attendance; and trust me, the issues discussed were not earthshaking. Egos and proprietary thinking are heavy baggage to overcome, and the only antidote would be leadership and vision. Second, there would have to be a mechanism in place to get such a dialogue off the ground, and it would have to be one in which the manufacturers themselves were the principal stakeholders.
The one overpowering positive is something entrepreneurs, even large corporations, are very familiar with: risk/reward. The risk would be a substantial advertising investment. Spread among 60 or so companies, I wonder if this would be all that significant. On the reward side, such a campaign would have the advantage of seeming to come from a neutral source (a not-for-profit trade association) that would have only the consumers' best interests at heart: to trumpet an all-new surfacing option. Even an incremental increase in sales would be significant. A sheet of solid surface costs a lot more than a gallon of milk.