Contract Manufacturers are the unsung heroes of modern industry. But if they're going to fight the competition and commoditisation that threatens their growth, isn't it time they emerged from the shadows?
This article argues that contract manufacturing organisations (CMs) must focus more time and energy on brand building to fight stagnating pipelines and growing competition. They must demonstrate their unique value to customers or risk losing everything in victorless price wars.
CMs: the strong, silent type?
Since the 1970s, CMs have been the engine of the world economy. They’ve helped ambitious companies find economies of scale in procurement and manufacturing.
Quietly, and behind the scenes, they’ve transformed the lives and choices of consumers by making a wider range of higher-quality goods cheaper and more accessible than ever before.
CMs: driving the global economy
And the opportunities are still growing.
And while other areas of the economy are still faltering in the wake of the pandemic and geo-political uncertainty, contract manufacturing is projected to expand. In fact, some sectors, such as electronics design and manufacturing, are predicted to grow annually by nearly 10%, at least until the end of the decade.
Covid drove growth in key verticals
During the Covid crisis, sectors like healthcare received a considerable boost from Contract Manufacturing. The instant scalability of CM supply lines drove the rapid production of vaccines and IVD devices (the personal In-Vitro Diagnostic testing kits) that saved millions of lives.
And the future is looking bright for medical device contract manufacturers with an ageing population, as well as miniaturisation and IOT development, driving leaps in tech-based care. Between 2022 and 2030 it’s reckoned the size of the healthcare contract manufacturing market will double from $246 billion to $513 billion with a CAGR of 9.5%.
It's the future for many other sectors.
The CM sector is supporting the latest automotive, industrial and consumer electronics innovations elsewhere. Miniaturised technology and IoT are powering the driverless cars, smart factories and sustainable energy solutions shaping all our futures.
While OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) deliver cutting-edge research and development, CMs quietly undertake the procurement, assembly, regulation, testing and logistic tasks that deliver the finished products to market on their behalf.
If the sector is growing, why is your pipeline stagnating?
But while the future demand for CM services seems inevitable, growth and profitability can still be elusive for individual contract manufacturers trying to survive in a hyper-competitive space.
So, what's holding you back?
1. Supply chain disruption?
Brexit, the war in Ukraine, geopolitical uncertainty, extreme weather, and Covid have all hit access to raw materials and components for CMs. Many have found it hard to fight back from these blows and communicate honestly with their clients about the state of the supply chain.
2. Margin erosion?
Rising prices in labour and materials have eroded margins. Contract manufacturers are finding it hard to keep expanding their client offerings while driving profits.
3. Lack of IP?
Clients own the products they create, but most contractor manufacturers don’t. With no IP to their name, CMs can feel buffeted by market forces rather than leaders in innovation.
For too many CMs, a small number of clients are responsible for most of their revenue. Growth and diversification are vital for survival, but money is often spent on retention rather than delivering new business.
5. CMOs seem interchangeable?
Many OEMs simply can’t see much differentiation in the products and services offered by rival CMs. As a result, contract manufacturing partners are seen as dispensable and interchangeable.
Why brand loyalty is in short supply
A lack of communication around supply chain challenges and potential solutions has destroyed trust between many CMOs and their clients. Overseas competition has resulted in increasingly bitter and damaging price wars.
Outsourcing manufacturing might be a strategic necessity, but that doesn’t mean OEMs are embracing their individual suppliers as long-term, strategic partners.
Loyalty is a rare commodity in the digital age, where moving between suppliers can be as simple as flicking a switch. Many OEMs have numerous suppliers that they play off each other; they use a global network of design, manufacture and logistic companies to drive down costs and hedge their bets.
Lack of differentiation is the ultimate turn-off.
The danger for contract manufacturers who aren’t establishing their unique value, authority and importance in the market right now is that their clients may choose to permanently ‘switch them off’ in the future.
The fightback has started.
But we know contract manufacturers are fighting back. Faced with stiff global competition and static sales pipelines, they’re upgrading their technology and their suite of offerings to meet the challenges of a disrupted market:
- CMs are developing technology to give clients better supply chain visibility through new and sophisticated digital platforms.
- They listen to the market’s call for ethical working and procurement practices to protect vulnerable environments and populations.
- They’re re-shoring manufacturing to fight the risk of future supply chain disruption.
- They are investing heavily in new factories and equipment
- They’re increasing their end-to-end offerings through design, regulatory, value engineering and logistics services
But is the message getting through?
But none of this will count if these messages aren’t getting through.
According to CMI (Content Marketing Institute) research, 50% of contract manufacturers admit their reliance on traditional marketing strategies is failing them in this brave new world.
As the CMI notes, ’outbound strategies such as cold calling, email blasts and direct mail are failing to find and nurture right fit leads. They’re failing to help CMs gain the confidence and trust of sophisticated and knowledgeable media consumers.
Instead, to build better long-term and profitable pipelines, they argue, more time and resources must be spent on building the authority and authenticity of their voice in the marketplace.
CMs need to build trust and demonstrate expertise through content, becoming a strategic resource that prospective customers naturally gravitate towards for insight and support.
In other words, CMs positioning themselves for growth need to cut through the noise of a crowded, undifferentiated market by focusing on brand and marketing.
It’s easier said than done.
And some in the industry can see the writing on the wall. The latest CMI research shows CM marketers are still pushing for more investment in content publishing and brand focus to support differentiation and long-term sales growth. But they still need to persuade the board that this focus is the way forward.
Past research from CMI showed over half of the manufacturing marketers were struggling to sway the traditional, interruptive sales mindset that prevails in senior management. They believed that a lack of time and dedicated resources for content creation and promotion is in the way of sustained and strategic lead generation.
Right now, the vast majority of organisations are not levering the right tech fast enough to keep pace with the digital age:
Sixty-seven percent of manufacturing marketers said their organization either hasn’t acquired the right content management technology – or has the technology but isn’t using it to potential.
The hunt is on
But finding the right agency partners to help contract marketers build their case is a considerable challenge. There’s currently a lack of industry knowledge in the agency world. There’s a lack of leaders with experience who can advise CMs on marketing strategy.
There are not enough expert manufacturing writers who can author compelling content for the sector. Worse, there’s no confidence that agencies have the track record and methodology to bring about rapid brand growth with the trackable ROI they need.
Stepping out from the shadows
The time for Contract Manufacturers to be the invisible heroes of the sector is passed. These companies need to become an honest, trusted and vivid presence in the lives of their customers as they make their critical buying decisions. But to make this happen, CMs must find partners who can help them find their voice in the market, tell their stories in uniquely powerful ways, and fill their pipeline with long-term and sustaining sales opportunities.
Editors note: This blog was originally published in June 2022 and has since been updated for optimal accuracy and relevance.