The heavy construction industry is ripe with incredible machinery, technologies, materials, and methods, many of which are considered trade secrets. How can you protect them while marketing? It’s obviously important to protect yourself from a legal standpoint, but this article will focus strictly on the marketing aspect.
I dealt with this issue back in 1999 as editor of Constructioneer Magazine, photographing and writing job stories on heavy construction projects in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. The corridor from New York City down to Philadelphia is arguably the most complex and challenging market in the country. Getting access to and navigating a $100+ million public project with a camera dangling from my neck provided some interesting cocktail party stories.
Handling the Double-Edged Sword
To promote or not to promote? It’s a question every heavy construction company has dealt with at some point. If you promote it, you run the risk of someone stealing your idea. If you don’t promote it, you will struggle to raise awareness and develop new business.
Let me give you an example. Back in the late 1990s, I was dealing with a New Jersey-based equipment dealer that had developed a saw cutting truck with a 180-degree rotating arm that allowed tiles to be cut more efficiently, especially in tunnels. They invited me out to the Midtown Tunnel one night to do a story on how the truck was being used on a rehab of the north tube. I won’t tell you about the drama that unfolded because it’s off topic. The point is that the company sought publicity in spite of the threat that its new and unique concept could be stolen.
What if they hadn’t welcomed the publicity and kept the truck behind closed curtains? No advertising. No publicity. Nothing. How would they have increased market share? This leads to another point. Is there any other way the idea could have been discovered and stolen?
How Trade Secrets Were Stolen in the Past
Ideas have always been stolen in the heavy construction industry. The only thing that has changed is the way it’s done.
In the old days, someone would have been recruited to drive out and spy on a jobsite. Or perhaps someone within the company with loose lips gave up the ghost. And of course, the risk of former employees revealing a company’s innermost secrets is timeless.
Unless you were working on a top-secret government project, your secrets were never completely safe. Even then you could have been compromised. Any sense of security that you might have felt was false.
How Trade Secrets are Stolen Today
The internet has made the theft of trade secrets easier and safer. Globalization has changed the game as well. These two factors work together to present a whole new level of danger to your trade secrets.
We know that unscrupulous manufacturers in overseas markets are trolling websites and social media looking for product ideas to adopt. And, of course, there’s the camera-wielding thieves that swarm your trade show booth and crank off rapid-fire close-ups of your machinery. We won’t get into that here because the obvious solution is to secure your booth.
If there’s any solace, it’s the fact that the products they manufacture are often subpar and unable to meet the standards required in the American marketplace.
The Fragile Line Between Promotion and Protection
Whether you manufacture or distribute a product, or provide a service, you need to find the balance between marketing and protecting your trade secrets. It can be done, but it’s difficult.
Your areas of vulnerability might include your website, social media, outbound emails, newsletters, job stories, and any other public-facing outlet. The best defense is to know where to draw the line on what you reveal.
This is an area where hiring a specialist like Fraley Construction Marketing matters. We play defense on every project to outfox the idea thieves. A generalist doesn’t fully understand the threat that exists and is likely to reveal too much.
Protecting a Contracting Innovation
Are you a contractor that has modified a piece of equipment or construction process to improve productivity? This obviously gives you a leg up at bid time as well. The key is not to reveal too many details, especially if it’s a process that can be replicated or an equipment modification that can be easily rigged up in the shop.
Let’s be honest. It’s also important to consider whether you even need publicity on this innovation. If you have no plans to offer it as a specific service, it won’t attract new business, and you have no interest in displaying your ingenuity to prospective customers, it’s probably best to steer clear.
Hiding in the shadows wasn’t an option for former contractor R.G. LeTorneau whose equipment innovations morphed into a manufacturing business that went on to produce more than 300 heavy equipment patents. Click here to read a past blog about how he successfully put content marketing to work before the term even existed.
Promoting and Protecting Equipment or Materials
Let’s say you’re offering a unique machine, construction material, or technology. Publicity isn’t optional since you need to raise awareness on a large scale. Word of mouth and repeat business only go so far.The key is to make sure you understand the lynchpin of your trade secret and protect it jealously. It may be a specific part or ingredient that you must never photograph or put in writing. Click To Tweet
Listerine did this well, at least for a while. The unique antiseptic liquid compound was invented in the 1880s and successfully kept its ingredients secret, Ironically, it was revealed at some point in the early 1900s under a new owner.
A few tips to protect yourself:
- Never display a close-up photograph or video of the lynchpin because it would allow duplication.
- Never post specific details, i.e. product specifications on your website, emails, or social media. Always ask yourself what would happen if this information got into the wrong hands.
- Never relay the exact details and order of any construction process.
- Never post specific quantities of any construction material. It’s fine to mention the ingredients of your mix design, but avoid revealing exact amounts.
Market, But Proceed with Caution
There are many companies in the industry whose existence is based on patents. Sometimes it’s a single product or construction process. They often exist in a publicity vacuum, hoping that the patent doesn’t expire or their secret doesn’t get stolen and adopted by the competition. This is a dangerous way to do business.It’s possible, and often necessary, to safely market without compromising your trade secrets but you must exercise caution. The key is to operate with a defensive mindset before hitting publish. Click To Tweet
Follow the advice of former Intel CEO Andy Grove when it comes to marketing and protecting your trade secrets. He said: “only the paranoid survive.”
How does your business handle the marketing of trade secrets and other sensitive information?
Do you need help marketing a sensitive product or service ? Click here to find out how we can help.