How Industrial Distributors Can Use Product Mapping

Terry Sambrowski walks you through how product mapping can help distributors work with clients to make more effective purchasing decisions.

Product mapping, also known as perceptual product mapping or composite product mapping is a marketing technique that has been used since the 1950s. The goals of product mapping, among other things, are to help determine what consumers think about certain products and how products in the same product category compare to each other. 

For example, a manufacturer of a cleaning solution may want to know how their product, let’s call it “brand A,” compares to its competitors who manufacture brands “B,” “C,” and “D.”

Based on interviews with purchasers as well as observed buying patterns, our manufacturer finds that their brand “A” is slightly more expensive than brands C and D, but less expensive than product B.  However, of the four products, Brand B is the best seller. Looking more closely, they find that purchasers view this manufacturer’s cleaning solution (Brand B) as more effective than products A, C, and D. Accordingly, this tells them that consumers are willing to pay more for Brand B, the most costly brand, because they find it more effective.

So our product map would look something like this:

Product Mapping and Distributors

But product mapping can be used in other ways as well, and this is where astute distributors come in. It can help a client determine what their staff members – and/or the users of the distributor’s products – think about certain products based on a number of variables. Sometimes the results are surprising, but more often than not, they can help distributors – working with their clients – make more effective and cost effective purchasing decisions.

To show how this might work, let’s use another example. And because my focus is the professional cleaning industry, this is an example of how we use product mapping to find more effective and cost effective products for our group purchasing members. 

This large cleaning contractor has been purchasing four different types of floor finish for several years, brands A, B, C, and D. The contractor has had little feedback from her crews about how these products perform, so she assumes they are performing well. All she knows for sure is that they do vary in price, with a couple of brands relatively inexpensive and two others definitely more pricey.

Because she has received little feedback – and assumes this means these products are all working effectively – her first thought is to stop selecting the more costly floor finishes and just purchase the least expensive brand. However, before doing that, we suggested that the contractor use a product mapping strategy to really find out “what’s what” when it comes to the floor finishes her crews are using.

What we discovered is mapped below:

As a result of product mapping, we have the following results:

  • Interestingly, Brand A is the most expensive finish but the crew says it is the poorest performing, so our contractor eliminates Brand A.
  • Similarly, Brand B is not that well received and it is one of the higher-priced finishes, so she also eliminates this one.
  • Brand C gets an acceptable performance rating and is not that costly, so the contractor keeps this brand under consideration.
  • Brand D, however, gets very high marks for performance and while it is moderately expensive, the added expense may result in greater worker productivity and customer satisfaction.

In this case, our cleaning contractor decides to select Brand D for most purposes and Brand C for those facilities that have, for instance, less foot traffic and fewer building users. For this cleaning contractor, this has proven to be a significant cost savings.

Making it Work

These examples show essentially how a product mapping strategy works. When using the strategy for the first time, sometimes it is easier to just use one metric such as the feedback on how well a product performs or just compare products based on costs. Then you can compare and combine a number of different metrics with your clients, such as the following:

  • Performance
  • Costs
  • Durability
  • Environmental factors and sustainability
  • Ease of application
  • Safety*

Ultimately, the goal of product mapping is to select the best product at the best price. This is why we encourage our group purchasing members and their clients to use product mapping on a regular basis. Your customers are purchasing thousands of dollars’ worth of products every year. Helping them select the most cost-effective and best-performing products may result not only in significant cost savings for them, but also a loyal customer for years to come.

Terry Sambrowski is executive director of the National Service Alliance (NSA), a leading group purchasing organization (GPO) for larger building service contractors and related businesses in the United States.  She can be reached through her organization’s website at

*These metrics may vary depending on the types of products being compared.

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