Throughout the timber industry in Europe, there is recognition of a need to improve marketing activities and the level of promotion of timber products. It is acknowledged that other industries have promoted their products far more successfully than the timber industry and that as a consequence, market share and opportunities have been lost to competitor products and materials. Arguably, the most notable example of this trend has been the overwhelming use of PVC in window manufacture. It has been noted that highly active marketing and promotion by the plastics industry has contributed to the rapid substitution by this material.
Governments are taking increasing interest in their forest products industries. For example, in a recent study by the European Commission and Confédération des Industries du Bois, the competitiveness of the European wood industries and how this could be improved was examined. It was found that increasing demand, for wood and for wood products in general, is a key factor that will have a knock-on effect in all areas of the timber industry. The tropical hardwood industry should be ready to take advantage of this. The report also suggests that the greatest improvements to the industry be gained through market `pull' rather than supply `push'. Clearly, this requires consumers to `buy into' the propositions for the rejuvenation of the timber industry. This will require a highly proactive and concerted effort by the European Union timber industry to recreate a `wood using' culture in Europe. Some of the recommendations to help generate this demand included:
· education: increase awareness of the quality of timber products as well as the environmental benefits to be gained from their use;
· promotion: communicate the value and the benefits of wood products to persons/organizations involved the sale, distribution, processing and uses of timber products. The report, nevertheless, points out that promotion of wood per se, without any other built-in benefits or providing solutions, does not create a lasting impact;
· co-ordination: focus the support of academic, institutional and corporate research and development programs to provide new, market driven, product and service solutions, especially total solutions where both product and its application are combined into the product concept;
· market access: facilitation of infrastructure (logistics, standards/norms) supported by concerted market and industry-wide databases and networking.
It should be borne in mind that these measures were, however, recommended in order to improve the competitiveness of the European timber industry and as a consequence would have a bias towards softwoods and temperate hardwood species. Nevertheless, a general rise in the consumption of timber products could well have a positive `knock-on' effect for tropical timbers. Campaigns by the tropical industry should, therefore, aim to complement the promotion of temperate species by highlighting the additional positive features of tropical hardwoods, for example, their excellent natural durability and appearance.
The findings of the study indicate that, with one or two exceptions, the main markets for tropical timbers will, in the future, lie in `traditional' areas. The challenge is now to maintain or increase market share in these end uses. It has been noted that significant market share has been lost to both wood and non-wood based alternative materials in recent years. There are many reasons for this trend, however, the public perception of tropical timbers, promotion/marketing by competitor manufacturers and price are all factors. It is likely that a thorough understanding of the current end-use markets and improving the perception or `image' of tropical timbers through educational/promotional campaigns will assist in maintaining or increasing market share.
An issue, highlighted by the study, was the paucity of data available on the end uses for tropical and temperate timbers alike. Without this information it is, naturally, difficult to make informed decisions on how and where tropical timbers should be actively marketed and promoted. It is, clearly, important to understand these markets thoroughly. However, it is also clear from the study that the end uses vary widely from country to country in the European Union. It is, therefore, recommended that a study on end uses within the main tropical timber consuming countries within Europe be instigated.
A possible key to obtaining up-to-date and regular information on end uses is establishment and maintenance of a network of contacts within the industry who are prepared to give regular feedback on the market situation. This should be considered.
Tropical timbers have suffered and continue to suffer from negative images connected with tropical forest depletion. Positive publicity and educational programmes to counter this are recommended. Whilst environmental concerns are now also encompassing forest types other than tropical, public perceptions are still biased against tropical timbers. However, care should be taken to ensure that the campaigns to promote tropical timbers are not seen to be coming solely from the tropical hardwood industry alone, since this may be perceived to be biased, one-sided and possibly untrue. A study to identify the most `acceptable' way to present such information, in which format and at which target groups should also be considered.
Promotional and educational campaigns should also be targeted more specifically at those involved in specifying materials. These include architects and builders' merchants in particular. This is one group that is already being targeted for promotional campaigns by building material manufacturers of all types. Some parts of the tropical hardwood industry have also started to increase the amount of information that they supply to this group. Nevertheless, careful consideration should be to the types of information that different user groups require and how this should be presented to them (e.g. through trade shows, presentations, printed literature and computer-based formats). In addition, the infrastructural requirements (support, supply, etc.) should be considered. For example, the ability to supply a comprehensive customer service to address any technical issues which may arise as the result of using a particular timber, in a given situation, will become increasingly important if lesser known species are to be utilized and/or new end users identified.
An interesting point arising from the study is the possible contradiction between what the industry perceives the buying public requires and what the public actually likes in terms of tropical timber products. This has implications in terms of the introduction of plantation and lesser known species. It is, therefore, recommended that a study of consumer attitudes towards issues of product appearance, quality, etc. be instigated.
A frequent comment is that tropical timbers are often undersold. Promotional campaigns highlighting tropical timbers as `quality' material should be considered.
Whilst price is undoubtedly a key issue in the purchasing decisions of buyers of tropical timber products, quality consistency and supply regularity and dependability are also important features. In these, latter aspects, tropical timbers often do not fare well against competitive products.
Measures taken to increase the `closeness' of links between European companies and supplier countries are to be encouraged so as to ensure that products being supplied are of the required specifications. European importers and merchants also need to improve their market information about end-users' needs and requirements, since this could well lead to increased opportunities for diversification. To do this a greater understanding of the opinions and decision-making processes of ultimate end users is required.
Improved stability of prices was an issue highlighted during the course of the study as a factor that could help strengthen trade in tropical hardwoods. Large fluctuations and instability in prices make it difficult for architects, for example (who may be preparing quotations up to a year in advance of purchasing materials), to have confidence in project costs and as a consequence, specify other materials.
The marketing of lesser known tropical hardwood species was reported by the industry to be difficult. It was felt that the exporting countries should be responsible for this. Furthermore, it was considered that the best way to introduce lesser known species was through its use in a value added products where design, quality and service are considered more important than the `tradition' of using a certain species in a particular country for a given end use.
In addition to the aforementioned general recommendations a number of further, more specific, measures are proposed. These have been listed by primary product type as follows.
Emphasize the natural durability of certain species. This feature is particularly important in such `extreme' situations such as some exterior applications and in marine environments.
In less harsh environments, the natural durability of tropical timbers can also be promoted and can be exploited in such applications as garden furniture and decking applications. Here, improved product longevity (and appearance) without the need for wood preservatives would be advantageous, especially if in the future fears over the safety of preservatives are realized.
Windows and exterior doors are an area in which tropical timbers have suffered. Increased emphasis should be placed on the quality and durability of tropical timber products along with improved design and the development of high quality coatings to reduce maintenance. The environmental benefits, along with reparability, should be promoted. Performance guarantees should be adopted by manufacturers to further encourage potential buyers. Informed publicity and information about using tropical timbers in these situations should be encouraged.
Plywood is coming under increasing threat of substitution for certain applications from other panel products, most notably OSB. The main reason for substitution in this case is price. Reservations about the long-term performance of OSB have, however, restricted the use of this product to date. Nevertheless, advances in product performance accompanied by issues of price will undoubtedly place increasing pressure on tropical plywood.
Little quantifiable information on the end uses of tropical plywood arose from this survey. There is a need (possibly as part of a larger survey) for market research to be carried out to identify speciality niche markets for tropical plywood and to determine how they can be maintained and developed. In areas where tropical plywood is being substituted the reasons for substitution should be identified.
The natural durability and quality of tropical hardwood plywood is one area which should be promoted to maintain market share in marine applications and situations where the product may, unintentionally, become exposed to water.
The main end uses of tropical veneers are for the manufacture of plywood and for overlays. It seems likely that the use of tropical veneers for the manufacture of plywood within Europe will decline in the future. However, the evidence which suggest that darker coloured woods are again becoming fashionable, may provide opportunities for tropical veneers in overlay applications. Since the main products overlaid with veneers are wood-based panels, in particular MDF, close links between MDF manufacturers and end users should be developed in order to understand customers needs. In doing so, the veneer industry should be in a better position to respond to market needs. Increasing competition from other overlay materials, however, poses a threat and the veneer industry needs to try and work with the MDF industry to ensure that veneers are not completely substituted by synthetic alternatives.
The following recommendations for developing the markets for teak and plantation grown species are made (many of these recommendations are also relevant to the tropical hardwood trade in general).
Since the properties of plantation teak invariably differ from those of Java teak and teak from natural forest, the former should be marketed differently and new markets sought and developed.
Plantation grown teak and other species show market promise in mass markets where they can be manufactured into a niche market product, or semi-finished product and marketed as such. Furniture, flooring, decking, kitchen utensils, etc., are all such examples.
Lamination and finger jointing may offer opportunities for utilizing small dimension pieces of plantation species in selected end uses. The end uses should not be those where a lack of natural durability is an issue, since it is likely that lamination and finger jointing will utilize timber with inferior properties in this respect.
End products where aspects of design and quality are of importance should be developed, rather than trying to substitute traditional end uses such as boat trim and decking, in the case of teak, with less suitable plantation grown wood.
Certification is likely to become an increasingly important issue in the future. If this is realized then plantation grown species such as teak may have an important role to play and plantations should be managed accordingly.
In the long term, high quality plantation grown teak, similar to that currently produced by Indonesia, may be produced from existing plantations. However, the plantations should be managed in such a way that they are capable of producing this quality in the future.
Improvements in the quality of sawmilling were thought (by some of the people interviewed) to be required in some producer countries. While it was thought that the quality of the timber in many countries is comparable to other geographical regions the quality of the sawmilling was lowering the `image' of the timber produced by some countries.