When global manufacturer PPG Industries was founded in 1883, high-tech marketing meant printing a flyer. Today, it means keeping up with constantly changing digital channels and platforms. PPG recently got the chance to explore new approaches for marketing its paint brands when it created the web-based Paint Sample Selector tool for one of the world’s largest home-improvement retailers. The solution had to help consumers to make sense of 5,000 paint choices, run with high reliability, and scale to support sudden spikes. PPG accomplished this with the Windows Azure platform for cloud computing and Microsoft Silverlight. Site visitors use the tool intuitively and immediately. The solution has scaled to support sudden spikes of 800 percent. And PPG has found a technology that meets its criteria for a long-term, global marketing platform.Situation
It’s probably fair to say that a company doesn’t get to be 128 years old, operate manufacturing facilities in more than 60 countries around the world, and earn annual revenues of more than U.S.$13 billion, without knowing how to market itself.
So what was PPG Industries worried about?
||Windows Azure is the glue that holds together everything we’ve done. The business logic and data is hosted in Windows Azure and shared among the applications and platforms.
Global Business IT Director, PPG Industries
The company is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of coatings and specialty products. Those products are used in or on homes and buildings of all types, airplanes, golf balls, circuit boards, packaging, appliances, flooring, automobiles, bridges, high-performance lenses, electronic passports, and “green” car tires—among others. A lesser company would be satisfied with this. But PPG executives saw their continued market leadership as a challenge to be met, not an assumption on which to rest.
“We want to drive our brands to maintain and expand their market positions,” says Chris Caruso, Global Business IT Director at PPG Industries. “When you’re looking at a global market, it requires an increasing reliance on digital platforms that can reach your customers wherever they are. How we use technology to expand our global market reach will be a key differentiator, a competitive advantage for years to come. We have to get it right.”
But with digital platforms evolving so rapidly, what works today might not be what works tomorrow. Caruso and his colleagues needed to keep their strategy for digital marketing evolving just as rapidly as the technology itself.
PPG got an opportunity to advance that strategy in December 2010 when it was approached by one of its biggest customers—one of the world’s top home-improvement retailers. PPG had been selling its Olympic®-brand paints exclusively through the retailer for about 14 years. The retailer had targeted consumers in their 20s and 30s, who were perhaps buying their first apartments and houses, and who could become lifelong customers. That target group was also highly interested in using Internet-based sales and marketing channels.
Hence the retailer’s interest in an online application, ColorClix Visualizer, which PPG had built for its own Olympic brand website. With the application, consumers can easily choose the type of room they want to paint—bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, for example—and the colors they might want to use on the walls, trim, ceiling, and as an accent. Seeing the results of various color combinations is as simple as dragging and dropping color swatches and watching a photograph of the selected room change to reflect the new color scheme. Consumers can save their projects online, share them, and return to them later.
The home-improvement retailer wanted to link to the ColorClix Visualizer—and more. It also wanted PPG to develop and host a web-based solution to make it just as easy for its customers to select and buy samples of the paints—any paints, in any combination, from any manufacturer—in its inventory. That’s 5,000 paints.
The challenge was daunting to PPG. First was the question of how to enable consumers to make informed, successful choices among 5,000 electronic swatches of paint. Second was the question of how and where to host the paint-choosing application, assuming it could be built. PPG couldn’t reliably build out capacity at its own data center when it lacked a good forecast of the load that the application would generate—and of the speed, size, and frequency with which that load would vary in response to marketing promotions by the retailer.
Did PPG want to take on the assignment? It did.Solution
It was relatively easy for PPG to resolve the question of how and where to host the solution, which came to be called the Paint Sample Selector. A few months earlier, in October 2010, PPG had decided to move its Olympic.com website, then hosted internally, to a cloud-computing provider. The company had been attracted by the broad promise of cloud computing: a hosting environment that could provide as much scalability as needed, and that could be scaled back just as readily so that the company would pay only for what it used.
||The spike in traffic went up like a rocket, but it didn’t faze Windows Azure. We saw we had no reason to be concerned about scalability.
Global Business IT Director, PPG Industries
“We looked at several cloud options, but our final choice was our main choice all along: Windows Azure,” says Caruso. Windows Azure, the Microsoft cloud services development, hosting, and management environment, provides on-demand computing, storage, networking, and content delivery through Microsoft data centers.
“We felt more comfortable with the Microsoft platform because we knew our long-term need was for a platform that could support the major international presence of our major brands. We wanted to move more of our marketing presence to the cloud over time, and we wanted a platform that could support that,” says Caruso. “We didn’t want to have to rely on a series of hosters. We didn’t want to have to manage our servers—onsite or in a cloud. We wanted the platform to be provided to us as a managed service. We wanted cloud technology that was already familiar to our developers and IT administrators, and that would fit with the technology we already had in place. We wanted Windows Azure.”
The qualities that earned Windows Azure the job of hosting Olympic.com are even more important for the Paint Sample Selector. The application appears on the website of one of the world’s largest retailers, generating high traffic. That volume can vary widely and quickly, depending on the retailer’s promotions. And if there were ever an outage, it wouldn’t put just PPG’s reputation at risk; PPG would be putting its customer’s reputation at risk, too.
To help ensure the best possible performance for a global audience, PPG supports the solution with the Windows Azure Content Delivery Network (CDN). With Windows Azure CDN, PPG can store the visual data for those 5,000 paint samples, in addition to the potentially far larger amount of data contained in the projects that consumers can save to the site. The company can handle sudden peaks in load more easily. And it can put content closer to consumers, wherever in the world those consumers are, to boost performance and reduce latency. Image storage is managed in Windows Azure Blob Storage and metadata about the paint colors is managed in Microsoft SQL Azure, the self-managed, multitenant relational cloud database service built on Microsoft SQL Server technologies.
Making Sense of 5,000 Colors
After deciding on Windows Azure for hosting, Caruso and his colleagues still faced the challenge of developing the solution and, especially, of finding a way for consumers to make sense of the 5,000 color options available to them.
Then they came across Microsoft Silverlight PivotViewer technology in Microsoft Silverlight 4, a powerful tool for creating and delivering rich Internet applications and media experiences on the Web. Silverlight PivotViewer seemed as if it had been invented precisely to meet PPG’s need. The technology makes it easier for users to work with thousands of data elements in highly visual, useful, and intuitive ways. More than just enabling users to navigate through data, Silverlight PivotViewer creates value for users by putting individual data elements in the context of both the entire group of elements and within subgroups of the data.
This is exactly how PPG put Silverlight PivotViewer to use. Customers approaching the full color palette of the Paint Sample Selector (Figure 1, first screen) can use a menu-driven column on the left of the screen to select a variety of color subsets to consider. They can select colors by color group (e.g., yellows, reds, blues), color family (muted, bright, shaded, pure), brand, and popularity. They can select a single criterion to explore a large number of colors, or add a second criterion (e.g., muted reds, Olympic blues, the most popular bright colors).
|Figure 1: With the Paint Sample Selector and ColorClix Visualizer,|
a web visitor can go from 5,000 colors to seeing a chosen color
on a sample wall in just five steps.
Or, customers can continually add to their criteria, narrowing their choices as they go. As shown in the second screen in Figure 2, the customer has selected “bright/clean” greens, and then (third screen) has chosen the most popular Olympic paints from that group. In two steps, the customer has reduced the set of 5,000 colors to just 5.
The customer might then select a color—here, Olympic B66-6 Bell Pepper (fourth screen)—with details about the color appearing on the right. The customer can click to order a paint sample or, as in this example, click to bring the color into the ColorClix Visualizer. There, it’s possible to see how the paint looks on, for example, the wall of a bedroom (fifth screen).
What these screenshots don’t capture is the deep zoom effect with which the Paint Sample Selector works. Colors fly in and out of the screen and reorganize themselves according to the customer’s selection, and zoom from the full color set to a subset or to a single color, and back again, as the customer changes criteria and view settings. Both Silverlight PivotViewer and Windows Azure make this possible; the deep zoom effect is obtained by moving among 13 separate images, at varying resolutions, for each of the 5,000 colors—greatly increasing the data load on Windows Azure and relying on Windows Azure CDN to deliver all of those images and resolutions seamlessly, wherever they’re needed.
A Family of Applications
More than developing a single Paint Sample Selector application, PPG has developed what Caruso calls “a family of applications” that work together across the retailer’s website and PPG’s Olympic brand website—applications for capturing colors from the real world (e.g., nature, a magazine, a museum painting)—translating the colors into choices for selecting paints from an inventory of thousands, for exploring the use of selected paints on sample rooms, and for ordering paint samples.
The “family” also extends to several platforms. The applications run on the web, desktops, and phones. The purpose is to make the tools available to consumers wherever they happen to be—and to make consumers’ developing projects available to them as they move from home, to dinner with friends, to one of the retailer’s stores. The enabling technology behind this variety is Windows Azure.
“Windows Azure is the glue that holds together everything we’ve done,” says Caruso. “The business logic and data is hosted in Windows Azure and shared among the applications and platforms.”Benefits
PPG used Microsoft technologies to create compelling consumer-facing marketing application; to host that application on a tremendously scalable platform with global reach; and to point to a long-term, flexible, powerful digital platform for the company’s 40 brands.
Achieves 80 Percent Visitor Adoption Rate
PPG’s first goal for the Paint Sample Selector was to create a highly intuitive, engaging, and useful application that would serve consumers by facilitating their paint choices and purchases. Meeting that goal would be a sales and marketing benefit for PPG’s customer, the home-improvement retailer, which would in turn reinforce the relationship between it and PPG.
||We went from conception to product launch in six weeks—that’s how easy and intuitive this technology is to use.
Global Business IT Director, PPG Industries
Validation of the intuitive nature of the application—and especially of Silverlight PivotViewer—came just four minutes after the application’s launch. That’s how long it took for a site visitor to use the tool to find the one paint sample, among 5,000, that had been specially marked as part of a launch promotion. “We didn’t include any instructions on the site about how to use Silverlight PivotViewer,” says Caruso. “We didn’t need to. People ‘get it’ immediately.”
There are more quantifiable measures of success. “All the web metrics we track point to our success; it’s phenomenal,” says Caruso. “Eighty percent of visitors to the site use the tool, and 30 percent of visitors use it between 5 and 30 minutes at a time.
Supports Sudden, 800 Percent Spikes in Web Traffic
PPG chose to host the Paint Sample Selector on Windows Azure and the Windows Azure Content Delivery Network to gain the benefits of unlimited scalability, reliability, and global performance. It made the right choice.
After a period in which the solution was available on the retailer’s site but unadvertised, the retailer formally launched the Paint Sample Selector by introducing it to 500,000 of its closest friends—Facebook friends, that is—on a Sunday evening in January 2011. To prepare for the launch, PPG doubled the number of Windows Azure instances supporting the solution from two to four. Within minutes of the Facebook launch, traffic on the application’s site soared by 800 percent.
“The spike in traffic went up like a rocket, but it didn’t faze Windows Azure,” says Caruso. “We saw we had no reason to be concerned about scalability. And we can set additional instances to kick in automatically when needed, so we don’t even have to think about how high the traffic might go.”
Meets Criteria for Long-Term, Global Marketing Platform
PPG saw the Paint Sample Selector project as an opportunity to advance its exploration of digital marketing solutions that can be applied across its product line. That opportunity, too, is paying off for the company.
First, the project has convinced PPG that Windows Azure provides the scalability and global reach that it also needs for other potential brand campaigns. “We’ll move applications and programs to the cloud on a case-by-case basis, as it makes sense to do so,” says Caruso. “It’s clear that the cloud will become an increasingly important part of our technology use. It’s also clear that Windows Azure has what it takes to be our cloud-computing platform. That’s a necessary foundation for our global digital-marketing activities.”
Another benefit to PPG of using Windows Azure as its cloud-computing platform is the ability of its developers to speed development with familiar and intuitive tools and technologies. Because the target platform is still Windows, developers used their existing toolset—including Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate and Microsoft Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 2010—saving the time and cost of acquiring and learning a new development platform.
The project also used tools—such as Silverlight PivotViewer—with which PPG developers were unfamiliar. “When we proposed that we use Silverlight PivotViewer for organizing and searching the paint samples, we didn’t have any experience with it. We didn’t know much about Silverlight PivotViewer other than that we liked what it could do,” says Caruso. “Then we went from conception to product launch in six weeks—that’s how easy and intuitive this technology is to use.”
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