Roger Dunavant just can’t resist saying it as he reaches out to shake hands. “Excuse me, but you’ve got lovely hooves,” he quips. No doubt it’s a well-rehearsed line.
Dunavant is the president and chief executive officer of US firm Straight Arrow. When he joined the company in 1988, it was a 20-year-old business with a turnover of less than $500,000 (320,000) a year, selling a horse shampoo and conditioner known as Mane ‘n’ Tail.
The company was a little sluggish: it was run by a woman who had inherited it as part of a divorce settlement. She refused to deal with anyone unless they told her their date of birth so she could check that their biorhythms were in sync with hers.
Dunavant arrived as the woman was about to retire. He was fresh from selling his own business which provided machinery to de-ice aeroplanes on airport runways. Dunavant presented what was evidently a very compatible set of biorhythms, and decided to buy Straight Arrow.
Six months later a chance meeting with two teenage girls at a horse show changed the firm’s fortunes. The girls told him they had been sharing their shampoo and conditioner with their horses; what’s more, they liked the results.
Tests showed there was no need to change the formula of the products to make it suitable for humans – the high-protein ingredients worked equally well on human or horse hair. Market research showed consumers were already way ahead of the company – ten out of 12 of the Straight Arrow products sold were for human use rather than horses. So just six months after taking over the business, Dunavant announced that from now on the company would be concentrating on the human rather than the equine market.
Last year Straight Arrow made $50m (32m). Its products are now sold worldwide.
The Straight Arrow product range may now be aimed primarily at humans but its heritage is clear. It still bears the original Mane ‘n’ Tail brand name, together with an image of an enviably fluffy haired horse and woman along with a silhouette of galloping horses. There is the original shampoo and conditioner, now on sale in Boots in the UK, together with Hoofmaker – a hand and nail protein cream which goes on Boots’ shelves next month.
In the US, and coming soon to the UK, are further range extensions including Coat Repair – originally developed for horse sores, but said to do wonders for psoriasis. There are also a series of disposable towelettes – for horses, family pets and for humans. These apparently repel everything from mosquitoes to fleas, deer ticks and lice. There is also a range of products known as Equenne designed to be used by, and sold in, beauty salons.
“We’d never change the name or the horsy image because it’s such a novelty. We have such a nice niche,” says Dunavant. The packaging even bears the legend “original formula”.
While the product formula has remained unchanged there have been a few hiccups. “People complained about the smell,” says Dunavant. “It was too horsy. We have tried putting apple into the shampoo because we know from horses that it keeps off the flies, but apple overpowers cologne.” The company has toned down the scent but is still experimenting to find the right fragrance.
Then there was the packaging. The original formula was sold in buckets which, while only representing a month’s supply for the average horse, was a six-month supply for humans. “People complained they couldn’t take it into the shower,” says Dunavant. “We also found out that salons were making 2oz bottles of the formulas and selling it for what we charged for 32oz buckets. So there was a niche in the market for smaller bottles.”
Another problem in the US was the arrival of copycat brands using the Mane ‘n’ Tail brand name. The copycats tried to argue in court that Mane ‘n’ Tail was a generic name. The case was won by Straight Arrow when the judge asked the man from the copycat firm to show where the tail was on a human. The brand name is now trademarked worldwide.
In the UK, the marketing campaign is just beginning. The range was launched in April and since then the product has been sold purely on word of mouth, securing a listing for the shampoo and conditioner in a handful of Boots stores. Boots is now expanding its distribution and has just agreed to stock Hoofmaker. The psoriasis-soothing Coat Care and the fly repellent towelettes are expected to follow shortly after.
A print campaign through Straight Arrow’s public relations company, The Public Relations Business, will follow next year, together with sampling campaigns. There are plans to exhibit at both horse and beauty shows, and tentative talk of finding Miss Mane ‘n’ Tail 1996. That PR stunt was tried in the US, but backfired when police arrived on the scene demanding to known why Dunavant had told hundreds of teenage girls to show up and pose with a horse.
Dunavant at least has a few good ambassadors for the brand. “Look at this,” he says pulling out a picture of his 16-year-old daughter Brandee. “Six foot tall. Gorgeous hair… And not a fly on her.”