The London boardroom of SSL International, where I meet chief executive Garry Watts, is decorated with the company’s recent ad campaigns for Durex Play’s vibrating rings and Scholl’s Party Feet gel cushions. A short time earlier in the reception area, I had found myself perusing a cabinet full of condoms, lubricants, sex toys, feet cushions and over-the-counter medicines. It’s certainly an “interesting” product portfolio and when you get to know Watts you learn that the inner workings of SSL are no less interesting either, and may well be the driving force behind its impressive results announced to the City last week.
The biggest assets I have are the Durex and Scholl brands. I won’t launch innovation within these brands if there’s a conflict – we’d need to find a new brand for that innovation instead.
Garry Watts – chief executive of SSL International
At Commercial Advantage, we believe that to deliver real results your entire organisation must embody your brand’s strategy. Strategy is often worth no more than the paper it is written on. Every aspect of the way your organisation works must be aligned to maximising the success of each of your brands. Many companies look at this back to front. They shape their brand strategies to fit current ways of working, which ultimately puts the consumer last. Conflicts inevitably arise between the types of people attracted to the organisation and the ways of working required to achieve success.
At SSL, Watts is unrelenting in his efforts to create an open and honest environment. Its core brands Durex and Scholl require that employees and consumers consider and express intimate details of their very personal lives. “I don’t want to be unduly politically incorrect, but we need to be counter cultural if people are to come up with the big creative ideas,” says Watts. He has put senior teams in place on both brands that he believes will embed this mantra into their team’s way of working, and will be careful not to bring too many “big company” approaches to a dynamic high growth enterprise.
Doing things differently for SSL is also evident in its organisational design. Marketing and innovation are separate from each other. The reason for this, he says, is that it ensures innovation is not hamstrung by the activities and plans of marketing, and conversely, that brands are protected from over-zealous innovation. The flexibility in this relationship fosters a sense of creativity that has resulted in some great new products. It enables innovation teams to push the boundaries of what current brand users need, and think more about new ways of recruiting consumers outside of their current target market.
I often talk with our clients about the importance of being very clear about the driving force of their businesses. Brand strategy should be open to the possibility of innovation, but innovation should never drive brand strategy. Brands must stay true to a consumer promise that may or may not include the need for a new product innovation. In Watts’ words: “The biggest assets I have are the Durex and Scholl brands. I won’t launch innovation within these brands if there’s a conflict – we’d need to find a new brand for that innovation instead.”
Brand strategy should be open to the possibility of innovation, but innovation should never drive brand strategy. Brands must stay true to a consumer promise that may or may not include the need for a new product innovation.
SSL does research differently too. Our view is that traditional quantitative approaches to testing brand plans, new products or packaging designs can help you justify a decision you’ve already made, but they rarely help organisations obtain genuine consumer insight. As a brand owner, if you really want to better understand your consumers why not cut out the middle man and go and meet them personally?
Watts’ team at SSL does this frequently. They do things like holding dinner parties to create a relaxed environment where they can talk directly and informally to the people who use their products. That way, unmet needs bubble up to the surface and the SSL team can start to figure out how they can expand their brands’ reaches into broader categories. For SSL, identifying new consumer groups was a real breakthrough for Durex. The core consumer had always been the 16- to 24-year-old man, but new groups, such as 30- to 40-year-old women and seniors (60-plus), were identified whose sexual lives could be enhanced by products from Durex. The result was the Durex Play and Durex Lube ranges.
Watts admits that SSL has encountered a few roadblocks along the way of getting new products out the door. Retailers were hesitant to stock new products on their shelves and the media kicked up a fuss, placing restrictions on when its ads could be aired. Watts’ approach is one of patience. It takes time, he says, to change attitudes; forcing the situation will only exacerbate the problem. “We’re pushing against a door that will open. It may take six months or two years to open it, but we will open it because consumers increasingly want us to,” he adds. However, trade in established markets may move slowly beyond people’s current level of acceptance, and consumers in developing and emerging markets might not be so open to the breadth of the product portfolio. Only time will tell.
As you think about the way your organisation needs to work together to get real results in these difficult times, maybe it’s time to hold some different and more challenging conversations. Has your brand really “not been sold” to trade customers effectively or is the trade’s lack of confidence in it actually spot on? Do your teams really work in a way that meets the ambition for your brands or do they work in a way that lacks ambition? Gaining a genuine commercial advantage is rarely about extensive consumer research and step-changing ATL investment levels. It’s about leaders choosing to remove the corporate constraints that strangle great execution, and in doing so helping employees become true ambassadors for their brands.