If an A-list celebrity has fantastic hair these days it’s not necessarily because she’s worth it. Nor does it automatically imply that she’s had a troop of hair stylists strategically moving this hair there and that hair somewhere else for the last few hours. In fact since 2001 when three Yorkshiremen discovered revolutionary hair iron technology in the US and promptly decided to negotiate an exclusive contract and import it to the UK, celebs (such as Jennifer Anniston and Madonna), and regular folk too, have been enjoying plenty of good hair days.
Adline is in the office of Martin Penny, one-third of the Yorkshire trio and managing director of Jemella, the parent company of ghd – a salon-only hair beauty brand that, in four years, has changed the face of the industry.
A few minutes in, and with introductions done, Penny asks Adline, “Do you have a girlfriend?” Not sure where this is heading, but hopeful that he may wish to introduce this humble journalist to one of the models in the firm’s TV commercial, it seems only polite to respond.
“Well, you will tomorrow,” Penny retorts, before asking a colleague to organise a goody-bag of ghd products for Adline to take away from the meeting. It’s a bold statement, but such is Penny’s confidence in the popularity and quality of the products that it’s one he can make without fear of retribution.
In the early days – before the introduction of Leeds-based agency Propaganda into the ghd story (which we’ll come to later) and before the launch of the hair treatment range – the brand’s ceramic hair iron was developing cult-like recognition with young women. As pure a viral brand as you’re likely to find, word began to spread, very quickly, of the quality of the iron. Penny said: “What was happening was girls were saving up and getting an iron and were then hosting ghd parties, where their friends would come round to use it.”
First impressions from the industry were mixed, as Penny explained: “A lot of the big companies thought it was a fad. However, it wasn’t long before major consumer brands began to fast-track product development to jump on the ghd bandwagon.
“It was around this time that this guy called Julian Kynaston came to see me,” remarks Penny giving a slight nod towards the Propaganda chairman, who has joined us for our chat.
Penny said: “He came to see me about my other company [environmental services firm, OHD], speaking about the importance of branding. However, I kept talking to him about ghd,” something which they both agree that Kynaston was only half listening to.
“I’d never heard of it,” remarks an honest Kynaston, who doesn’t exactly fit into the brand’s 15–36 and female core target market. “Who could blame him,” adds Penny, “We had done no marketing or brand work at that point. It was purely word of mouth. So it’s fair to say that it took a while to get the message across about ghd’s potential.”
“I’ve always been a big fan of viral brands,” says Kynaston, who after that initial meeting spoke to female members of the Propaganda team and to do some research on ghd.
Penny said: “He was back on the phone pretty sharpish, so we began discussing how the ghd brand should evolve. With other firms launching irons and trying to pass them off as being ‘as good as ghd’, and spending big money to compete with us, marketing was a realistic next step.
“At that time,” Penny continues, “we believed that the best way to protect our position was to invest in advertising to reinforce awareness of our irons as the original and still the best.” However, Kynaston and Propaganda were adamant that their efforts should be concentrated on the brand and not the product. The agency then set about trying to turn ghd’s short-term success into long-term achievements. Kynaston confirms that ghd “had already won the battle of hearts and minds but what was needed was for this to be turned into loyalty of the ghd brand.”
Research suggested that ghd held “near-iconic” status with consumers, with the language used to describe the product having strong religious overtones, such as people saying they “worshiped” the product. It was a theme, which then inspired ‘A New Religion for Hair’ as the cornerstone of the brand-building strategy.
The next phase was the introduction of a new range of products that extended the brand beyond that of the ceramic iron. Once again these products were sold exclusively in salons. Penny explains why this was an important decision: “We are able to concentrate on giving excellent service and support to those salons, while also retaining sufficient control to protect and grow the ghd brand.”
In the summer of 2003, the firm’s first TV commercials were aired as part of a £2.6m above-the-line campaign. Among the achievements of the campaign were improved consumer recall and 98 per cent of targeted salons taking the range. By the end of 2003, Jamella’s revenue had grown from £12m to £36m.
As the brand continued to flourish, so did the relationship between Penny and Kynaston, culminating in the October of that year with the latter being appointed as ghd’s marketing director. While remaining at the helm at Propaganda, Kynaston’s new role simply gave him a greater opportunity to work with Penny in carrying forward the ghd success story. It’s not the first time Kynaston has been given the opportunity to join the board at one of his clients, and it’s something he believes can be very productive. “It is very unusual, but it’s the way forward,” he says. “Instead of dealing with another marketing department, who have to then go and get sign-off with Martin, I can liaise directly with him.”
It’s a professional relationship, which appears to be filled with good-humoured banter and an underlying friendship. “We were having a heated discussion by e-mail until 11 o’clock last night,” quips Penny, “and that’s really how we work.”
It worked extremely well when it came to ghd’s next foray into TV land. Penny said: “When he calls me and says, ‘We’ve got a chance to do The Salon and it’ll be £1.2million’, it was like ‘alright then’. There’s no piece of paper that I sign, we just go and do it.”
It was a move, which Penny believes put the ghd brand on the radar of the whole country. “Without doubt it created the first premium salon-only hair beauty brand.”
In 2004 another £5million campaign consolidated the brands market positioning, which Kynaston believes was considered a brave position to aim for: “We were told we were crazy, that the market was over-saturated and that it needed three or four less brands in there. Fortunately, that happened when we came into the market. A few competitors simply couldn’t compete and had to pull out.”
Fast forward to 2005, and the brand is evolving apace. Growth around the world in the likes of Italy, Spain and Australia, for which Penny took 70 trips in 2004 to help progress, has only made them hungry for more success. Jemella has launched a new brand – nu:u – which aims to appeal to a slightly younger market (hence choosing Girls Aloud to endorse the range). “We want to introduce new customers to our products,” comments Penny, “and nu:u won’t be the last of the new launches we have planned.”
Coupled with the launch of nu:u is Penny’s ambition to crack the unyielding US market. “We’re trying to create a buzz in New York and take it from there. The best salons in the world are there, and it is in keeping with the brand’s core values.”
Penny admits that the US will be a big challenge but is confident that the quality of ghd’s products will ensure their success. It’s a success story that’s come a long way in a short space of time and, with the help of Kynaston, Penny, like ghd, shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. “It comes back to our unique relationship,” he says, “Julian came to me and said, ‘We need to spend about £16million’ on marketing this year, so I guess it means I can’t retire anytime soon.”