It’s the way Barbara-Anne Richardson says: “Yeah,” and then pauses for a spilt second. You can tell that she’s not impressed. The Drum has just asked her why Slendertone, her employer and the purveyor of belts which create abs-solutely fabulous stomachs worldwide, doesn’t use models with more - how shall we put it - attainable physiques.
“Like mine,” says The Drum, grabbing a hefty handful of heaving midriff and shimmying it around. “Not quite so, sculpted. More, attainable.”
There’s that pause again. And to be fair it would probably stretch on for an eternity if we were sitting down face to face. As it is, the gods who so mercilessly distribute spare-tyre waistlines have seen to it that Richardson, based at Slendertone’s head office in Ireland, has been spared that questionable delight.
“There’s a very thin line there,” she says, after an hour or two, during which time we realise this is not a compliment.
“People ultimately aspire to the beautiful body – that’s what they want and that’s what sells Men’s Health magazine every month. However, we use a selection of shots, but yes, on the packaging, it is a chiselled body. It’s a body that looks good. That said, it’s not Arnold Schwarzenegger - it is something that is attainable.”
Looking down, that doesn’t seem very likely.
Richardson, the company’s UK marketing chief and global controller of the new System Slendertone product line, is not someone who appears to suffer fools lightly. She’s a busy woman, and with a 10-day skiing holiday about to come shooting over the horizon, she doesn’t have time for extraneous questioning. But the reason we’re shoe-horning ourselves into her schedule is that Slendertone is about to embark on its biggest UK marketing campaign for several years.
April sees the launch of its new System-Arms product line, and in preparation, Slendertone has appointed two northern agencies - Cheshire-based Sass (the PR division) and Manchester-based Vivid - to help make sure the activity shapes up perfectly for the big push.
Richardson explains how the launch is progressing: “The System-Arms products use the same EMS technology [in case you don’t know, EMS stands for electronic muscle stimulation, a process where the nerves are stimulated to contract muscles, thus working them out and firming them up] as the rest of the Slendertone products, but this time we’re working on the triceps. We think this is an area that women find notoriously hard to tone, hence the ‘bingo-wings’ expression. System-Arms is therefore a product that’s been developed with the female market in mind.
“We’re supporting the launch with a national TV campaign, which is a first for Slendertone. Last year we tested TV with a classic brand campaign in the Granada, Central and Yorkshire regions. We had two different bursts and they were very successful for us.
“We’re supporting the TV campaign with a partnership with the Metro newspaper in London. And the internet and POS will be very important too. It’s exciting, and a little scary - but mostly exciting. And the fact that we’ve just come off the back of a successful national TV campaign here in Ireland gives us a lot of confidence.”
With her lilting yet firm Irish tones and impressive marketing pedigree (having enjoyed tenures at Diageo, Ballygowan and Waterford Crystal), it doesn’t sound like Richardson lacks any confidence - particularly when it comes to the Slendertone product range. For the rest of us though, it’s all too easy to be instinctively dismissive of a creation which appears to offer something that’s too good to be true.
It’s the congenitally in-built cynic that leads us to question the veracity of Slendertone’s body-sculpting claims - otherwise surely everyone would have one buzzing discreetly away under their work shirts, wouldn’t they? So how does our interviewee combat this cynicism? How can she use her marketing gospel to convert the unbeliever?
“It is a challenge,” Richardson freely admits, “but it’s like that with any technology which offers something new.
“Our products are not magic, it’s not hocus pocus, and we’re very, very clear about that.
“Our EMS technology works to a very sound and clinically proven medical basis, and it’s been developed with the 40 years of expertise our parent company Bio Medical Research has. [BMR’s other division, Neurotech, focuses on the medical and physical therapy markets.] That’s the main reason we’ve been so successful globally, because of that proven medical background.
“The fact that we’re going onto TV will help us communicate those messages as we can now use moving images to show how the muscles are stimulated. The internet has helped us do that too as people can go online and see product demonstrations. And that will help us take away the mystery of the technology and will help the consumer make a totally informed purchasing decision, which is crucial for us.
Nevertheless, regardless of the efficacy of the EMS wizardry, there’s still a fundamental problem with the Slendertone proposition. And that is, well, isn’t it a little bit embarrassing to use one - especially if you’re a bloke? Shouldn’t you be going to the gym with all the other alphas? Is this viewpoint something Richardson feels the need to actively combat?
“It’s not something we unduly worry about,” she says. “In today’s world, looking and feeling good is crucial. For example, botox is an everyday event now. It doesn’t have the wow factor that it used to have – it’s not just for Hollywood anymore. And male beauty products are becoming more popular too.
“We do sell slightly more products to the female market, but we have no problem at all selling male products. And we do obviously use a different selling message on our male products. Men are looking for stronger muscles and a more macho appeal, a six pack. Whereas for women it’s more focused on being flatter, firmer and looking better in their clothes. So there are different angles we take to the different markets.
One angle that should appeal to both sexes is the fact that the recommended usage of one of the firm’s popular belts – that’s just five 30-minute sessions a week - quickly results in the loss of an average and frankly quite impressive 1.4 inches around the waist. But there’s no concomitant weight loss, as Richardson quickly takes pains to stress.
“Using Slendertone alone you will tone and define your muscles, making them tighter and flatter,” she says. “But we’re very careful not to imply that there is any weight loss from this - the EMS does not work in that way.
“For maximum results, we recommend you should follow a healthy diet and exercise plan, but we do also market a product called Active [with features such as a heart rate monitor and a calorie counter] that is specifically designed for using in conjunction with exercise. And that’s been a popular addition to the range.
“If the System-Arms proves to have the same sort of success when it launches in the coming weeks then Richardson, Slendertone, Sass and Vivid (which is currently re-editing last year’s Shadow campaign produced by 25th) will be understandably delighted. As will a legion of ladies down at Gala, gripping their dabbers with rippling triceps instead of quivering wings.