Sands of time - Jonathan Sands of Elmwood

By The Drum, Administrator

November 9, 2007 | 8 min read

“Having spent a lot of time on planes, you get a sense of what the commonalities are around the world. The one big thing I’m seeing everywhere I go is anxiety. We’re worried about global warming, we’re worried about food scares, bird flu, terrorism and working too hard.

“So the antidote in terms of marketing communications towards this is brands that help you slow down, that make you feel more content, and actually remind you of a time when life was simpler.”

Striking a chord for your brand that transcends cost is vital, Sands believes, and the exorbitant air-miles he’s clocked in recent years have opened his eyes to a world’s worth of ideas on how to do this.

Sands points to new trends, ‘contemporary nostalgia’ – “look at the success of the new mini” for example.

But the real challenge for marketers in this climate is creating that individualism, and finding that niche, from where profits will follow.

“Businesses are getting caught in the rat-race of lowering prices. Lots of my clients often think, ‘well so and so are doing this so we need to do that’. Well that might be, but you also have to be the only people who do what you do.

“You can buy authentic attitude, but it’s much better to create your own.”

It’s through this belief in authenticity that Sands helped to transform the fortunes of Coles Myer supermarkets, Australia’s biggest retailer and employers of 165,000 staff.”

“Own-brands are a very young phenomenon in Australia, it’s seen as cheap, nasty, crappy stuff.

“So the project was big news in Australia. It was all over the national press that Coles was going to launch a house brand and we were absolutely pilloried for it,” says Sands.

However, he continues, “it succeeded beyond measure without any promotion.”

So just how did Sands turn Australia, previously so impervious to supermarkets-own and followers of market leaders, on to own-brand?

“The key to it was building on this trend for realism, putting real people on the packaging.

“Because everyone was cynical about own brands we had to put personalities on packs, people who had credibility.”

So the bird food came with a champion bird breeder on the pack talking up the quality of the seed and how his birds even cheeped more loudly because of it, the dog food used a champion dog breeder, the nappies featured a mid-wife… you get the idea.

“For the chocolate, we got a Belgian chocolatier to create the recipe. It has taken 30 percentage points of Cadbury’s. No retailer in the UK has ever taken that much of a market share from a chocolate brand.”

Sands knew Australia’s cynicism towards own-brand had eroded when he saw an article in the Adelaide Times.

“We didn’t create this story, it was just a lady who buys the stuff and she wrote, ‘I love these people who don’t talk back to me in the kitchen.”

Following on from their success with Coles Myer, Elmwood have created their own brand of tea, “just to prove that we believe in what we talk about,” says Sands. Make Mine A Builders launched at Easter, channelling this thirst for realism, and tea of course.

So where’s the authenticity? According to Sands it comes from builders being invited to blind taste test in order to find their favourite flavour, and as if to cement its realism, the packaging comes replete with a picture of a builder’s bum.

Make Mine A Builders has been a relative success. Sands is coy about how much money it makes, “not a lot”, but according to Grocer magazine, Elmwood had 9 per cent of the tea market over Easter. Not bad for a design firm, and all after a throwaway comment.

“This all came about from a conversation in the office about four years ago when one of our young lads in London asked if anyone wanted a brew, and somebody said, ‘make mine a builders’

“I thought, I’ve never heard that – that would make a great brand.

“We’ve sold 30 million or so cups of tea already with no real advertising in a market that’s in decline.”

Make Mine A Builders has found its way onto the shelves of Asda and Tesco, but Sands says the next step is to get it on the counter at building trade centres like B&Q, to pursue the authenticity ethos.

An individual mentality, rather than just clever innovations (Sands points to Carling’s new can which changes colour when cooled) is the Elmwood mantra then. If Make Mine A Builders margins are modest, Sands believes businesses can find greater dividends elsewhere just by refining their processes.

“This whole notion that low costs equal taking money away from poor people in ghettos in Bangladesh or wherever is absolute nonsense.

“If you really think about it, people hand-sowing stuff is not really very efficient. What we really need is huge factories churning out stuff really cheap.

“The whole notion, it does go on, but it’s actually an old paradigm. The new paradigm is how you make things really efficient.

Efficiency was in evidence when Sands visited Magna Park, the logistics home of England where Asda and Sainsbury’s monitor exactly what’s on their shelves.

Having been invited to peruse Asda’s logistics home there a week before it opened, Sands was shocked when he found himself wandering around in the dark, and was left wondering whether the electricians would arrive in time to wire the lights up. He was even more surprised then, when he was told the electricians were never coming.

“There were hardly any people in the buildings, just robots, and robots don’t need light – it just costs money, and Asda are an EDOC business. You just think, these people have really understood about low costs.

Using EPOS data, Asda’s ‘robots’ know exactly what needs replenishing on their stores shelves. Those products are put into small containers at their logistics centre, and because the system is sophisticated enough to know exactly where everything is placed in the store, store staff only need to walk in a line decanting from box to shelf.

Sands has seen similar practices put in place elsewhere. A designer at IKEA told him that they used to measure the time it would take one of their employees to put knives out on shelves.

“They reckon by just making two small design changes they save the equivalent on just this one line of something like 26 jobs across the store-chain. They save ten minutes, per pallet, in decanting from the pallet to the shelf,” says Sands.

He has been equally impressed with Kellogg’s, who have created a shipper with a front that can be ripped off quickly and the cereal put straight onto shelves in one block.

“That’s the future of design in my view. We all think as marketers it’s about increasing sales, increasing market shares. The clever businesses are doing this at the same time, which is decreasing costs, so they can make their whole business-chain more efficient.”

This notion of smart-business efficiency, and corporate social responsibility, can go hand in hand to drive margins and instil consumer faith in the product, according to the Elmwood Chairman.

He says, “Green issues are smart issues, so what we want to do is ship less air. If Walmart could save one mile per gallon on their vehicle fleet, they’d save $56m a year, “So if you could save 30 per cent, just think about that. Lee Scott (CEO) at Walmart has gone on record as saying, ‘what we’re really interested in is saving the planet by doing smart business’.”

Above all else, Sands believes good business sense requires companies seeing their business through the eyes of their consumer.

“I was asked to look at shopping from the perspective of a child in Walmart in America, so the first thing I did was get down on my knees. Everyone was looking at me and asking what I was doing, but I wanted to see things as a child would, from their height.”

Sands found that the majority of things that would catch the eye of a child, toys, computer game demos, were out of reach of small arms.

“It’s amazing that too many stores are designed by adults neglecting the eyes of children.”

It’s with this that Sands whole lecture knits into place. If marketers did re-focus and see their business as the public do, some won’t like what’s staring back at them. So then, how can they expect anyone to stomach, let alone buy-into, their products?


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