The talcum powder plot: reinventing a brand out of the dust

Claims about the carcinogenic properties of talc left the one-time bathroom staple with a serious image problem as its reputation went up in a cloud of powder. But can a design makeover and some savvy marketing reverse its fortunes? Windsor agency Designworks thinks so.

Once ubiquitous in bathroom cabinets up and down the country, talcum powder has suffered a major image problem of late and been relegated to a dust-ridden existence on the bottom shelves of supermarkets and chemists. Despite the health and beauty industry continuing to growing at pace, this one-time mainstay is now nothing more than a relic of by-gone bathroom routines; underutilised and largely forgotten. It is with this in mind that Designworks identified the talcum powder market as the perfect place to showcase its expertise in reinvigorating consumer propositions of brands through a process of strategy, design and prototyping.Ben Sillence, who heads up Designworks’ strategy arm, commented that the lack of interest in talcum powder is reflected by its lack of presence in supermarkets, “with retailers often stocking only a handful of brands, and usually in large, low-value packaging.”He went on to explain: “At best, western markets see talcum powder as nothing more than a useful commodity. We felt that with some innovation, both in terms of market positioning and design, this perception could be changed.”“Our research into the market gave us encouraging results,” he said. “Over 66% of the consumers we talked to would consider replacing their deodorant with a talcum powder based product. Where talc loses out is its format and its packaging – many of the consumers we talked to hated the way talc is dispensed, associating it with creating a mess, being wasteful and even having a harmful effect on the user's health. Talc is also seen as a commodity product, with only 6% of consumers seeing it as a premium proposition.”And so the opportunity presented itself to redefine talcum powder as a higher value product through better packaging design and repositioning outside the traditional talcum market.“We explored a variety of possible directions that talcum powder could go in,” said Sillence. “Could it replace deodorant as a more natural alternative? Could we integrate other benefits into the powder, such as sun protection factor? What would talcum powder look like if we updated the packaging to be in line with high end, contemporary cosmetics?”The sports market was identified by Designworks as the best market for a disruptive innovation as “consumers in this area are quicker at adopting new and innovative propositions if they see a clear comfort or performance enhancing benefit”. The sports market was also found to champion convenience, as opposed to the prevalent bulky, commodity packaging currently utilised in the talcum powder market. Designworks explored different methods of dispensing talcum powder which would make it more convenient and mess-free and found that by compressing powder into a tablet, consumers would avoid the dreaded ‘cloud of talc’. “The format also allowed us to create a concept that gave the consumer a measured dose, while being in a portable piece of packaging – the ergonomic form allows the product to be held in one hand, which is vital for sporting conditions, where ease of use and speed are key consumer needs,” said Sillence.“And so we produced DRI Sport, a motion activated body powder that keeps you drier and fresher, reducing the risk of chaffing during exercise. “The key part of the proposition is the tablet format and its impact on the dispensing method – the compressed talcum tablets are crushed in the hand and then applied to the body. Special ingredients can also be placed within the tablet, presenting the opportunity for added value in the form of fragrances, cosmetic benefits and even branding.” After finalising the design Designworks set about bringing the proposition to life with physical examples, exploring in detail how consumers would perceive and interact with the concept.“Our in-house prototyping team used a variety of material processes and their expertise in order to create examples that looked and felt shelf-ready. “Since we released DRI Sport, and used it as an example to contextualise our process, we’ve had interest in our integrated innovation process from a variety of brands – ranging from those within the cosmetics market to companies that are in entirely different categories. What is constant across these brands is their desire to innovate their products and to reach new and existing markets, giving consumers something they didn’t think they’d ever need, but couldn’t live without afterwards.”

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.