Getting to grips with strategic marketing is helping to take Irish exporters to the next level of success. Tricel, a maker of high-performance solutions for the water, environmental, construction and materials industries, was set up in 1973 by the parents of the current management team, Anne and Con Stack.
Today the business, which is headed up by the couple’s four sons, employs 340 staff in operations across Ireland, Britain, France and Germany.
When son Mike Stack took the helm as chief executive four years ago, one of his first steps was to put in place a formal strategic approach to the company’s global marketing activities. Despite the company’s success, he was aware there were skills missing in the top team’s tool kit.
“My brothers and I are all engineers. When we thought of marketing we automatically thought of the ‘fluffy’ side of it, nice brochures, information websites and maybe trade shows,” he says. The boom years didn’t help. “There was no marketing, it was all about supply. Orders came in on their own.”
The recession changed all that and the company looked to increase overseas sales. In 2013, he signed up to Enterprise Ireland’s strategic marketing review initiative, a programme designed to improve performance of companies already exporting. “It opened our eyes to what marketing is really all about. It’s not fluffy at all. It’s much more akin to finance or accounting in that it’s hugely focused on data.”
In the past, attendance at trade shows was measured on gut feeling, for example. “Now it’s all about measurable things like leads generated and qualified, competitors present and visitors to your stand. And with digital marketing, you take that measurability even further. Now, every marketing activity we engage in relies on data and measurement.”
Today about 15 per cent of the company’s revenues come from France, with one third each coming from Ireland and Britain, and the remainder from Belgium and Germany. Not being overly reliant on the UK market, in which it has been in the longest, is important to him, especially in the light of Brexit.
To drive overseas growth, Stack recruited a head of marketing, who now heads up a dedicated team of nine. “I know now that unless marketing is properly managed and structured, it will slide.”
When it is done right, it is an engine for growth. “The secret of our success over the last few years has been to expand our engineering capability, with the aim of selling more product overseas. Strategic marketing helped us do that,” he says.
Enterprise Ireland’s Angela Byrne, who heads up the initiative, says: “The Strategic Marketing Review (SMR) lets Irish businesses make the transition from small to medium enterprises through helping them internationalise in a more strategic, focused way.” It provides a framework of best practice, with a view to ensuring each participant business knows precisely what differentiates it in each market in which it sells.
“Too often lack of investment in strategic marketing sees Irish businesses jump into sales mode, coming across as sales people in the markets they are going into, rather than as trusted advisers and partners,” she adds. “With good customer insight, the whole selling process becomes smoother because you’re going in at a different level, bringing value from the get go.”
The recession took a toll on many marketing departments. Too often the discipline is first in line to be cut, “but to cut marketing makes you look inward,” Byrne says. “The whole point of marketing is to enable you to look outward, to the next opportunity, the next market need. Irish companies tend to be behind the curve in recognising this compared with their multinational counterparts.”
Yet the indigenous sector can be a very attractive destination for senior marketing talent. “In a multinational, senior marketers know they will always be one step removed from the nucleus of power.” What an indigenous company can offer is a place at the top table.
One person who can appreciate that is Rachel Kelly, head of sales and marketing at WaterWipes, the international brand of baby wipes made by Irish Breeze in Drogheda. Kelly’s background is in giants such as L’Oréal and Unilever. She joined WaterWipes three years ago, soon after the company had been through Enterprise Ireland’s strategic marketing review.
The company’s initial success came when entrepreneur Edward McCloskey took what had traditionally been a commodity product, cotton wool, and created the Irish Breeze brand. Even greater success lay in store, however, when changing his baby daughter’s nappy using chemically laden baby wipes provided commercial inspiration. Five years of R&D later, he launched WaterWipes, using water that has been changed at a molecular level to ensure greater efficacy than regular water and is totally kind to skin. The product was originally launched as H2O Derma, a pharmaceutical-only brand. However, when the recession struck, the positioning of the product went against the company, according to Kelly, because pharmacy sales were hit and supermarkets would not take it because the price point was too high.
By 2013, when the company underwent Enterprise Ireland’s strategic marketing review, it had revenues of about €5 million a year and 18 staff. Since then, the entire business has been rebranded as WaterWipes and its new, more affordable, product sells not just in Ireland but around the world.
“What the programme did for us was shift the focus from manufacturing to the brand. It helped us to understand the value of the brand,” Kelly says. “It helped us realise that people don’t buy what you do, they buy who you are and why you do it. Our competition is big, faceless corporate organisations.
“We have succeeded by stepping into that very emotional space where a new mother has that sense of vulnerability that comes from having a new baby, and I’m speaking from experience here.
“Our role is to reassure them they are all their baby needs, that it’s okay to keep things simple. We have only two ingredients: 99.99 per cent water and .01 per cent a grapefruit seed extract. You don’t have to put chemicals on your baby’s skin, water is enough.
“That has created huge ‘white space’ for us going up against the likes of Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, because they can’t say that.”
It’s a message WaterWipes has tweaked and told around the world. “Our market research indicated that ‘water’ works in marketing messages in Ireland and the UK for example, where new mothers are routinely told by midwives to use only water when changing their baby. In the US, that’s not part of their maternity culture. New mums there get given a pack of baby wipes while in hospital, so what works best in marketing campaigns there, for example, is ‘chemical free’.”
With 135 staff, the turnover in 2015 was just over €15 million and we’re on track to double that this year. Just 8 per cent of sales now come from Ireland, with the US and Britain accounting for one-third each, and the rest made up of sales in France, Australia and New Zealand. China is next.
“The strategic marketing review helped drive all that expansion because it allowed us to understand the importance of researching your markets before you go into them. We’re a premium product in most of the markets we are in, and consumers will only pay for a premium product if they have an emotional engagement with it.”
The strength of the brand has encouraged the company to extend it into other areas too, including make-up removal. “There are endless opportunities around this brand,” Kelly says.
“We spent five years developing the IP but now we have to grow fast and establish market share before a ‘me too’ comes along behind us. That’s why strategic marketing has been so important to us. There isn’t a door we have knocked on around the world that hasn’t opened for us. That’s a very nice position for an Irish business to be in.”
For more on Enterprise Ireland's Global Ambition campaign see http://ambition.enterprise-ireland.com
Strategic Marketing Review Programmes
Under Enterprise Ireland's Strategic Marketing Review programme, an experienced sales and marketing specialist works with the company's senior management team to identify and address persistent challenges and untapped opportunities affecting the rate of international sales growth. Designed for seasoned rather than first-time exporters, the programme helps to put in place a more systematic approach to sales and marketing that can help drive international market diversification. Since it was launched in 2013, more than 60 companies, across diverse sectors, have come through the programme, which is run on the basis of four workshops over a number of months.
For more information see enterprise-ireland.com