I also know this because many moons ago (as we say in Africa), I launched a pull up brand in Zimbabwe as well as in a few other markets in the region. A a pull up is a good differentiator, especially when a market is cluttered with too many brands competing against each other, which was the situation in Zimbabwe. A pull-up has a way of silencing the whole discussion and saying, “But you are not pull-up. Keep quiet. Come back here when you are a pull-up. Then we can talk.”
What I have observed is that there is strength in having a well-priced pull up diaper brand in a market that is cluttered with too many products—and that was easily seven or eight years ago. There were good lessons there.
There are also good lessons in observing what other winning formulas have been used. To start with, winning is a very conscious decision. Success does not happen by chance. You have to make a decision that you want to succeed, followed by steps and actions that are guided by a clear strategy on how you will win a market. For a long time, the market with the highest penetration of pull ups in the world was Japan—at above 60%, then U.S. and Europe. This changed recently and today, the market with the biggest penetration of pull-ups is India. This changed thanks to Unicharm.
Sometimes in order to change the game you have to break the mold. Unicharm did. They decided to take pull ups to the emerging market. Not just any emerging market. They focused on the emerging markets with high populations like India and China. It was not anything that someone had done before. They took the decision to lead. And lead they did. \Today India, an emerging market is more than 80% pull-up. Everyone else is now following. Even those that led the market before. Even the ones that had set the rules before.
They did not just change the diaper format in these markets. They approached the market with a different mindset from other players. A mindset to bring solutions. Solutions that benefited the consumer and the economy and ultimately their own businesses. They approached poor Asian markets with a product that was normally for premium markets at a price that was closer to the standard offering. They decided to create employment and make these poor consumers employees in their business, thereby creating consumers with better disposable incomes so that they had a sustainable base of consumers that can pay better prices for better products.
If one approaches the African market with the mindset of solving problems, creating employment for the youngest population on the globe, you have a better chance of winning. Have a mindset to support your suppliers by financing them. Think about vertically integrating your supply chain. Think of how you will work with the communities where your businesses operate. Think of how you will genuinely make a difference so that you create the kind of consumer that will pay a better price for your product in time. Is this not investing? Time, money, effort and energy? When you are number one you lead.
As a parting example for this section, a quick note about leading. When you think of brands that have taken the decision to lead, to start new products, new categories, like Red Bull, who created a whole new category called energy drinks, you realize there are certain advantages that come with that. Red Bull has an amino acid called taurine as well as good old caffeine. They were the first to create a category called energy drink. Other players followed with different active ingredients to give you the kick to stay alert/awake. My observations have been that for a long time in certain markets in Africa, for a product to comply with the description of energy drink, it had to have taurine. Things may have changed now. But can you imagine that level of head start? That is the joy of being a leader?
A Channel is born
In the last four weeks I have travelled to Europe, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and the U.S. (for the first time). It reminded me how so different these markets are from each other. In Africa we have street vending, which is a channel that we today take for granted because it’s been here for almost 20 years. But it came about because someone realised that people stuck in traffic in the hot African sun will most likely buy a cold refreshing soft drink if they are offered it, in traffic, at the right price and at the right ice-cold temperature on a hot blazing day.
With that, the street vending channel was born. On a hot day in summer, and stuck in Johannesburg, Lagos or Nairobi traffic, you can roll down your window, and use your change to buy a cold, sweating soft drink. It is available as arms reach. And served ice cold. And yes, when you are hot and bothered, and stuck in traffic, and someone offers to save you time to take a detour at the next service station, it makes a difference. Unless you plan to fuel up, you can skip the detour and still get refreshed. Instantly. Cold served soft drink at arm’s reach. Exactly the model that some of the big soft drinks players have been aiming to achieve and some have perfected over the years.
The Pull-up and the Modern Retail in South Africa
Quite often I have discussions around the potential of the pull-up in South Africa with some of the diaper manufacturers. They are very quick to point out how the category is still very small compared to the open diaper. They challenge me to walk in the aisles and reconfirm. I always argue that the reason the category is small is because the retailer allocates the smallest space possible to the pull-up section because the pull-up is very expensive for now. It does not move as much.
In other words, if the pull-up’s price was closer to the open diaper, you would getmore movement and the category would grow more quickly. The manufacturer must figure out how to achieve that. Any player that wants to dominate the continent with a pull-up diaper must aim for a price point that is close to that of the open diaper. That was the winning formula for Unicharm in India.
There is an example, still within the FMCG category that I can use to illustrate my point. In South Africa, all milk generally is packaged in tetra pack. This development was determined by the retailers. In an effort to have less hassle and to avoid the inconvenience of having to handle glass returns, retailers ensured that suppliers complied to a one way pack, which in this case was tetra, by a given time frame, or else I will place all my orders with your competitor. This threat ensured that the whole market shifted to tetra even though the consumer actually prefers glass to tetra. So the retailer has enough clout to determine whether a category thrives or not. I believe the pull-up category is still small because the retailer prefers it that way.
I have also observed, especially in the case of South Africa that pull-ups were popular in the informal market and more readily available here way before they were big in the modern trade. I took my marketing team to the warehouse of one of the biggest traders in the informal channel, who had several containers of stock of pull-ups in his warehouse. Coincidentally, this was at a time when we were debating about the potential for pull-ups in the South African market and we were still debating whether the market was ready or not. What does that tell us? Here is what I think. This points towards the likeability of the pull-up with the consumer. Build it and they will come. Build the category and the consumer will show up. Build the channel. And the consumer will show up. How do you build it. Make the price right. At the right price the consumer will buy and the category will grow.
Pull Up Diaper School
One of the lessons that we learned in our time when we were marketing and distributing pull-up diapers in Zimbabwe was that the consumer needed education on how to remove the soiled pull-up. Putting it on I think was fairly easy to figure out— all you need to know was which was the front and you are good to go. However, removing a soiled pull-up all the way to the end of the child’s legs is difficult So we realized that we needed to educate the market and we were showing them that they simply have to tear the sides. We make sure our product packs had the instructions on each pack.
Solutions Made in Africa
There is a saying that goes…everything ever created, a business idea, a piece of art, a piece of music…started off as an idea in someone’s head. With that in mind, I want us to think what new distribution models can work in Africa that are strictly African distribution models. And again, not necessary to re-invent the wheel here. What can one borrow from other industries. Other categories? Other markets? What can one leverage in Africa that is already existing and you simply can take it to the next level? What does Africa have, that Europe, Asia and the U.S. do not have that one can leverage to create, improve or build a new distribution model? Approach this with a “What if” mind-set? What if we could leverage Africa’s sense of community and build a model that already exists somewhere or in another industry?
Africa has a sense of community that does not exist elsewhere and hygiene companies should use this to their advantage. What could you do to use women in communities to sell your products within the communities they live in? Could a hygiene manufacturer with a good adventurous approach to business leverage Africa’s sense of community to full advantage? Maybe combine this with a unique model of e-commerce that is uniquely African? Has this been done before? Is there a model that one can improve on?. From other markets? I would say absolutely yes. Unilever has a model in India where they use women in communities to sell their brands. This is nothing new and here are some of the advantages. You will have women in communities that can recommend a brand for your little one and give you the confidence that this will work. And you can go back to her if things go wrong. This is a seller who is invested in this community, so when she recommends to you as a mother to try this, she is putting her friendships, her relations on the line. Think about the power in that for a moment. We all know about the power of word of mouth in advertising. What could be more powerful that this example. This is not just a recommendation. This is a sale.