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'It's about health, eco, wellness and sustainability': Ecostore on its unique position in the market

Following the launch of Ecostore's first brand campaign last year, we sit down with director of marketing Jemma Whiten to discuss its latest campaign strategies, how it's tracking in local and offshore markets and how its unique proposition has it positioned in the face of new competition.

By Findlay Buchanan | February 15, 2018 | news

25 years ago, founders of Ecostore, Malcolm and Melanie Rands conjured up an environmentally conscious alternative to home, bathroom and body products from their basement in Northland, New Zealand.  

Now, years later, the spontaneous basement combustion has become, Ecostore, a sustainable business with arms in the Australian, United States, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Malaysian markets.

Last year, director of marketing Jemma Whiten joined the team from Unilever in the UK. Originally a Kiwi, she says she hunted out Ecostore because it has been doing fundamentally good things for 25 years. "It is what the business is built on," she says.

"Businesses these days are recognising that they have an incredibly important role to play. Governments are, to a point, limited with the amount of change they can create in three or four years, whereas consumers are using billions of products every single day, which can make them healthier, more sustainable and safer for the environment every single day."

After a decade of experience in the UK, Whiten shares two impacting elements from her venture offshore, one being the international experience, the other being the passion for selling a product that is good and sustainable. 

"In Europe I was working across every single European market, market, dealing with different consumers across every single market and I think it can only make you a better marketer. There's that inherent need to understand people, to know what makes them tick and what is important to them. The second part was sparking my complete and inherent belief in sustainability, I don’t want to be a marketer that just sells more stuff, I want to sell something that does some good in the world."

Her arrival in New Zealand was followed by Ecostore releasing its first major campaign last year in collaboration with DDB and The Sweet Shop to show the respective visions of young and old, on the future of our environment. The advertisement is a dichotomy between each generation, proving future generations are more positive about our environment, while the older generation is generally more apprehensive. 

Whiten says it will continue to go digital to create a bigger, emotional message, which gives people a chance to stop and think that by doing better things we can shape a better tomorrow.

She adds that due to its success, it will continue to roll out the brand campaign over a long period of time (multiple years) and that the message of a better future is a theme that will continue to be used, but the conversation and social content will evolve over time.

That evolution comes at a time when the local market Ecostore is positioned in changes as well, with Australian social enterprise company Thankyou poised to launch its ethical home, body, bathroom and baby products on New Zealand shores.

Thankyou gives 100 percent of its profits to the Thankyou Charitable Trust, a registered charitable entity. All the funds are redistributed to project partners who provide resources such as water, sanitation, food, child and maternal health programmes around the world - holding a goal of ending global poverty.

Thankyou’s launch follows successful funding, which met the $600,000 criteria for entrance and it will initially distribute its range of Thankyou baby products here in New Zealand.

It appears Thankyou wants a slice of New Zealand’s fast-moving consumer group - and it wants to grab it while making a difference.  

It is important to note, Thankyou isn’t Ecostore’s only competition; as well as the global FMCG players that dominate the market, there are a range of other innovative, environmentally focused companies like Ethique, which has had great success with its innovative alternative to plastic packaging, producing compostable solid beauty bars with sustainable and biodegradable ingredients. Ethique is also a finalist in the Going Circular category of the 2017 NZI Sustainable Business Network Awards.

Another competitor is Earthwise, a fellow family founded company which shares a similar ethos too Ecostore. It also won the Canstar Blue 2017 Award for Most Satisfied Customers in laundry liquid.

Despite its competition, Ecostore has maintained strong growth and in September last year, chief executive Pablo Kraus told StopPress it continues to enjoy double-digit revenue growth year-on-year.

“We have strong sales in NZ and Australia and our export business now represents close to 15 percent of total revenue, having grown from less than one percent in the 2015 financial year. Based on current forecasts, we are looking to achieve close to 100 percent growth in revenue from Asian markets from the 2017 to 2018 financial year.”

He added that Ecostore has ambitions to be the global leader in sustainability, health and wellbeing so it’s no surprise that Thankyou’s arrival does not have it concerned.

Furthermore, Whiten reinforces that despite commonalities between Ecostore and Thankyou, it has different approaches to the FMCG market.

Research into the global space has shown her consumers want to be making a change in the world and Ecostore’s impact is to empower people to do that but changing the body wash they use or using a different toilet cleaner.

“There are lots of little bits of good they can do,” she says. “They can make a big difference to their health, their kids health and also the health of water and natural resource. We take a different approach; it is about health, eco, wellness and sustainability.”

Ecostore looks to embrace its newfound competition and Whiten casts a diplomatic lens crediting the value of having companies in the industry that want to make an ethical difference. She says competition forces Ecostore to be the best it can be in its efforts to drive sustainability.

“[Consumers]are the ones that make us tick,” she says. “So we need to operate in a way that is ahead of the game, to know what they are thinking, feeling and what they need to meet their needs better than anyone else who use the same products.”

The apex of Ecostore’s competitive advantage is its investment in the use of sugarcane as an alternative to petroleum plastic, and its deployment of bioplastic technology. Subsequently, 92 percent of each bottle is made from renewable resources and 100 percent of its packaging is recycled. It also plays a part in reducing the carbon footprint, by capturing and storing CO2 in the packaging process.

“I know, having worked for global FMCGs, they all have ambitions to use plant plastic, they will want to do so, but they can’t afford to do it. They aren’t prepared to take the hit in margin. But Ecostore has said right from the start that was what we have to do, and that is what we believe in.”

On the charity front, founders and philanthropists the Rands started the fairground foundation in 1993, a not for profit arm of Ecostore, which tackles social and environmental challenges.

As a result, Ecostore has been rewarded for its commitment to the environment, winning various sustainability awards in 2017; it was voted as leading the way in sustainability in the Colmar Brunton Better Business, Better World Survey for the fourth year running, outstanding performance in carbon management and environmark for Ecotech, awarded NZSCC’s Best Formulation for its Kids range, it gained highly commended in the Innovation Awards and Canstar Blue Laundry Powder awarded Ecostore for the Overall Customer Satisfaction Award.

Ecostore has now permeated the Asian market, most notably China where it’s reaping the benefits of the rise in the conscious consumer.  According to research gathered by ChinaDaily, 16 percent of consumers on Alibaba’s China marketplaces bought five or more green products in 2016 and were, on average willing to pay 33 percent more for sustainable products.

Whiten discusses Ecostore’s success during singles day where it accomplished over a million dollars of sales and exceeded last year’s sales in the first one and a half hours.

She says the rise of the conscious consumer in China is exactly what it was looking for, and it has partners like Alibaba, the biggest online retailer.

“Last year, they did a massive nationwide promotion and picked the five global brands that best embodied health and well-being,” says Whiten. “They picked Origin Skincare, Lululemon, an Adidas recyclable shoe, a brand producing an air-filter and they picked Ecostore which is great. They see us as a global leader in health and wellness, and that is because of the products we offer, the credibility and the nice connection of New Zealand. So, China is going gang-busters.”

But the rise of the conscious consumer is not only subjected to China, as it’s a global trend. According to Nielsen data, the sustainability imperative is becoming increasingly prevalent as 66 percent of global respondents are willing to pay more, and over 50 percent are influenced by key sustainability factors.

However, it takes more to market eco products overseas than simply slapping on a clean, green New Zealand logo, especially in an advertising world that can reek of greenwashing.

“New Zealand brands almost think, that is the magic bullet,” explains Whiten. “But it is only part of the story. First and foremost is the message that we are an incredible business, we don’t take shortcuts, we are made in New Zealand and because we have all those third-party endorsements, it is a collection of all of those things that reinforce that you are a genuine product, genuinely credible and genuinely safe.”

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