Horse’s Mouth: Malcolm Rands

Malcolm Rands has been fighting the good fight for almost 20 years with Ecostore—and the charity the company helps to fund, Fairground Foundation. He released a book that told the story of his journey a few months back. So how is Ecoman planning on saving the world? 

On staying positive: “Other companies might be very successful by putting their competitors down, but it’s not the Ecostore way to look at the doom and gloom. That’s too close to being preachy. I hate preachy and I think the whole green movement is being pulled back by preachy ‘be right’ people. Often all that does is just get people’s backs up. I’m a true believer that you listen to your friends. So it’s more our way to say ‘well, this has worked for us’. And it has. All the products have come from things that my wife Melanie and I wanted to use in our own life. So we’re kind of selfish in a way, because we’ve created our own shop.” 

On selling: “From a marketing point of view, right from the beginning people put us into the hippy basket—and it’s still around today. People would half expect that we were making stuff in a bathtub out the back. Whereas what we’ve done from the beginning is use the likes of McDonald’s as a guideline. If someone can convince people to buy something I think is a pretty dodgy bloody product, imagine if you used the same techniques and skill to sell something that’s really worthwhile. So we have tried to be really professional and clean. And we’ve also developed a very high scientific background for what we’ve done. If you look at our packaging, one of the key things was having an expert, almost pharmaceutical look. It’s about triggering something that makes people say ‘oh, these guys know what they’re doing’. Because a lot of the customers we’re trying to reach basically think ‘oh, I like that eco stuff, but it doesn’t really work and it costs too much’. That’s what we’re up against and there’s probably about 80 percent of Kiwis who believe that.”

On starting: “I didn’t start the Ecostore journey until I was about 40. You’re never too old. In fact, recently I’ve been quite inspired by Claude Stratford, the guy who founded Comvita. He died recently [at the age of 102], but he didn’t start the business until he was in his 60s. And when he was 95 he got into the finals of entrepreneur of the year.” 

On effectiveness: “People think they need a hard chemical if they want to clean the house. And that’s nonsense … We’re no more expensive than the ones with hard chemicals that you’d expect to do really well when you see the advertising, like Easy Off Bam, and we thrashed them [in recent independent tests], so it’s trying to create that paradigm shift.” 

On telling the story: “The best place to get a message out is actually on the shelves in supermarkets. Any other way is outrageously expensive. We’re focused on PR and social media. But the other thing we do, and I wouldn’t underestimate it, is we go to a lot of shows. With our brand you can’t have a snappy byline and people just get it. You almost need to have a discussion with someone. And that’s why the book’s been fantastic. Nearly everyone who’s read it has said ‘oh shit, I can’t see any reason why I shouldn’t buy from your stores from now on’. But if it takes a whole bloody book to get the message across, it’s hard work aye.”

On growth: “We’re profitable now. But we could have been profitable years ago if we had decided not to grow … Wine is the product most often bought on special at New Zealand supermarkets. Soap powder is number two. So there’s been this huge fight since the global downturn on specialling. And in dollar terms the category’s been declining by up to six percent year on year. The whole category’s going backwards and that’s because everyone is always on special. But we’re growing by ten to 15 percent, so it’s quite remarkable.” 

On saying vs. doing: “The eco space is a shocker. You cannot trust any survey because if you did then the eco segment should be worth about 50 percent of supermarkets, where in reality it’s like eight-and-a-half percent. It’s still quite small, so what people say and what they actually do are two different things. With household cleaner, you’ve got some really tricky stuff because it’s a grudge purchase. So often when you’re going down the aisle, you’re not in a happy space and it often comes down to price. It’s not like food.” 

On going eco: “If you look at all the green brands and organics as well, there was huge growth before the global meltdown hit and then it just stopped. I think when you’re under stress in times of worry you don’t like changing habits. You’ve almost got to be brave in a way to have a crack at it, even though once you do you find that you didn’t need to be brave because it’s so good. But it actually involves someone taking that step to change a lifetime’s habit. And it’s quite a big step because most things are still bought by women, particularly with cleaning, and heaps of women use a particular brand because their mum did. It’s as simple as that. So why would you change what your mum taught you?” 

On duplicity: “We’ve got all our ingredients out there and we’ve had them out for years. It’s not as though suddenly our competitors can wipe us off the map because we’ve given away our formulas. But what’s happened is that they’re playing a game where they seem to be showing what’s in the products, but it’s completely meaningless. They say things like contains plant-based anionic surfactant. That sounds like an ingredient, but it’s actually a category that probably has about 400 different chemicals in it, ranging from something beautiful and green to some of the most toxic ingredients on the planet. They don’t want to [show what’s in the products], because people would be surprised by how many x’s and z’s were there.” 

On quality: “A lot of the eco initiatives now are being seen for what they are, which is just really smart and elegant solutions. I don’t think people understand planet stuff and eco stuff and global warming stuff. It can be a bit of a turn off, it’s just too hard, but they do understand the concept of quality. And now if you’re looking at the best quality products on the planet, they are the eco ones. And in the end you’ll find all the quality brands, they’ll be swapping to the eco ingredients, because in the end the petro chemicals are cheap and nasty.”

On greenwashing: “Even if bigger companies are doing sustainability and social responsibility audits quietly and further down, at least they’re doing it. Once you start walking down that path it’s very hard to turn back. And it’s all about continuous improvement. So I don’t see it as greenwashing when they start bringing these systems in. It’s only greenwashing when they make it seem more than it is. As long as they’re saying exactly what they’re doing, not saying something like ‘we are the greenest company on the planet because we’re printing on both sides of the paper in the office and changing a few light bulbs’. Sustainability is the triple bottom-line so it’s about making money, the environment and people.” 

On pride: “I started getting asked what I’m most proud of and it was creating employment. Being able to put food on someone’s table and not having them working in a shithole for an arsehole, it’s great.” 

On value: “While people understand quality, they don’t understand value. Rural folk still buy the big sack of soap powder from the supply store. And if you look at the dosage it’s 250mls compared to 30mls for Ecostore. It’s just a value proposition. Unfortunately it seems we need to change that mindset one bloody household at a time. But once people get it, they actually feel kinda ripped off and often what happens is we then get huge loyalty from our consumers because of our openness and authenticity.” 

On export: “Our major focus for the last five years has been Australia. And in the last six to 12 months we have really started to focus big time on Asia Pacific. But we’re being very, very strategic. We’re doing a lot of data mining, a lot of finding out about the habits of people in different countries. What often happens with an export company is they’ll find someone willing to take it and they’ll just send off a container. We did that in the past and it was disastrous. And now we’re very hands on about our brand, who our partners will be and what percentage of the market we’re going to go for. And while it might not fit with the corporate view of scalability, it’s actually sustainable, because we end up with very loyal customers.”

On the focus: “We never talk about eco because our name does all that work. But we always talk about health. ‘No nasty chemicals’ isn’t a clever byline, it’s a campaign we’ve been running for over ten years to identify the chemicals that people need to learn to avoid. Every product has got different baddies and they’re always changing, so there’s not one list that we use across everything. Our idea is that in the end people need to be empowered and they need to know what to look out for. And we’ve spent a lot of time educating people around that. Even if they use that to find some other products, it’s still good for us because that’s where we think the world has to end up.” 

On short-termism: “I think the stuff we’re doing now will be seen as perceived wisdom in the future. There are so many things we’ve got to watch out for. One is lack of transparency and authenticity. At the same time I truly believe business is the way we’re going to change the world for the better. The Government can’t do it because democracy is not our friend in this case and because part of the human condition is that we don’t worry about what’s going to happen in 20 years, we worry about what’s happening in 20 minutes.” 

  • This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec edition of NZ Marketing. Subscribe here

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