With last weeks ‘white gold rush’ to secure stock of Bellamy’s baby milk powder we were witness to that rare event when a brand ‘tips’. When some convergence of elements about the brand causes it to suddenly take off. What happened?
Last week’s rush on Bellamy’s Organic baby milk powder caught everyone by surprise. One minute all is good, the next we have panicked mothers ringing up 2BL demanding that the Chinese stop buying up all of our precious resources. Except they weren’t talking about coal or iron ore or beef farms in the Northern Territory. They were talking about a specific brand of baby milk powder.
The panic buying had stocks of this basic food item gone within days. And yet, the ingredients of Bellamy’s baby formula – baby milk powder is a very strictly regulated food product – were exactly the same as other brands, which at the start of this panic, lay dormant and sad, untouched mostly by the buyers who were making a B line for Bellamy’s Organic brand. Lucky for those other brands that when Bellamy’s ran out, the panic and the effect spread. In the end, they all went off. And, apparently we had national crisis.
a2 branded milk, which have recently decided to cash in on the ‘pristine plus super food brand’ craze by launching their own a2PLATINUM baby milk powder brand, was one of the second tier brands to get the after glow of Bellamy’s ‘tipping’ event.
The demand for pristine super food brands is being driven largely out of Asia, and especially by China following a baby powder milk scandal there a year ago, when 6 babies died from ingesting contaminated local milk products. Not long after the Bellamy’s ‘white gold rush’ started, we were seeing cans of the product on e-bay and Alibaba for up to 400 per cent of the retail price in stores.
Tasmania is one of the hottest locations to be in the export food sector right now. Food and drink in various categories make up numbers 6 through to 9 in Tassie’s top 10 exports, and dairy, not long ago a severely depressed sector, is really hot. It seems the further south you go in the super food brand categories, the hotter things get. Hence a2 (New Zealand) and Bellamy’s (Tasmania).
In the past month, several companies have moved to acquire Tasmania’s largest and Australia’s oldest dairy farm controlled by a company called Van Diemans Land (VDL). On the verge of being snapped up by two Chinese companies however, a local counter bid from Melbourne base public company OnCard occured. That company is chaired by Rob Woolley, who has strong links to the ‘white gold’ crew at Bellamy’s Organic.
B&T accidentally ran into the brand researcher for Bellamy’s on another mission last week and took the opportunity to ask the obvious question. ‘What happened? What caused a tipping point on the Bellamy’s brand of milk powder that saw it disappear off shelves all around the country within days?’
A broad and tell tale smile came across of the face of this researcher when I casually asked the question. I had been hoping to catch him off guard. But like all good researchers he remained very true to his client.
“There is something going on there that is very interesting for sure,” he replied. “But you would know I wouldn’t and couldn’t tell you. You should maybe talk to the guys at Bellamy’s. They’re a very interesting and forward thinking crowd.”
I was now totally intrigued. I persisted: “I note that the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that the only difference in the brands was that Bellamy’s was the only ‘organic’ marked brand.”
“I can tell you it isn’t that”, said the researcher “but you get nothing more”.
Here was a case the Old Chairman needed to solve. A brand tips and apparently there is research that tells us perhaps, why.
I rang Bellamy’s in Tasmania off the number on their website and asked for their marketing manager, Chris Sherbon. An old lady had replied.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry but no-one by that name works here,” she said.
I persisted: “Can you check again for me, I’ve got Chris listed as the CMO”.
“Ooh, what’s a CMO,” the switch lady replied. “Sorry, chief marketing officer.” Long, long pause where I can hear paper rattling, then a light squeal.
“OOOOOOH, I’m so sorry, yes , I’ve looked ‘her’ up on this sheet they all gave me (Sherbon is male), and it says here that she’s the Chief Marketing Officer of Bellamy’s. I’m terribly sorry sir, but it says she doesn’t work in this office and there is a note here saying she is in conference all day today with the rest of management . . .”.
This switch person went on for quite a while to explain quite a few things that were in the notes someone had provided here. Chris Sherbon didn’t work in the Tasmanian office and she thought that she lived in South Australia I should ring tomorrow as there was actually no-one from Bellamy’s in the office today because they were all at this conference and she was a temp and she was very sorry she couldn’t think of any other way to help me. It was a lovely conversation and you could tell this was a lovely woman doing her very best.
I happen to love Tasmania. Bellamy’s head office I think is in Launceston and this women answering the switch felt like the sort of person you might get on the switch in a good company from the 1950s. The sort of person who I think many company’s would do well to have on their switch today. Someone who was gentle, funny and who cared. Not entirely efficient, but by talking to her somehow you get a feel for the brand of Bellamy’s. Without talking to any of the managers of Bellamy’s yet I had a feeling for their brand: it was ‘Tasmania’, ‘down to earth’, ‘country town’, ‘caring’ and ‘community’. All that and I hadn’t spoken to a sole from management yet. Just the temp on switch that day with some notes for callers.
I found an alternative way to reach Chris Sherbon.
It turned out that Chris was in conference all day and he was hugely busy. I’m guessing that would have something to do with the fact that after last week the brand has literally “tipped” globally and the management is entirely mobilised in trying to realise the massive opportunity that this event presents in the short time they have to do it.
I asked Sherbon the same question I’d asked the researcher: “What about Bellamy’s did he think caused the ‘tip’ to occur and what if anything came out of his brand research that confirmed his thinking.”
As you’d expect, Sherbon wasn’t about to give away any trade secrets. But he did confirm that being in a pristine location, ‘brand Tasmania’, and the ‘organic’ part were all somehow contributing.
“Tasmania is certainly increasing its reputation as a clean green environment,” he told B&T. “That perception helps when people know that we are based in Tasmania and that all Bellamy’s products are certified organic.”
But this wasn’t all there was to it. And while Sherbon still wasn’t going to give up any of his research, what he said synchronised entirely with the ‘lovely old lady on switch’ huddled in head office somewhere in country Tasmania, doing her best to deal with a narky journalist, with some notes from a rushed management team who had to leave quickly to deal with a crisis.
“One of the key reasons for [Bellamy’s] success is that we have a very good culture internally and a strong management team. How we all work together is an intangible advantage that others can’t copy and the brand positioning that mothers perceive is an extension of that.”
There it was. The secret that got Bellamy’s to ‘tip’ comes down to people and how people are treated…..”how we all work together is an intangible advantage . . . that mothers perceive”.
I could definitely feel it in the call to the office when there were no managers there at all to talk to or help the switch lady. Normally I’d be pretty critical about someone not knowing where or how to get hold of a manager when there was a big story. But after talking to the switch lady I felt like at least someone cared and also a little like I’d just had a short and pleasant visit to a pretty and peaceful Tasmanian country town in the 1950s.
Somehow Bellamy’s has managed to get that feeling across to its core target market. And, together with the whole Tasmania, pristine, green thing, we a see a brand reach a ‘tipping point’.