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What’s the one brand you remember advertising alongside the coverage of the London Olympics on Nine and Foxtel? Is it the multimillion dollar Qantas ads, Telstra’s ‘Land Down Under’ effort, or Coles’ Cathy Freeman endorsement?

The chances are the one which springs to mind is a company a fraction of the size of these behemoths, but with probably the biggest marketing heart, Swisse. The brand has been steadily going about making a name for itself in the marketing, and real

world, over the past four years, which, coincidentally, is when head of marketing Helen Sali took the reins.

Sport is quite literally built into the DNA of the 12-strong marketing department, which boasts former Melbourne FC skipper David Neitz and ex-Canberra Raiders man Dean Norbiato in its ranks.

But why does Swisse push so hard around sport? “In terms of the broadcast, it’s the mass reach and frequency, it’s one of the biggest pullers of a live audience and has been year-on-year,” says Sali. “About 95% is watched live, it’s one of those rare programs people want to watch while it’s happening, and has all those elements of real entertainment, it’s got a tribal thing, winners and losers, and that engagement people feel passionate about.”

Since Sali took charge a host of brand ambassadors have been added to the books, led by former Aussie cricket captain Ricky Ponting, to the most recently announced, Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman. Big names for a company employing only 120 people, and plying its trade in what was an unfashionable niche.

“When I arrived at Swisse people would say ‘what do they do?’” says Sali, when asked what has changed since her arrival. “Now everyone knows what they do, so it’s been a huge change in going from products sold in pharmacies and were known but not well-known, to having mass appeal as a brand – that’s quite a big change in the past couple of years.

“We’ve taken a model you might apply to an FMCG product and applied it to a vitamin product with the intention of making health fashionable, and delivering it to a wider audience.”

While sports stars make up the bulk of the ambassadors, personalities like Kidman, Sonia Kruger and Marcia Hines help to provide variation to the roster. Sali says chief among the reasons for engaging so many is preventing anyone “vampirising” the brand. The criteria for choosing them is simple: they must be “top of what they do”, with the broad mix allowing Swisse to tailor its campaigns depending on the occassion.

And what of that Olympic campaign? According to Nielsen, the ads generated the highest brand recall of any associated with it, beating some massive names. “It was a huge campaign for us. Initially getting that partnership with the Australian Olympic Committee was really hard work, a 12-month process, but a key part of our Olympic campaign. It’s one of the world’s greatest events so we were really keen to be aligned with it. We’re the only natural health company globally to be aligned to it.

“In terms of the results we were number one in that period and we grew 50% year-on-year, we got the ROI in terms of sales and we had retailer partnerships, it was our most fully integrated campaign to date.” They are already eyeing up the next Winter and Summer Games. But one of the biggest effects of the sporting alignment is the number of men who now buy the product, making up 50% of its customers, a startling figure for a lifestyle product sold largely through supermarkets.

In January the brand announced a massive coup, pulling off something it says Tourism Australia had been trying to for years, bringing America’s new chat show queen, Ellen DeGeneres, to Australia. But, positive PR in its home country is a collateral bonus for the brand, which is using the publicity to launch into the US market.

Swisse is also a freak in the current economic climate as a brand continually stepping up its marketing budget, while most around them slash.

Sali, who arrived in Australia from the UK in 2000 for “a two-month trip”, says being married to CEO Radek Sali helps, but insists seriously that marketing is fundamental to business growth, which stands at about 50% year-on-year.

While admitting she is not much chop at sports, Sali says she has developed a love for AFL, barracking for the Hawks. Swisse is one of those companies which likes to practice what it preaches, with a philosophy of celebrating life everyday. This stretches to free personal training sessions in the onsite gym, massages and a day off for employees every month to take care of personal errands.

That philosophy is about to spawn a new digital initiative for the brand, traditionally known for its above the line campaigns. “At the moment we’re only dipping our toe in the water, we’re about to launch a new website in March which will be a platform for us to do more, and that will lead to a lot more social media activity as well, a community-based website around celebrating life everyday… By September we expect to have a media channel in market.”

So, to the elephant in the room. What effect has widespread doping and use of banned substances in sport had on their plans? “It’s not put us off at all. That topic of conversation and the supplements are not relevant to us, all our ingredients are [World Anti-Doping Agency] approved.

“The issues that the sporting codes are dealing with and the huge amount of interest it’s generating highlights how passionate people are about sport and highlights why we’re doing it in the first place.” 

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