CMO interview: Marketing the wool off a sheep’s back

Australian Wool Innovation chief global brand strategist and marketing officer, Rob Langtry, talks about how he got the board to support a historic marketing investment, brand strategy and more

Many marketers can count the number of Australian owned, globally recognised brands on one hand. So it’s no surprise that experienced marketer and strategist, Rob Langtry, considers being brand custodian for the country’s wool industry a rare privilege.

As global chief of strategy and marketing officer for Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) since 2010, and a strategic consultant since 2007, Langtry has led the organisation’s transformation from R&D operative to marketing powerhouse as it strives for greater awareness, demand and advocacy of the natural fibre worldwide.

“The fact that I effectively own on behalf of Australian wool growers a brand sitting in the top 20 in the world, and that is one of three or four brands globally to be owned by Australians, gives me an incredible sense of responsibility,” Langtry told CMO. “This is an important asset to be protected.”

Langtry was instrumental in getting the not-for-profit organisation to invest 50 per cent of its total R&D budget from 2010 into re-energising global interest in Australian wool through marketing. Following the success of these activities, he convinced AWI’s board to increase that ratio to 60 per cent in its 2013-2016 plan.

“The big issue for Australian wool producers is not selling wool – we sell and have sold every kilogram of wool we produce,” he explained. “The problem has been price. The official figures showed we were getting a less than subsistence price for growers, and many went out of business as a result.

“Part of the solution is using R&D to develop a better product and gain farming efficiencies. But the other part of the equation is to grow demand. To do that, you have to get to a level in the market where you can actually generate opportunity for money to flow back to the growers.”

Creating the marketing brief

AWI is only one of two government-funded, industry created enterprises, alongside Meat and Livestock Australia, and has 33,000 wool growers as shareholders. It has always invested in R&D, but historically didn’t market wool-based products. Yet long-term static wool prices and a decline in flock size from 200 million to 70 million had brought the industry close to collapse and triggered the need for change.

“The original brief [for AWI] was around how the entity responsible for R&D could help build demand for Australian wool,” Langtry said. “We came up with a plan recognising some characteristics first, which is that wool is essentially an ingredient brand, and to do anything with it, you need to be both push and pull – push into the trade as well as pull through in terms of consumer activity.

“We also realised that as AWI, we didn’t have a marketing mandate.”

That responsibility resided with global marketing brand, Woolmark, which operated as a separate unlimited company and delivered the licensing and certification scheme behind wool classification worldwide. The business, however, lacked funding and had not invested in any significant brand or marketing activity for 12 years. Rather than launch a new Australian merino brand, Langtry and his team advised a takeover of Woolmark and in 2008, AWI purchased the entity for $15 million.

“When this happened, it was like Christmas,” Langtry said. “You don’t often get a brand that’s basically been let slip in terms of investment for 12 years, bought by a business with a strong revenue flow, and then acquire a mandate to go back to the market and re-energise, which is what had happened by 2010.”

Because Australian wool represents 97 per cent of the material used in wool-based apparel worldwide, the Woolmark brand is predominantly about fashion. The good news was the brand still retained levels of 80 to 90 per cent recognition globally despite having suffered from long-term neglect.

The bad news was consumer perceptions of wool were no longer in sync with the product’s attributes. A global study commissioned in 2007 showed a significant drop in consumer equity around wool and outdated views of the product.

“We had this magnificent brand asset sitting there, having survived a lack of support for so long, and industry desperate to tell a product story and correct the misconceptions about the modern product,” Langtry said.

“Consumers knew it was natural, but that wasn’t a strong enough attribute to stop share loss. We had to do something to tap into that ‘lifestyle of health and sustainability’ trend, which represented about 30 per cent of all consumers.”

Campaign awareness

Thanks to the consumer study, AWI knew what issues needed to be addressed. Its first three-year marketing plan was based on four overarching campaigns, each involving different components of the global fashion industry and supply chain.

One of the biggest contradictions in the perception of wool highlighted by the consumer survey was the ‘prickly’ factor. The reality, however, was that Australia’s wool clip had gone from 21 micro to 19 micron by 2009, and was finer and more comfortable to wear.

“Basically we needed to tell people that you can wear it next to skin,” Langtry said. The first ‘Merino: No finer feeling’ campaign to promote wool apparel globally therefore tapped into both the sentiment around wearing inspiring fashion, as well as wool’s finer quality, he said.

Another consideration was AWI’s position outside of direct retail, along with limited budget. Partnership with key designers and retailers proved pivotal in getting the message out there. AWI has now gone from zero marketing partners three years ago to more than 50 for its ‘No finer feeling’ campaign including Armani, Alexander Wang, Givenchy, John Paul Gautier and Gieves and Hawkes.

“We have stayed consistent for three years, remained in marketing, had a consistent theme and outlined why it makes sense,” Langtry said. “We give these new partners a list of the people that came before them including brands they like associating with, and ask them to come on-board and be an advocate for us.

“We’re going across three steps in the marketing communications chain and turning them into advocates. The reason they are is because they believe in the product.”

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