John Frieda's brand launch rethink leads to marketing innovation

Marketing chief for the haircare brand talks through the brand's first virtual event foray and the wider rethink she's had to lead as COVID-19 changed consumer contexts

Event participants during John Frieda's first-ever virtual media event
Event participants during John Frieda's first-ever virtual media event

A product launch that out of necessity became a virtual event first for John Frieda’s brand team has set the scene for more marketing innovation and transformation, its marketing chief says.

The haircare products brand this month hosted its first-ever virtual media event, a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions. The event was in aid of the Australian launch of the new Detox & Repair haircare range, a product line representing a new brand direction globally.

The virtual event was attended by 30 key media and industry partners and centred around a Zoom-based live pilates class instructed by fitness industry notable and Fluid Form Pilates instructor, Kirsten King. The live event was hosted by John Frieda brand ambassador, Roxy Jacenko, and also gave attendees the opportunity to engage in a live question-and-answer session.

Director of marketing for Kao Australia, the parent company of John Frieda, Claire Vanderstoel, told CMO the brand has spent years carving out a well-planned media relations strategy, hinged around physical events and engagement. The plan for the debut of the new Detox & Repair range was no different.

On the agenda originally were a trip to Bali for select influencers in the beauty and well-being space, as well as a brunch event in Sydney for about 20 key media partners. Both events had the intention of showcasing the benefits of detoxifying and purifying hair as part of a daily well-being routine.

“We were much more getting into the well-being, caring space, and being more conscious of what we’re putting into and on our bodies,” Vanderstoel explained. “With the explosion in things like meditation, yoga and wellness overall, this product was perfectly timed for the market.”  

However, with the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly followed by social distancing and physical restrictions, it was clear John Frieda had to reimagine media engagement.

“We always go back to the objectives: What are we trying to achieve? And the activation and campaign flows from there,” Vanderstoel said. “In this instance, our objectives and aims were the same, which were: How do we launch our new range in a meaningful and impactful way, to best communicate the core messaging?”  

The new product range already offered broader appeal from a customer perspective and was on-trend thanks to the use of ingredients such as avocado oil. Arguably, messaging also fit with the current COVID-19 situation, and consumers being at home trying to look after themselves, she said.

“I said to the team and our agency, our objective is the same, but how do we to think differently and still connect and communicate these messages in a new, impactful way? I was so excited by the concept they came up with together.”  

Pilates as an exercise is about transformation and tailors to your individual needs, which made it a great fit with John Frieda’s overarching brand mission around transformation, Vanderstoel said. As well as the dynamic format, the virtual platform allowed John Frieda to open up the launch to industry partners, including retailers plus buyers from the likes of Coles and Priceline.

“They really appreciated being a part of that and being able to connect more closely with the brand. And it was such a relevant event – they really wanted to take that time for themselves and connect through pilates with these messages,” Vanderstoel said.  

As part of the invitation, attendees received a personalised yoga mat and John Frieda-branded water bottles for the session. Both helped with the storytelling and connection with the brand longer-term, Vanderstoel said, while influencer partner, Roxy Jacenko, offered additional cut-through, further helping shift the brand into this wider well-being category.

As well as achieving attendance rates, key KPIs were around pieces of coverage was generated pre, during and post-event, as well as reach via impressions and audience reach. Based on the results, Vanderstoel said it’s already overdelivered.

“Then there’s intangible metrics of relationship building. That’s the good thing about digital events – you can reach more people,” she said. “We did choose to keep it quite bespoke by choice to make it personal.”

Vanderstoel said success of the virtual event has shown much of what has been done physically in the past can be achieved digitally, with “traditional strategies quite easily shifted to digital”. It’s for this reason she believed the way marketing and brand teams work post-COVID will never be the same again.

“Marketers and PRs should now be looking at virtual events as a long-term component of their marketing plans, as we have now seen what can be achieved via digital,” she commented.

Being empathetic and connected

Disruption of John Frieda’s marketing plans haven’t stop there, and Vanderstoel said her team has had to re-evaluate all sorts of plans as a result of COVID-19. An out-of-home campaign to support the new Detox & Repair range planned right in the middle of the lockdown, for instance, has been postponed.

“We also had other brand messages out there that quickly became irrelevant, or a matter of ‘so what’,” Vanderstoel said. “It’s almost like we’ve gone back to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. People were back down to their basic needs of being able to buy toilet paper, feeding the family, stocking up and making sure they’re buying the essentials because they didn’t know what the future holds.

“We didn’t want to be going out there with these nice-to have messages when people are really focusing on their core needs. We could see this with other products in our portfolio, such as our cleaning product, Attack. Sales of that have gone through the roof during this time.”  

Of key importance is tailoring messaging to make sure communications are empathetic and relevant to people’s current situations, Vanderstoel continued.

“We didn’t want to alienate anyone or be disrespectful, or seem like we didn’t care just by carrying on with our current strategy. We looked at the whole content calendar, and parked a lot that was just not relevant right now,” she said.    

To make sure all brands in the portfolio keep up with consumers as the COVID-19 crisis continues, Vanderstoel said Kao is monitoring the situation week-by-week, day-by-day, looking at what is communicated by the government and how that’s communicated through the business, followed by what it means for consumers.

“We are having to adapt regularly,” she said. “We know we’re starting to see restrictions being lifted, so we’re starting to tailor and tweak our messaging to that. For example, it might be with haircare now that it’s time to get those roots touched-up and start getting ready to put yourself back out there.”

As part of her executive remit, Vanderstoel also looks after consumer care. “That’s our direct hotline to our consumer,” she said.

“If you have one person who takes the time to call or email to tell you something about your product, they probably represent up to 50 other consumers that might be experiencing the same thing. So we really listen and respond to those inquiries.”

One example was in the group’s response to a nurse working in Box Hill Hospital, who called and asked if there was anything the brand could do to help with skin breakouts caused by having to wear face masks all the time. The group put together care packs featuring several of its branded products, including Biore pore strips, facial cleansers, body and hand moisturisers, haircare and laundry products and delivered those to several emergency departments nationally.

“It was so well-received by those teams, but also internally from a culture perspective. To be able to share what we’re doing as a wider organisation really helps to connect and keep people together even when they’re apart,” Vanderstoel said. “These very positive stories are worth sharing.”

Team work

But while the virtual event was a first for John Frieda, Vanderstoel said meeting virtually prior to the crisis was already well entrenched, with its PR company based in Sydney and Kao based in Melbourne.

In addition, a leadership reshuffle which occurred a couple of years ago was starting the push towards accepting more flexible working arrangements. But the COVID-19 crisis has almost forced people to be OK with working from home, she said.

“You can manage and lead from afar as you still have weekly catchups, you still know what people are working on and you’re seeing the output,” she said. “It’s great to see people taking that empowerment and running with it.”

With different platforms and ways of working now in play, Vanderstoel also believed organisations are having to be more agile and flexible in how they approach engagement. And she agreed marketers could lead the way.

“As marketers, we tend to be that little more agile anyway, because it’s the nature of our jobs. We need to always be looking to new trends, for ways to adapt, and respond to our consumer needs and industry changes.

“Naturally, just looking at the shape of our organisation, marketing is a little higher on this adoption curve.”

Read more about how other brands have pivoted to cope with COVID-19:

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