CMO50 2021 #9: David Nicholls

  • Name David Nicholls
  • Title Commercial director
  • Company PPG (Architectural Coatings)
  • Commenced role September 2018
  • Reporting Line General manager A/NZ
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 200 staff including sales
  • Industry Sector Manufacturing + retail
  • 2020 ranking New to CMO50
  • Brand Post

    David Nicholls was attracted to the PPG business because he thought the paints market was ripe for disruption.

    “You have a huge player in Dulux and they are a standout company,” he says. “For me, that’s like IBM. I like a bit of a fight, and that is what attracted me. It’s a real challenger role and I had a blank canvas.”

    PPG is the manufacturer behind Taubmans Paints in Australia and the world’s largest coatings company. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, the fortune 500 company has global turnover of more than $US13 billion and operates 50 company owned stores plus 40 franchised Bristol stores nationally.  

    As commercial director, Nicholls is responsible for sales and marketing and reports into the chief of the Architectural Coatings business. Over the past nearly three years, he’s led the design and implementation of a total business transformation stretching from two major restructuring exercises moving marketing from Sydney to Melbourne, rejigging the marketing team’s skillset and mindset including creating an in-house agency and aligning marketing and sales into one organisation with a common purpose and goals.

    Prior to joining PPG, Nicholls spent 10 years with Ansell locally and overseas. From a start in sales, he worked in the consumer business before switching to trade marketing for Ansell’s B2B industrial division. It was during this time he participated in his first big digital transformation. All of these learnings are clearly being brought to bear at PPG and the paint category.

    I didn’t realise quite how much of a transformation it would be,” Nicholls admits. “My boss in the interview process said part of the reason they wanted me was to make significant changes in marketing and restructure teams.”

    So he did. Since joining the group, Nicholls has spearheaded the launch of two major Taubmans paint products, fuelled increased category share. Arguably most significantly, he’s conceived and launched Coloursmith, a world-first in digital colour creation.

    “This is the first major innovation in colour selection in over 20 years and is our category Netflix or iPhone in a market dominated by Nokia and Blockbuster of the paint industry,” he says.

    Innovative marketing

    So how do you challenge the Dulux brand? That was the big question Nicholls and his team had been posing. With 97 per cent recognition in market, three times the distribution network and a similarly higher budget, PPG knew it needed something disruptive, innovative and creative. The marketers found it in colour.

    “The consumer paint journey starts and ends with colour. Globally, it is a similar journey and in most markets there has been very little disruption over the past 20 years,” Nicholls comments. “Locally, market share hasn’t shifted significantly, and consumer volume consumption has stagnated.”

    However, Covid lockdowns have turbo-charged demand as more Australian looked to DIY and home improvements. In 2020, category sales jumped by more than 40 per cent – a trend that isn’t necessarily sustainable once society comes out from under the Covid cloud.   

    “Given this landscape, my strategic mission has been to fundamentally change the game long term, while at the same time managing the short-term Covid-driven demand spikes,” Nicholls says.

    What triggered the idea for Coloursmith was Nicholls standing in front of the colour wall - “the great wall of confusion” as he thinks of it – and asking why paint companies did it this way.

    “People will go to Bunnings seven times before they select a colour then they’ll default to white because it’s so complex,” he says. “I said to the team, why do paint companies own this? Why do we do it this way? The answer was well because we always have. Well, that immediately got me excited.”  

    What’s more, over 80 per cent of the colours in homes are Dulux names, such as Lexicon and Hogsbristle. Again, Nicholls asked: Why should a paint company own the colour on my wall? 

    “It is my house, my asset, my space for my family. The reality is we live in the age of ultra-personalisation and consumer choice,” he says. “If Uber Eats enables me to eat what I want, when I want and if Netflix allows me to watch what I want, when I want and even guides me to a great movie, why should the ‘Blockbuster’ of paint determine what limited colour choice I have?”

    Nicholls took the challenge to marketers locally and globally and in July 2021 Coloursmith was launched into the Australian market. Nicholls describes Coloursmith as a world-first platform that enables a fully personalised digital experience to create your own personal paint colour. This is achieved through a tech stack and world-first app developed featuring colour-matching technology including Pantone. 

    “Coloursmith is a locally born and globally disruptive change driver in the consumer journey. For the first time in more than 20 years, the way paint and colour are made, have been improved for the better,” Nicholls says.

    “To develop this platform in less than 12 months I asked the team to get back to the basics. This meant stripping back every aspect of the consumer journey for colour selection and using our insights and personas to define what a new journey would look like in a physical and digital world. 

    “Launched in the midst of Covid, Coloursmith has increased our margins by moving consumers into the market’s premium segment.  It is changing how consumers shop the paint category and growing sales.”

    Business smarts

    Launching a new brand and colour selection proposition required Nicholls to lead change across every department. One example involved operational processes.

    “Paint companies use colour names to ensure quality as historically, the creation and maintenance of colours was done in labs using an analogue process. I introduced a global database of colours to increase our technical capability and focusing on a digital matching technology. This meant we could take the creation of custom colours out of the lab and into consumers’ hands allowing for a superior, genuinely personal experience,” Nicholls explains.

    “The local technical teams had to adapt and change decades old processes in order to ensure quality maintenance while adjusting to a new way of working.”

    Then there was the sales organisation, a traditional product-focused team of more than 200 people who sell Taubmans into the key retail channels of Bunnings, company-owned stores and franchised network. By contrast, Coloursmith is primarily a digital product which delivers a physical outcome in the form of the paint colour. 

    “The sales team needed to learn how to sell a digital service, adapt to multiple iterations and work with a new marketing team to challenge the status quo at every opportunity,” Nicholls says. “As a result of Coloursmith’s launch, I have changed the team member profile and how we train and sell and laid the foundation for an accelerated pipeline of digital products.”

    Being PPG Australia’s first ecommerce solution also meant redefining reporting and the way the business captures revenue. As part of this program of work, the local team has committed to a Shopify-powered ecommerce platform to enable online transactions.

    Data and technology-driven approach

    Until the launch of Coloursmith, not one digital tool was being used permanently in retail stores, according to Nicholls. Nor, when a consumer visits a store and buys paint, is their colour selection captured and measured. Instead, the data that feeds into the legacy system is updated using a CD twice yearly.    

    Knowing consumers are more likely to remain loyal to a paint brand if they sample the paint first, the objective became leveraging all insights to increase consumer sample pot sales in-store and online.

    “We also know from major retailers that the digital channel influences 60 per cent of in-store purchases, meaning that many consumers research online and then buy in a store,” Nicholls says. “Our Coloursmith app was developed to enable consumers to create their own colours or match an existing colour and store it using a good, better, best system technology stack.”

    The app allows consumers to take a colour match via their smartphone. From there, a calibration card is created in the app to ensure accuracy of the colour captured. In addition, Coloursmith’s custom reader works to accurately capture colour using its own LED light source and sensor to identify the closest colour match.

    Each of these capabilities are new to market and developed between Australian, the US and Netherlands teams. “Using our data set out, we are learning what devices are having a greater impact on moving consumers through our funnel to a direct-to-consumer purchase,” Nicholls says.    

    Based on initial insights, the team adjusted communications strategy to focus on the photo and eye as tools for consumers, thus increasing assumed Coloursmith sales, he adds.

    People and capability

    Enabling creativity and building a startup culture so as to be able to launch something as different as Coloursmith was crucial for Nicholls – all while still delivering basic outcomes that B2C and B2B customers expected. 

    “I also needed to launch a new range of products into Bunnings. I had to focus on finding the balance between new ways of working versus proven product launches to meet my bottom-line commitments,” he says.  

    To secure support for Coloursmith in over 300 stores in Australia, a program debuted around enhancing the shopper experience. This allows the customer to custom-make their own colour, based on their personal experience, “a world-first for a paint customer”, says Nicholls.

    He’s also launched digital-first training and customer experience programs with the newly hired marketing team. Using new brand values, guidelines and positioning to create a hybrid in-house and external agency partnership has further resulted in high-quality output while delivering savings that could be re-invested. 

    In addition, Nicholls created an offsite Coloursmith HQ to ensure the program would not detract from core Taubmans and business activity while building a strong culture of innovation dedicated to creating and launching an innovative customer experience. Finally, he is building a Taubmans brand book with new values and improved positioning documentation.

    “The most important measure of any CMO is the legacy of the team they leave behind,” Nicholls adds. “I have a team who are capable of taking a challenge to an industry Goliath and never thinking the impossible is out of scope.  I have a team who are better marketing leaders than I could ever be.”


    As a result of building a strong, agile team separated from the core team, I was able to quickly accelerate Coloursmith and launch in July 2020 while enabling a second team to introduce and build a new-to-industry delivery model for painters in partnership with the delivery-tracking platform, Radaro,” Nicholls says. “This delivered sales growth for stores involved in the first phase of the execution.”

    The delivery service was a direct response to 2020 lockdowns and closure of bricks-and-mortar stores. Nicholl’s team built a new ordering platform, cemented the partnership with Radaro and debuted a new delivery service in Victoria offering painters ‘delivery within two hours or it’s free’ as a bold promise. 

    “New training manuals and store processes were built across the network, iPads were installed in stores and sales training modules were developed for our stores team to begin to sell the value of ordering online and the value delivery tracking with Radaro would bring to our painter customers,” Nicholls says.

    “Stores that participated saw sales grow, a trend which has been maintained post lockdown. This was achieved at the same time as delivering Coloursmith to market on time and maintaining momentum on our core Taubmans brand-building initiatives in our Bunnings business.”

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