I have been intrigued by sugru and how it achieved so much in a short period of time since seeing them in Time magazine and buying/testing some of its products over Christmas.
Company founder Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh from Kilkenny shared some insights into the company and how it has made great strides in getting and harnessing user generated content in its social media platforms and achieved worldwide word of mouth exposure.
Sugru (www.sugru.com) is a UK based company that has invented a silicone based modelling clay that helps people fix or improve everyday items. The product itself is a new development in this class and has some unique properties in that it cures at room temperature, is very self-adhesive, heat resistant, waterproof, flexible and dishwasher proof. The company has one core product with 5 colours and has shifted over 40,000 units in its first few months.
How did the idea come about?
The idea came from a process of material experimentation and an observation of the development of the open source community. Jane has an active interest in how additional life can be given to products and giving people an ability to ‘hack’ and personalise products.
She felt that traditional product design was very static in that once a product emerged from the factory, there was very little interaction where focus should be on discovering and finding out how people use it at home and other areas. This could lead to better products and also connects the company with its user base.
How did the idea come into fruition?
Jane’s story reflects many other SMEs as they build their brand but some initial kick starts have really helped. Jane’s product came from research she did when studying at the Royal College of Design in London, following previous study at NCAD in Dublin. One of the big lifts she received was when the British Airways inflight magazine featured the product in a column which sparked off lots queries from consumers and people in industry.
With help of the innovation department in the college she set up sugru with business partner Roger Ashby and after six years of development and initial grant and investment funding of £350,000, with a modest investment of £100,000 they converted their lab into a production facility. Their initial production of 1,000 packs sold out in 6 hours following their launch and they knew they had a viable business but needed to scale up production.
How do you go to market?
sugru is mainly sold from its website and also through some shops in Ireland/UK and is now in the process of setting up in the US.
- 25% of its orders come from UK,
- 45% from US with
- Ireland and Germany accounting for much of the remaining sales.
Initially they have focused on shipping small single orders and reacting to who wanted to buy it from the website but are now scaling to additional retail distribution.
What marketing do you deploy?
sugru defied much of the text book approach to marketing in that it spends very little on traditional marketing.
Most of sugru’s growth has come from word of mouth which has led to some high profile articles on the company also the inclusion in Time Magazine’s Top 50 Inventions and features in the Irish Times amongst others.
Its website, blog, email and social media platforms are still the key drivers of the business and Jane manages these directly. The company also organises and facilitates ‘Hack It Sessions’ such as a recent one in 091 labs in Galway.
Social Media Presence
According to Jane
“the Blog has been brilliant in terms of articulating our mission. This is not just a product. It was invented to reduce waste and give people an easy way to improve stuff”.
This is where sugru really excels. The company and product has plugged in to a growing movement of people fixing and repairing items and is an enabler of this movement. Rather than just looking at social media channels to push company news it sees the community as central. Most of the content on the channel tap into how people are using the product. Jane receives a lot of emails and correspondence from users who take the time to document what they have fixed/improved and even supply photos showing the degree of connection that the company has with users.
The company rewards and encourages this and as Jane puts it
“all of our marketing comes from customers in the form of hundreds of photo, stories and videos”.
The Hack of the Month profiles how innovative users have been in the use of the product which ranges from fixing medical devices to protecting school bags. sugru also asks for suggestions on who they should send sugru packs to and this recently resulted in packs being sent to scientists working on the largest bore holes in the world based in Antarctica. They featured stories on how they used it to repair diverse items from glasses to knives.
The outreach and investment in the online community now means they have a large gallery of photos and stories of customers documenting their use of the product.
User generated content is the nirvana for a lot of companies and getting customers to tell their stories can be notoriously difficult. Even if people really enjoyed the product getting them to invest the time and allowing you use their stories is rarely successful. Although there is no doubt that this is a very innovative and good product, the subtle difference having the ethos of the company – to reduce waste and allow people to personalise and improve stuff – central in all they do is key to their success. It’s not about sugru but rather what people do with it and how it helps their lives. This approach means people are happier to contribute as it plugs into their lives and the sugru community feels like a grouping of like-minded people rather than a community website. Even the website itself clearly positions it as being about the user and not the product itself. You get a clear impression that much as sugru benefits from user engagement people are learning, teaching and educating each other how it could be used.
Jane is the first to admit that although they do a lot with communities that there is more to do and she feel they are only scratching the surface on what could be done. Similar to most companies, measurement is evolving and difficult to quantify. Easy to measure items such as ‘likes’ are less a concern than the quality of interaction such as conversations and comments. Key is seeing if people are getting the message and spreading it. Twitter is also another active daily channel with most activity taken up by answering queries and interacting than pushing company messages. Jane herself still manages these channels directly herself showing the level of commitment to the users.
One of the other positive aspects of so much user generated content is that now the company can see recurring uses and this can be fed back in to product research, design and marketing. This translates as possible future iPhone cable and adapter products/packs as the company has seen lots of examples of sugru being utilised to fix or improve these.
Real World Interaction
As with much social media activity it’s important to have a real world footprint also. The ‘Hack It’ Sessions facilitate this and are almost a real world reflection of what goes on in the online world. sugru sometimes organises these itself or facilitates them by sending product to users who want to create a shared experience of using the product. People learning from each other and being creative opens up new views on the product that sugru could never do by itself.
Much could be learnt from the sugru experience online and according to Jane companies could really improve their online presence with some simple philosophies including:
- Have a clear mission that is people/users focused and not company centric
- Tweet and interact with people the same as if over a shop counter
- Don’t be frightened of people or interaction
- Don’t be overly promotion
- Remember people are not interested in you but rather what you can do for them
- Have conversations
- Facilitate, reward, and respect the input from people who contact you
sugru is now working on expanding its US presence directly through stores and setting up shipping locally. They are also talking to hardware chains in Ireland to extend its reach and easy of buying.
sugru has achieved a worldwide presence after only 9 months in operation and sold over 40,000 packs. Its marketing is mainly word of mouth and customer based. It has made huge progress into cracking the ‘user generated content’ nut and has built a very strong online brand by having a mission driven and customer centric approach.
This case study is part of the IIA Social Media Working Group‘s series of studies on how companies are using social media to achieve their business aims and objectives. This study was written by Eoin Kennedy of Slattery Communications, chair of IIA Social Media Working Group.