Imagine that it’s been 15 months since you last drew a salary. You have been reduced to asking your girlfriend for pocket money. Along with a friend, you have poured your life savings into developing a new, entirely natural line of men’s grooming products, the first of its kind anywhere as far as you are aware, but an entirely untested concept which to date has cost around £1.2m of your and your investors’ money to develop.
It’s 48 hours until the most important meeting in your life, when buyers at a major supermarket will ultimately decide the fate of that concept. It has taken three days to have mock-ups of the packaging made by hand for an intense, day-long product review, during which you will compete with some of the biggest brands in the business. On the way to your office, after changing tube lines, your business partner turns to you, ashen-faced, and utters these immortal words: ‘Oh f*ck, I’ve left the packs behind.’ It’s a pretty tense moment.
‘We were trying to photocopy the branding and sellotape it on,’ laughs Simon Duffy, one of the two co-founders of the skincare line Bulldog, smiling now because he knows how the story ends. ‘We were freaking out. Fortunately, someone handed the bag in to lost property at Baker Street. That person saved our bacon.’ Today, Duffy’s only qualm about that fateful tube ride is that he and his business partner, Rhodri Ferrier, never found out who it was that handed in the bag. Whoever it was did the pair - now very much on speaking terms - a huge favour. The meeting, with buyers from the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, went well. They called a few days after the product review and told the partners that they planned to stock Bulldog’s six products in 330 stores countrywide. ‘We celebrated for about 10 or 15 seconds,’ Duffy says, ‘and then we realised we had about three weeks to make it happen. It was skin of your teeth, start-up stuff.’
The story helps to explain the anarchic spirit, and success of Bulldog Natural Grooming, the line of men’s skincare products the duo have built up over the past four years. It all started with Duffy, a former Saatchi and Saatchi marketing man, spending some time in New York with his girlfriend and visiting the local branch of the US organic superstore chain Whole Foods. Looking for a men’s moisturiser in the toiletries section, he could only find one, fairly disappointing-looking, tube. He asked a member of staff if there was anything else; she recommended he use something from the women’s section.
This in turn kick-started an evening of Google searching, pub conversations with Ferrer - then working in finance - calls to the UK and eventually the birth of the Bulldog brand. The more research the pair did, the more they realised that most men’s grooming brands were, in effect, just repackaged versions of women’s products. ‘If you want to develop a skincare range in the UK,’ he says, ‘you turn up to the producers and they offer you off-the-shelf formulas, pick a colour, tell them what the branding is and then you launch. The formulas are totally generic - they have been using the same stuff for 70 to 80 years. If you flip the packets and look at the back, it’s basically the same thing. The only difference is what is on the front.’
Worse, the big brands didn’t really seem to care about men’s products. ‘For men, skincare has always been a boring area; there are plenty of brands out there, but none that men really love. If you look at the other types of things that men typically spend their money on such as clothes, drinks or magazines for example then there will be brands that men love, but when it comes to skincare, it is always really functional and really boring.’ He quit his job in June 2006 and, after taking a week off to watch the World Cup, headed back to the UK from New Zealand, where he had been based for the past five years, to start the company with £37,000 of his and Ferrier’s pooled savings. It would be more than a year before he drew a salary.
Ask Duffy why he and Ferrier decided to build their brand around the idea that all of its products should be natural and as eco-friendly as possible - they avoid using man-made chemicals wherever possible, use essential oils rather than synthetic fragrances, and make sure all of their packaging is recyclable - and he is at a loss for words. A lot of the company’s ethics are based on shared gut instincts.
‘I was living in New Zealand, getting more and more into a natural and organic lifestyle,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t always like that, but I was becoming more aware of how important this stuff is. And it’s just the way I think things should be done. All the way through, we have just asked ourselves, what is the right way of doing this. We are just trying to make the right choice on everything. The decision to be natural wasn’t made through focus groups or other big corporate methodology. We are basically just making products for ourselves.’
The decision to use as many natural products as possible, and to manufacture and package the range in the UK, did not make his or Ferrier’s life any easier. Precisely because most toiletries are produced to a formula, cutting out chemical preservatives and surfactants and replacing them with natural equivalents cost money. In particular, the essential oils Bulldog uses cost 10 to 20 times more than synthetic fragrances.
Clearly gluttons for punishment, the pair also decided that, rather than starting small and building up, they would target the mainstream market from the get-go, pricing their products competitively - Bulldog toiletries cost £3 to £6 on average when the company launched, and prices now range from £4 to £9 - on the basis that higher sales volumes would offset lower margins. ‘I am not a guy who is going to spend £30-40 on a moisturiser,’ Duffy says. ‘I just wouldn’t do it. It has to be affordable. Some brands start small and aim for big distribution deals at the end of the five years. There is also this myth that you can start really expensive and then at some point bring the cost down on a mainstream brand and we just don’t think that would work with men’s skincare.’
Fortunately for the company, the products Bulldog makes aren’t just for Duffy and Ferrier. Since signing up with Sainsbury’s the company has started working with other huge retailers including Tesco’s, Superdrug and Waitrose and Bulldog is currently the fastest growing men’s grooming range in the UK. In the year to 16 April 2011, it recorded a 33 per cent increase in sales, compared to 11 per cent for the next-fastest grower, L’Oréal’s Men Expert range. It also outsells one of the biggest brands in men’s grooming, Gillette, on toiletries. Gillette has a marketing budget of millions, and places TV ads featuring Thierry Henry and Roger Federer. Until recently, Bulldog’s media presence was limited to its sponsorship of UK comedian David Mitchell’s web-only comedy show, Mitchell’s Soapbox (which, in fairness, was a canny move - the videos garnered 10 million viewers).
It has also managed to do all of this while garnering significant praise from rights groups and the consumer press. The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BAVU) accredited the company’s products as meeting its humane cosmetic standards in 2009, for not testing its products on animals, while The Fairtrade Foundation worked with the company on its Eco-System range which uses ingredients from approved farming unions in Sri Lanka, Peru, Nicaragua, Ghana and Paraguay. In Sweden, Bulldog won the Face category in top men’s publication King’s Magazine’s 2010 grooming awards.
As the company grows - it is targeting Norway, the US and two other, as yet unnamed countries - it will keep producing in the UK, good for its local carbon footprint, but not so great for its international distribution network. For the moment, however, the company doesn’t have much of a choice. ‘UK manufacturing will always be important to Bulldog and we work with a really good team,’ says Duffy. ‘The only thing I can imagine that might cause us to think this through again, could be when certain overseas markets start to get massive. For example, perhaps there could be good environmental and commercial reasons for manufacturing products for the US market in the US, rather than shipping them from the UK. We are a long way from this point at the moment, but in a few years, perhaps we'll have to think about it some more.’
And he believes that the company will be just that - massive - sooner rather than later. ‘We are just on the cusp of really dramatic growth,’ he says, adding that the company, which is currently stocked in around 5,000 locations, will double its market presence over the next six months. ‘I feel really enthusiastic about the next three to four years. It’s the end of the beginning for us now and the beginning of a new phase.’
Find out more: www.meetthebulldog.com
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