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FEATURE1 July 2011

Let’s stick together

Features

Everyone knows what Velcro is – or do they? European marketing director Jurjen Jacobs speaks to Robert Bain about how research is helping the company behind the original hook-and-loop fastening to open up the power of its brand.

Velcro is up there with Google, Hoover and Facebook as a brand name that has managed to become a verb. It has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was invented by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in 1948, after he noticed burs sticking to his dog’s fur while out walking. He realised the principle could be used to make a fastening system. The idea took a while to catch on but got a break in the 1960s when NASA adopted it to help astronauts fasten their spacesuits. Now it’s everywhere.

The name Velcro, which is recognised across the world, comes from combining the French words velours (velvet) and crochet (hook), referring to the two surfaces that stick together.

“The brand – the word Velcro – is one of our biggest assets, but we didn’t really know where it stands, what sort of associations people have with it”

Jurjen Jacobs

But for the Velcro Companies, which include consumer and b2b divisions, the ubiquity of the name has presented some dilemmas. The word is widely used to describe the original fabric hook-and-loop fastening – but the patent on that product lapsed in 1978, so anyone can now produce what consumers automatically refer to by the brand name Velcro.

Since then the companies have diversified, producing a huge variety of adhesives, fastenings and closure systems for clothes,
food packaging, car production, medical devices and numerous other uses. There are now thousands of Velcro product lines, and the companies have around 300 active patents and a team of dozens of engineers working on new developments.

Meanwhile the business has been highly protective of its brand, seeking to carefully control how it is used and drawing a firm distinction between Velcro the brand and the generic hook-and-loop fastening products that most people know as Velcro. Even now, visitors to the companies’ website are greeted with the surprising message that there is “no such thing as Velcro” – only “VELCRO® brand hook-and-loop products”.

A new approach
Jurjen Jacobs is the man charged with moving the brand forward. He joined Velcro Europe two years ago as marketing and new business development director, having previously been a brand manager at Whirlpool. Strangely enough, Jacobs comes from one of the few countries where hook-and-loop fastenings are called something else (they’re known in the Netherlands by the generic term klittenband), and so had no idea what Velcro was when he first got the call about the job. And the challenge he found himself facing when he arrived was an unusual one.

Jacobs told Research: “When I came here, one of the first things I saw was there was no one responsible for driving communication. The company has been very reactive – and very successful at being reactive, actually – doing the things customers are asking of us, but we never really actually launched something into the market. The brand – the word Velcro – is one of our biggest assets, but we didn’t really know where it stands, what sort of associations people have with it. Are people aware of it being a brand or a company, or do people just think it’s a product?”

Part of the reason for this was that the brand was “managed by our legal department”, said Jacobs. “We were so protective that we didn’t allow our retailers – our key customers – to actually use our logo [a separate logo was developed for this purpose]. When I was brand manager at Whirlpool, I paid the retailers to get our logos out in the stores.”

There have been some co-branding activities – the Velcro brand has appeared on packaging for Huggies nappies, for example – but Jacobs says they haven’t always been consistent. “You have to protect your trademark, absolutely. But on the other hand if you want to build your brand, you have to go out there and use it, show it, and that was the part we were not doing enough.”

When Jacobs arrived, the Velcro Companies had done no strategic brand research in their more than 50 years of business. “There is some research available,” said Jacobs, “but it’s very often just on one specific topic – never across the whole board, never across different regions, business units or across the b2b and b2c sides. We never had the overall view. How do we want to build this brand? Where do we want to go? What is our mission? What are our brand values and how can we stretch the brand further?”


Seven uses you’ve never heard of for Velcro products

Athletics fields – Construction firms in the US use Velcro fastening systems to attach synthetic turf to athletics fields at colleges and professional sports venues.

Food packaging – A hook-and-hook closure system from Velcro is used to make resealable food bags, designed to be easier to close than zip closure bags.

Roofing – Waterproof membranes for flat-roofed buildings used to be applied by torching. Velcro’s alternative involves rolling a layer of hooks on to the roof of a building, then attaching a membrane which also has hooks attached.

Solar panels – Velcro USA has worked with green energy company Clairvoyant Energy to develop an attachment system for solar panels. A new facility in Zaragoza, Spain, uses 250 miles of Velcro’s fastening system to secure 85,000 panels.

Hospital garments – Velcro’s medical division makes a fabric designed so that hooked surfaces stick to it – allowing straps to be easily applied to clothing and adjusted.

Carpet covers – Temporary carpet covers with hooks that attach to the loops of the carpet. It’s easy to attach and remove, but stays firm while you’re working.

Astronaut chess – The astronauts on the International Space Station have a chess set modified with Velcro pads, for playing in zero gravity. It’s just one of many uses for Velcro products on the station.

Questions and answers
To answer these questions, Jacobs commissioned research agency One-MS to conduct a four-month qualitative study in the UK, the US, Germany and Spain. The research looked at how consumers felt about the Velcro brand and about various new product innovations that the companies had up their sleeve. The study involved group discussions as well as one-to-one interviews with business customers, and was completed early this year.

“I’ve worked with a lot of research agencies and very often you get these bibles of reports out, and it’s so difficult to bring it down to the essence of the message,” said Jacobs. “One-MS provided us with a very down-to-earth, easy to understand and actionable report, which is very easy to show to the rest of the organisation.”

One of the things that was clear in the research was that, while everyone knows the original Velcro hoop-and-loop product, hardly anyone knows about the thousands of other things the Velcro Companies make “because we never told anyone”, says Jacobs. The companies produce numerous combinations of different types of hooks and loops, some large, some small, some designed to be easy to remove by hand, and some permanent. They are used in homes, cars, schools, building sites, factories, hospitals and war zones.

“It’s kind of a hidden hero,” says Jacobs. “When you mention it, people say, aha yes. But they’re never aware that they’re actually using our product. One of our biggest applications is diaper closure systems – but nobody knows it. It’s not like Intel Inside or Gore-Tex [brands whose names appear on the products of numerous other manufacturers]. We’re not there yet. But that’s definitely somewhere where we would like to go.”

But while the scope of the Velcro Companies’ activities was not well known, the research revealed that Velcro has extremely strong brand associations: it’s seen as being young, innovative, fun, helpful, easy and reliable. The word has become part of our language, and Velcro has made its mark in popular culture – according to both Star Trek and Men in Black it is in fact alien technology, too advanced for humans to have invented.

Part of the challenge for Jacobs has been to come up with a brand identity that would encompass the diversity of what the Velcro Companies offer. He has sought to bring consistency to the businesses’ messaging, by introducing a new unified logo to replace the many that had been used over the years, imposing some order on the dozens of sub-brands, and harmonising the various international websites. He has also sought to bring together the group’s various regional entities to create a global function. “We
want to go for global companies, big key accounts. They operate globally, so that means we have to operate globally.”

It hasn’t been easy to change long-established things like the Velcro logo and attitudes to trademark usage, says Jacobs. But “they’re happy somebody stepped up and did it. It’s not that they never wanted to do it – they never knew how to do it.”

What next?
The research helped Jacobs to identify the areas where the Velcro brand can be extended in ways that fit with its perceived values and strengths, he said. “We showed [the research participants] some examples of things we were working on, or possibly could be working on, and you could immediately see the first reaction – no, that doesn’t fit at all, you shouldn’t be doing this, or, yes, of course, that fits so well, you should definitely be going there.” The group is now looking at new uses for its products for office display boards, clothing for elderly people and DIY products.

Other ideas for new products that incorporate Velcro fastenings have also emerged from discussions with consumers. Jacobs said: “We made some samples of how teachers could use our products and showed some of them at an education fair. And everyone was asking, where can I buy this? We said, this is just an example of what you could do with our product, and they said, no I want to buy that. So we’re launching this year a Velcro kids range and a Velcro educational range.”

The opportunity to join a global business with such potential in its brand, but which had done so little to communicate or exploit it, is a marketer’s dream, says Jacobs. “We were a very successful company already without doing anything active to really get our brand out there.”

Research has helped to make clear the steps Velcro can take to unlock that potential.


One-MS MD Debbie Newbould on researching the Velcro brand

“This is a brand that is 55 years old with no research behind it at all – no knowledge of how consumers talk about it, no knowledge of where it appears in consumers’ lives or how the brand manifests itself with consumers. We were starting from a completely blank sheet of paper.

“Our brief was to do some work among consumers and among a b2b audience, understanding what Velcro actually stands for in their minds and its relationship with customers. What we were doing in the consumer work was understanding the brand, but also looking at different product innovations that they have up their sleeves.

“It was a fascinating project, because it was so broad in terms of what people knew about Velcro, and there were so many different associations. Some people knew it had been born out of the space race, for example, and other people didn’t.

“Projects like this don’t come around very often – projects where there’s not really been very much research in the past, where you get the scope to look at something we all take for granted”

“We also sought to explore a ‘where next’ scenario for the brand. We wanted to understand how the Velcro Companies’ customers see the brand evolving and consider which markets and categories could present a best fit as a next step for the brand.

“Without Velcro, the world would be a much tougher place to live, and that’s one of the things that we all take for granted, just how important Velcro is in our day-to-day lives.

“Projects like this don’t come around very often – projects where there’s not really been very much research in the past, where you get the scope to look at something we all take very much for granted. We’ve been very lucky working on this brand.”

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