FEATURE1 May 2009

Rich pickings

What happens when a market researcher and marketeer go into business together? Marc Brenner interviews Rebecca Wynberg and Paula Quazi, who are about to make a Tesco debut with their Buff snacks brand.

When Rebecca Wynberg used to drive home after conducting groups she’d pull into a service station in search of two things. Petrol and a healthy snack. Invariably she’d be successful in satisfying only one of those needs. “All there’d be was a rack of full-fat crisps, a rotting apple and few bruised bananas.” Although she describes herself as a survey sample of ‘one’, Wynberg realised that there was an unsatisfied demand for natural, non-processed snack foods. Others would have left this insight as just an insight; Wynberg acted on it. At the same time Paula Quazi, a marketing manager at Unilever, and a client of Wynberg’s was having very similar thoughts. It was to be the beginning of Buff.

The two women had worked together for fifteen years and Quazi had built up what she describes as a non-traditional working relationship with Wynberg. “Rebecca was always much more interested in the broader business issues at Unilever. It was never just about the research. That’s what you really want from a relationship with a researcher. Through these sorts of discussions we not only executed great work, but built a strong friendship.”

Quazi and Wynberg also hankered after new challenges in their working life. Wynberg, who ran one of the country’s largest independent qual agencies, sold her business to Millward Brown. “I was free because I’d sold my business. Paula had a young family and wanted a different lifestyle. At the same time we identified this gap in the market and thought it’d be great if we could make this opportunity happen.”

The Buff range of snacks launched in January 2008 and has already taken quite a high-profile bite out of the market. It was signed up by British Airways, where 20,000 flyers see the product every day. It made its debut in London’s theatreland where the Ambassadors Theatre Group distribute the product. It has also found its place within Costa Coffee outlets and its about to launch in half of Tesco stores around the country.

Quazi outlines the philosophy behind the brand. “For us, healthy eating shouldn’t be a sacrificial activity. It should be fun. It doesn’t need to be communicated in the language of ‘lower-fat’ and ‘lower calories’.” Quazi and Wynberg set about sourcing their products and experimenting with mixture combinations. Wynberg says, “We spent more time thinking about the product than the name and the packaging – they were relatively easy.”

It’s at this point that research professionals will expect to read about the extensive research brought to bear on the project. In fact considering the pedigree and background of the two entrepreneurs you’d expect a raft of research. So how much research took place?

“A little bit,” says Wynberg, while Quazi adds, “Rebecca couldn’t help herself.” Wynberg remembers, “A few groups, some desk research. That’s all. It’s interesting to compare the way we developed this to the way I would have researched a brand like this for a corporate. It would have taken much longer and we would have spent thousands on validating our decisions. We used our intuition. We then conducted a few groups for the sake of a sanity check, just to make sure we were on track with the packaging and name. As for the product we knew we had the best quality around. The research simply validated the price/quality equation.”

Entrepreneurs can often be a little sniffy when it comes to giving credit to research. After all, great ideas, they think, are borne of intuition and gut reaction. Quazi puts it a different way. “We relied on experience. Rebecca’s extensive experience talking to consumers and my experience in product launches and consumer demand. The best research for us was conducted among those that we were selling the product to. What did they think? How would they sell it? How was it different from other products?”

At Unilever research is very much the engine for product development. But with millions being spent on the creation and marketing of products, it would have to be. Quazi said, “Large companies have to validate and do extensive research. But that sometimes means that it smooths the edges off an idea and can make it less interesting. For us, we thought ‘Let’s just go for it’. When you’ve got your own money behind something, you have to believe in it.”

The research, though small-scale, placed Wynberg in a strange position. After all, this was her product. “It did feel very weird. When you work for a brand you identify strongly with the client team and you try to own the problem. You put yourself in their shoes while taking care to step back for the debrief. However, in this case there’s no chance to step back. So when someone says something negative, it’s really hard. A real lesson in humility.”

Did she ever consider distancing herself from the research and allowing someone else to delve into consumer opinion? “Not for a nanosecond”, she says. “If it grows, there may come a point where I step away from the research.”

There’s little doubt that Quazi and Wynberg brought an enviable skill and experience set to bear on this labour of love. You wonder where the gaps were when they decided to take the brand to market. Both barely draw breath before answering “selling”. Quazi says, “I spent nearly 20 years telling a sales director that I did all the hard work. I’ve revised my opinion on that.” Wynberg’s sales skills weren’t exactly stretched at Sadek Wynberg, “I never really did a moment’s selling. Our work came to us through recommendation and repeat business.” This lack of sales ability doesn’t seem to have done them much harm. Quazi recalls her approach to Tesco. “Tesco was tough but it was in our favour to go and sell to them in person. They like entrepreneurs. They like passion and belief.”

Wynberg believes that this is very much in tune with the spirit of the age. “People like the fact that we’re not a conglomerate. We haven’t even got a central office.” Such ‘home-grown’ brands have thrived, you only have to consider Innocent and Ben & Jerry’s as examples of ‘small made good’. However, both of those brands have something else in common. Both are now part-owned by conglomerates. Coke took a 20 per cent swig of Innocent and Unilever now owns Ben & Jerry’s. Isn’t corporate ownership always going to be the fate of these independent brands? Wynberg holds a firm line on this. “If you’re asking if we’re open to a buyer, we’re not being precious about this brand but we’re not going to compromise our quality or principles.”

Both still continue to provide consultancy in marketing, research and organisational management. Even with this safety net, this has been a very risky enterprise. How did colleagues react to the news that they were to enter the world of hands-on commerce? Quazi remembers a few surprised looks and Wynberg recalls, “A lot of cynicism. Not in a nasty way. But there was this attitude of how can a researcher come up with a new brand, a new product and then sell it to market. People were definitely curious.”

The duo take a great deal of pride from their achievement. A particular sense of pride on Quazi’s part is taken in popping over to the Unilever office where across the road the Buff product is on sale at Costa. Seeing Unilever employees buying it is “very gratifying.”

The “intellectual phase” of the enterprise provided both women with real stimulation. They are now in a phase that is all about managing and growing the brand. It is clear that both Quazi and Wynberg still get an immense kick out of the Buff experience. As Quazi says, “There is nothing like getting that direct feedback from your customers saying ‘Thank the Lord’ and asking us to send over a box of Buff. People who really appreciate what you do. People who really get it. I never got that sort of feeling in 15 years at Unilever.”