Boxes line the floor of Kao Corporation's gleaming new offices on London's Shaftesbury Avenue. The Japanese owner of the John Frieda haircare and Molton Brown toiletries brands is in the process of settling into the 20,000ft2 space. It is clear that, while the recession has led rivals to focus on relentlessly slashing costs, Kao has its sights set firmly on growth.
The dapper marketing director of the company's UK consumer product division, Giles Gordon, is taking the move in his stride. In a role that involves travel across the globe, crossing numerous cultural divides, flexibility is crucial.
Gordon clinched the top marketing job at Kao last April, following the departure of Victoria Franks, who jumped ship to become head of brands at Marks & Spencer, and has grasped the opportunity with both hands. Overseeing a division that includes the John Frieda, Jergens and Biore brands gives him a deep insight into what makes today's beauty consumers tick.
He has already made his mark on the business, ushering in a new structure for the marketing team in 2012 to enable it to increase its focus on digital channels. Each brand now has a dedicated digital manager focused on driving engagement via social networks.
For a category where consumers are emotionally involved, embracing 'always-on' marketing is crucial. For Gordon, being a digitally engaged business has to be more than mere rhetoric: it is about pursuing a genuine dialogue with consumers.
The next 12 months will be crucial for the company. The John Frieda brand is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with an array of marketing initiatives, as well as a tranche of NPD under the Luxurious Volume brand.
Gordon, who hails from Loch Lomond in Scotland, is an engaging conversationalist who, refreshingly, refrains from lapsing into marketing-speak.
Despite kicking off his marketing career on Mars' graduate trainee scheme, it is clear that he is not an identikit 'classically trained FMCG marketer'. Indeed, at a time when rivals are ruthlessly rationalising their portfolios and focusing on price promotion, Kao's approach - a relentless emphasis on genuine product innovation - is unusual.
'Everything John Frieda is doing is based on the triangle: one element is technology, the second is genuine consumer insight from the global research department, and the third is (the brand's) genuine salon heritage,' explains Gordon.
In contrast to Procter & Gamble's two-pronged approach, targeting both the value and premium ends of the market, John Frieda has stuck resolutely to a premium positioning. According to Gordon, recession or no recession, the brand's consumers won't trade down when it comes to haircare.
Kao identifies its core market as the 'hair-involved consumer'. According to Gordon, these people are prepared to pay more for haircare products because the condition and styling of their hair drives both their outlook and emotions. In short, while the 'Lipstick Effect' may be irrelevant in relation to most consumers' lives, the possibility of a bad hair day in order to save a few pounds simply isn't worth the risk.
Consequently, Kao is particularly careful when considering the launch of a product. If its consumer insight division reveals there is an appetite for a new line or category, the company will not simply repackage an existing product, or bring a new product to market unless it believes it can claim a genuine innovation.
'Trends change all the time, but what we are doing is helping to change habits by creating new products that change how consumers behave. We are in the driving seat with innovation and when we get it right it's incredibly satisfying,' he enthuses.
According to Gordon, consumers place hair at the 'very top of the beauty totem pole'. Through a focus on consumer segmentation, John Frieda has built up detailed profiles of its core consumers.
One interesting finding is that, according to Kao's research, blonde women are more likely than others to define themselves by their hair colour.
'When you talk to a brunette, she will describe her hair as being straight or frizzy, while blondes refer to their colour first as the defining factor,' explains Gordon. It is this insight that inspired Kao to develop the John Frieda Sheer Blonde range.
While the John Frieda brand may not suffer the peaks and troughs of sales experienced by ice-cream brands or soft-drink manufacturers, its business is still affected by the seasons. In the summer, sales of products and colourants for blondes rise, while the greater number of social events around Christmas and New Year drives an increase across the entire portfolio.
Despite the gloomy January weather, Gordon shows no sign of post-festive blues. In a role that takes him to regular meetings with colleagues at Kao's US East Coast headquarters and across Europe, his enthusiasm for the company is clear.
While he pledges not to stalk the haircare aisles at Boots, Gordon admits that he takes a hands-on approach to the business. 'I think that's why I went into marketing and not the City,' he explains. 'I love to be able to see and touch what I have been working on.'
He also appears to revel in the thinking behind the Kao business. 'We are not just another FMCG company,' he claims. 'We aim to empower our teams to act quickly. Our Japanese roots are based in real sensitivity to our consumer and excellence in execution. Developing technology is fundamental to what we do - we talk about product innovation, not marketing innovation.'
The 2010 launch of Precision Foam Colour was an example of this commitment. 'It's completely changed the way consumers experience colouring their hair, bringing a better, more premium experience to the home,' claims Gordon. Indeed, if imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Kao has received plenty, as competitors have fallen over themselves to launch their own foam colourant lines. Nonetheless, the John Frieda product remains the market leader.
The brand has also been a trailblazer when it comes to blogger outreach. With the help of agency The Communications Store (TCS), it was quick to recognise that bloggers have become one of consumers' most trusted sources of information.
'Bloggers are an amazing way to reach consumers, who are all looking for independent and credible sources of advice in the beauty sector,' enthuses Gordon.
John Frieda has taken a collaborative approach to reaching bloggers. 'Ultimately they make up their own mind, that's what makes them so trusted and independent, and makes genuine innovation so important,' he adds.
When it comes to keeping on top of digital innovation, Gordon adopts a 'more is more' approach. 'I expose myself to a load of new platforms - that's the only way you can get a genuine feel for what works,' he explains. 'For me, it's all about keeping on top of everything - from new brands and products to innovations in digital platforms.'
How does he filter the seemingly ever-increasing range of new platforms and information providers? 'You get to a point in your career where you can establish a good balance between research and a good intuitive feel,' he explains. 'I don't jump to conclusions.'
It is clear that Gordon feels a great sense of responsibility for the performance of the brands he oversees. 'The key is thinking about brand-building in a completely different way. Consumers are becoming more savvy. It's up to us to operate in their space, rather than interrupt them,' he argues.
This has led Gordon to head a drive to engage with consumers across social media platforms. He draws heavily on the 'John Frieda Elite' - a team of consumers recruited via social networks and given access to events and products before they launch - for insight. John Frieda also recently took to Facebook with its 'Selected by you' campaign to decide which additional shades to develop for the Precision Foam Colour line.
As the brand kicks off its 25th anniversary celebrations, this commitment to digital and the concept of transformation will be at the heart of its communications and NPD. 'Providing products that can really deliver a transformation in look and feel is key to how we see ourselves,' adds Gordon.
A quarter of a century is a milestone for any brand, and for Gordon it is the opportunity not only to look forward, but reflect on the brand's strong performance in the midst of the tough ongoing economic conditions.
'What I am focused on in the year ahead is delivering a really exciting year for John Frieda,' says Gordon. 'It's a tremendous opportunity to bring the brand to life.'
At a time when many corporations are using the economic downturn as an excuse for putting the brakes on innovation, the John Frieda brand provides a compelling example of the enduring value of investing in your product.
In the words of Gordon: 'As a marketer, you need to be prepared to take risks, to try new things; you might not get it right, but you will be learning all the time.'
John Frieda haircare sales - £77m - up 7.2% year on year vs total haircare market growth of 5.3% year on year
£10.4m Precision Foam Colour sales. The UK's first and top-selling foam hair colourant
Source: IRI UK data for year ending 1 December 2012
THE CAMPAIGN: Bag a Box
Social media has become an increasingly important marketing tool for the John Frieda brand. In line with this, the brand created an HTML 5 game on Facebook called 'Bag a Box' - essentially an online version of pass the parcel.
Created by digital agency Brave, the game offered consumers the opportunity to win Mulberry handbags, Michael Kors watches and Marc Jacobs wallets.
'The campaign delivered such a buzz and surpassed expectations. It also allowed us to gather new insights by reaching consumers in their own space,' explains Gordon.
Lives: South Bank, London.
Hobbies: 'I'm one of those people who loves living in London and maximising all the great places to eat. I'm the go-to guy for great restaurant recommendations.'
Favourite brand: Acne (menswear).
Best advice ever given: 'Don't judge a book by its cover.'
- Graduate development programme, Mars Confectionery (2002-05)
- National account manager, rising to senior brand manager, deodorants and skincare, L'Oreal (2005-10)
- Senior brand development manager, No7, Boots (2010)
- Senior product manager - colourants, rising to marketing director, Kao UK (2010-present)
THREE CHALLENGES FOR GORDON
- Ensure that John Frieda stays ahead of the competition with market-leading NPD.
- Keep the brand's growing social-media following engaged and informed.
- Make sure that the brand's 25th anniversary is successfully activated across multiple channels.