Profile: Global view, local focus

Stefan Gaa, group marketing director at Reckitt Benckiser, is revelling in the company's focused push for growth.

Profile: Global view, local focus

The corporate headquarters of Reckitt Benckiser (RB) is characteristically unprepossessing, well-suited to its setting in the much-maligned Berkshire town of Slough. However, a cursory leaf through the promotional materials in its reception area - showcasing the company's 200-year heritage and 17 global power brands - quickly makes it clear that despite this apparently parochial setting, RB is a corporate leader with global reach, operating in more than 60 countries.

Heading up its marketing division is German-born Stefan Gaa. He has been tasked with extending the company's footprint and reaping the benefits of its recently merged healthcare and household goods marketing units.

Gaa was promoted to the group marketing director role earlier this year as part of a senior marketing restructure. The reshuffle also prompted Phil Thomas, formerly the marketing director for Reckitt Benckiser's household, personal care and healthcare business, and the top-ranked marketer in Marketing's Power 100 this year, to move to the position of global category director for global surface care.

Consolidated benefits

Having relocated to Slough from Hull, along with the 25-person healthcare division, Gaa now runs a 70-strong marketing department, and enthuses about the benefits of the newly merged marketing teams.

In particular, he is enjoying a new-found fluidity in the way it can operate; a unified voice to talk to retailers, the proximity to its agencies and the London talent pool and greater opportunities for career progression are also high on the list of positives he notes.

'The overall consolidation of the healthcare and household business did not come as a surprise,' says Gaa. 'It is the last RB business in the world to occupy the model, as historically we have done it in our other markets.'

His latest move is one of many in what has been something of an itinerant career. After giving up on his childhood dream of playing in a professional band ('I never really had the talent'), 42-year-old Gaa opted to study marketing and advertising at university in Germany.

His marketing life began at ERCO, an architectural lightening company, which counts the Louvre, British Museum and the Brandenburg Gate among its illustrious projects. Impatient to advance his career, Gaa moved on to Bolton Group, owner of adhesives brand UHU, where he worked for three years before joining RB in 2000.

In conversation, Gaa is a whirlwind of energy, fully versed in his subject matter, and has a propensity for banter - which, no doubt, plays well with his staff. Nonetheless, a decade at the FMCG manufacturer has fashioned him into a corporate man to the bone and he is keen to present the RB line at every opportunity.

Describing the benefits of its marketing structure, Gaa says: 'One important point is that RB has a very lean global function. We don't have an ivory tower and we keep the power in our local markets. The innovation still sits (there). This is where the RB function really works.'

Gaa's tub-thumping is not unwarranted. The company has a lot to shout about: RB's portfolio of 17 power brands spans household favourites like disinfectant Dettol, toilet cleaner Harpic, skincare brand Clearasil, Cillit Bang cleaning products, Nurofen analgesics and Air Wick air fresheners. The company's power brands now account for about 70% of group sales.

Value sales at RB rose from £2.97bn to £7.75bn between 1999 and 2009, as it has stepped up its efforts to take market share from competitors Procter & Gamble and Unilever. RB's sales are still dwarfed by those off these rivals, but its operating profit margins eclipse theirs.

Focused strategy

RB's headline-grabbing performance has been underpinned by factors such as cementing a dominant market position by sustained spending on marketing its products in niche areas, such as the Finish dishwasher detergent range.

The company's marketing activity, created by ad agency Euro RSCG, is product-led and conveys the simple message of the advantage that each brand has over its competitors. This strategy is exemplified by fictional man-in the-street Barry Scott lauding the virtues of Cillit Bang on our TV screens.

However, RB is looking to shift its marketing activity into new areas - a fact that Gaa is no doubt keen to discuss with Euro RSCG.

'Every Thursday afternoon, I meet with them and discuss our comms process,' he says. 'I tell them it is my favourite part of the week. RB has always been traditionally TV-focused and this has worked for us very well - but with new media growing all the time, one of the challenges to my team is to find new ways of talking to consumers.'

A passionate advocate and user of social media and the latest digital technology (he has two Twitter accounts and a Facebook account), Gaa is aware that RB's brands are not an obvious fit with such media.

'One of my life philosophies is that you never give up on technology,' he says. 'As a marketer, and human being, you should never shut down. But in terms of marketing opportunities with social media, it is not about just being there. To a large extent, with our brands, it is difficult to make an impact.'

That said, RB has not been inactive in this area: it recently launched a campaign on Facebook aimed at attracting potential graduate recruits through a role-playing game called PoweRBrands.

This year, Gaa will be busy preparing product launches, such as Brasso brand extension Brasso Gadget Care, with the aim of winning further market share from rivals in existing markets.

'In general we focus on our 17 power brands and within these 17 power brands, we believe every brand has potential to grow,' he says, pointing to Finish as a case in point - its 40% penetration in the UK shows room for improvement: it has a 60% share in Germany.

The 17 power brands will soon become 19, once RB finalises its £2.54bn purchase of SSL, the manufacturer of Durex condoms and owner of the Dr Scholl's footwear and footcare brand.

Gaa has the sort of global experience that RB clearly rates. This will undoubtedly stand him in good stead to further elevate his position, both within the company and in the marketing ranks.


Pre-2000: Senior marketing roles, ERCO and Bolton Group

2000-present: Brand manager, working on Air Wick and Finish, rising to marketing director, UK healthcare, household and personal care, Reckitt Benckiser


Hobbies: Football, running, travel

Football team: West Ham, Stuttgart

Life philosophy: Never give up on technology