Untangled! A single supermodel blog post launched a brand27th Feb '16
Tangle Teezer has reaped the rewards of connecting online with China’s beauty-conscious young women, says Hugh Wilson
Company: Tangle Teezer Trading in: China Sector: Hair products
“British goods have a reputation in China for quality and cutting-edge design”
It is perhaps apt that a product famed for teasing away even the tightest tangles should have found a smooth path into the hearts of Chinese consumers.
Tangle Teezer is a British export success, with a growing customer base in 70 countries. In 2015, China became the company’s biggest market by revenue and profit. On Singles’ Day in November 2015 – a date celebrated in style by China’s unhitched multitudes – it racked up just under £1m of sales in 24 hours.
That may surprise viewers of Dragons’ Den. Inventor Shaun Pulfrey offered Tangle Teezer to the Dragons in 2007, but left empty-handed after being told his “hair-brained” idea had little hope of success.
Tangle Teezer now has a staff of 45 and annual turnover of more than £25m – much of it from China.
So what’s the Tangle Teezer secret? Partly, explains chief marketing officer Gemma Clarke, it was a case of the right product at the right time. In China especially, fashionable young people were looking for new products. There was kudos in owning items not readily available on the Chinese high street.
There’s more. “If you’re walking down the main street of Shanghai, you’re fighting your way past people staring at their phones,” says Ms Clarke, who studied in Beijing as part of an International MBA and worked for other beauty brands before meeting Mr Pulfrey in 2007.
That, the company sensed, was an opportunity. It began building awareness of Tangle Teezer on China’s hugely popular social media platforms, with a trickle of Chinese orders filtering through to its British website. A stroke of luck turned a trickle into a stream.
“In 2010, when we first started looking towards China, the use of social media and mobile was already much bigger than in the West”
“One beautiful day in the middle of 2011, we suddenly started getting 2,000 orders a day from Chinese sounding surnames,” Ms Clarke recalls. “What had happened was that a blogger wrote that Chinese supermodel Liu Wen was a fan of her Tangle Teezer.” Ms Wen’s huge Chinese social media following saw her enthusiasm and acted on it.
That was a lucky break, but it might have been short-lived had Tangle Teezer not grasped the opportunity this unsolicited endorsement had handed it.
It immediately appointed a Chinese distributor who had studied in the UK and was passionate about the product. The distributor markets the brand using local knowledge and contacts, and deals with logistics.
Tangle Teezer also approached the Chinese online marketplace TMall.com, which is bigger than Amazon and eBay combined. “TMall has 300 million shoppers a day,” says Ms Clarke. “We saw this fantastic opportunity for a British brand to launch purely online in China.”
Most Tangle Teezer hairbrushes are still sold through the internet in China, but the brand is also available in department stores such as Lane Crawford.
Tangle Teezer understood that its young Chinese audience used social media for shopping tips and bargain hunting, and was entirely comfortable with online retail. At the same time, TMall commanded higher margins, from a shorter supply chain, than selling in traditional shops.
Tangle Teezer is made in Britain. “Sixty-five per cent of Chinese consumers would actually prefer to buy from outside of China,” says Ms Clarke. “There’s a whole thing about having something a bit different. British goods also have a reputation in China for quality and cutting-edge design.”
That reputation has benefited Tangle Teezer, and offers hope to any British business eyeing the Chinese market. But alongside the social-media campaign, flagship online store and fortuitous celebrity endorsement, a more traditional strategy is also required, Ms Clarke concedes.
“What’s been really important for us has been regular visits to China to work closely with our partners. Face-to-face meeting with business people is so important. For the Chinese, it’s not just about the numbers and whether it’s a good deal on paper. They want to build a personal trust as well and that means building a relationship with their business counterpart before doing a deal.
“In the West it works slightly differently – we tend to do business together and a relationship grows. In China, they build the relationship first and then the business grows.”