Ninja – Building a Powerful Brand from Scratch Through Innovation & Commitment
Euro-Pro, now Shark/Ninja, was a Boston-based $200M company when I met the incoming COO in a Newton sandwich shop, in 2008. Vetted by a respected board member, I came with deep industry knowledge, powerful retail sales, marketing understanding, and strong outsource creative capabilities. He was open, honest in the expression of need and a virtual sponge looking to tap seasoned outside eyes. He was receptive to outside resources, which he concluded shortly into lunch, I could supply. These traits catalyzed explosive growth that grew their top line revenue north of $1B, in less than eight years, off of the strength of a brand we named and developed which they successfully stretched across the countertop of America’s kitchens. They would carve out large market share in categories they never competed in by providing innovation and commitment to the trade as they lifted low mass market price points significantly higher.
The small kitchen electrics category is a highly competitive and lower margin space. Chinese manufacturers produce the bulk of the items sold at retail. Walking a factory floor in China one will see products coming off of the same production line stamped with different brand names. The small kitchen electrics business shifted from high-quality southern state domestic manufacturing to inferior quality Mexican manufacturing to dramatically superior quality Chinese manufacturing in the last two decades. Chinese manufacturers produced product cheaply allowing for retailers like Walmart and Target to keep category inflation in check for decades. For example, you could buy a quality, multi-feature, branded toaster cheaper today than you could have thirty years ago. Successful companies morphed from focusing on manufacturing concerns to becoming marketing juggernauts if they were to win at retail.
Smart companies, like Keurig, innovated in the category. Innovation allowed for the strengthening of brand positions and came with a higher retail price point. Many companies chased the low retails by supplying product to the big box stores for pennies less than competitors. Margins eroded on an annual basis. Category market share shifted dramatically from season to season depending upon which competitor supplied product to the top retailers for that year. They secured retail shelf space, which became their billboard allowing for brand build in the U.S. marketplace. Smart young men like Shae Hong of Sensio, filled a void that larger companies like Hamilton Beach and Jarden created, when they passed on low margin opening price point opportunities, by flying to China, securing production, and putting a name on boxes (at first private label) which appeared on the shelves of retailers like JC Penney. There was no moat around this business.
In an era of cheap prices and like product, Shark/Ninja launched a powerful machine with a dagger like a polarizing blade in a masculine form softened by a powerful female Ninja on the package. The tagline we created, “rule the kitchen” allowed the consumer to envision working with a higher price point and higher quality product. TV support showcased the features of the quality product and inc. We designed an attractive product which was multi-purpose functional and easy to master and helped Nina get wide distribution. Consumers in stores were buying Ninja product at a staggering rate strengthening their position as an innovation hub for large retailers across the country. Ninja became the “experts” in the space, allowing for rapid expansion across previously price point sensitive categories. They leveraged TV and retailer relationships to up-sell consumers. This strengthened the small electrics category as a whole.
Euro-Pro had previously brought to market a full-size food processor with a top mount motor, which had been a mild disappointment. Euro-Pro delighted their customers by providing support, which alleviated inventory issues. Euro-Pro took the learnings from this product to develop Ninja. The brilliance of the Euro-Pro team was the direct result of the driving force, majority owner, and the face of the company on TV. He intuitively knew he had a sound idea in a top mount motor appliance if it could be incorporated into a smaller footprint with broader application. He knew the key retail price point, understood the key features and scripted creative in his head as he tried to talk us all through his innovative launch plan. His active mind invited opportunity. We funneled great ideas into an extensive line of products, which consumers applauded. He processed information quickly and talked rapidly but he was an expert at listening and he commended good ideas that were backed up with logic. He valued design, development, and relationships.
As a team, we combed through research to confirm that his thesis was sound. We redesigned the vessel, simplified the footprint, incorporated a story around the polarizing blade, calling the product Ninja, and provided purpose around the cutting mechanism, which allowed one to rule the kitchen. The first product was a home run for many reasons, including the product and marketing development work we did, the ability to work with diverse teams on three Continents, and the ease of working internal team members into an outsourced team. While there were many factors that played into the product success, the most important came from upper management’s ability to solidify retail shelf space, often off of the strength of early creative, with key personnel inside large retailers. They always supported the retailer’s efforts and pulled product off of shelves with innovative TV support. Additionally, management allowed for consumer build of the new Ninja brand, with aggressive television support. They spent aggressively upfront on research and design and tested assumptions with consumers to ensure that the product would be a winner. This formula, while simple, is seldom utilized successfully because low margin product requires early return for most senior managers to retain their high paying corporate jobs. Category price points of $29.99 and lower stretched to $49.99 and higher which delighted buyers in the retail office. Performance invited further conversation and word of the Ninja spread through social media circles.
Ninja expanded rapidly because the quality of the product was superior to competitive products. The point of difference for the blenders, the blade, the softened but masculine stainless base, the precise angles of the jar and the high-quality performance allowed Euro-Pro to displace market leaders like Oster and Hamilton Beach in large retailers who were desperate for innovation. Again price points escalated from $29.99 south to $79.99 north in the mass market. Buyers looked like heroes as product turned ahead of expectation. Continuous innovation, the ability to listen to consumer wants, and the understanding of retail shelf space all played a hand in the strength of the launch. As our ability to “rule the kitchen” stretched from blenders and food processors into slow cookers and coffee where blades were no longer the hero of the product, the brand promise remained paramount. Shark/Ninja’s;
- Support of the trade,
- Ability to support creative TV,
- Ability to stretch across retail plan-o-grams, and,
- Their ability to make the early Brand promise of ruling the kitchen a reality allowed a smart, top management decision-making company to prosper.
Companies often talk about innovation but at best they evolve product, often at lower margins, in the hopes of capturing retailer attention, which allow them to expand slowly or at worse retain shelf space. Bonuses are secured in corporate America when shelf space is maintained. Smart companies innovate, support retailers as partners, stress quality of product, and understand the power of top-down selling. They function as a true partner if backup support is needed when there is a hiccup. These companies are all too rare these days. Shark/Ninja is a company, in a highly competitive low margin category, who invests in innovation, supports retail partners and wins at the register. Follow this roadmap and thrive.