How do you talk to potential consumers about a product or service when it deals with something people generally find hard to discuss?
That's a question I've asked this week of a number of business owners who are working in 'touchy' fields, and marketing products related to everything from sex to death.
Michele Surcouf, founder of organic personal lubricant brand FlowMotion, is one such business owner. Due to her own chemical sensitivities Surcouf was concocting a whole range of personal products, mainly for herself, when she hit on the recipe for FlowMotion as she was trying to make a hair gel.
She says the personal approach has been helpful in getting her message across about FlowMotion to potential customers.
"I find it helps if I talk to someone directly, and for me now it's like talking about toothpaste. I bring up the fact that sex is one of the most natural things to do and we're embarrassed to talk about it - how crazy is that?
"Generally the reception is quite good, and interestingly people tell me a lot about their sex lives and relationships. I think that's quite a privilege that people can be quite open with me."
Surcouf says providing educational material through her website, where visitors can also ask questions directly, has been a key strategy for getting the discussion moving. As such, search engine optimisation has been a focus to drive people to the website, and she's also about to commision a TV ad.
The best strategy... is to reduce the stigma of the area.
Dr Mike Lee is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland Business School and says providing plenty of content that's accessible to potential clients is helpful because it helps educate the public as well as reduce the social stigma surrounding touchy areas.
"The best strategy in these cases is to reduce the stigma of the area," says Lee. "This means making content about the topic more available for public consumption, and as more people talk about it and see it around the less uncomfortable they may feel about seeking out such products or services. But the question is whether or not society is ready for open dialogue in some of these areas."
Mark Davey is a co-founder, along with Frantisek Riha-Scott, of ConfiTEX, a recently launched underwear brand aimed at people who suffer from light bladder leakage.
Davey says the pair have taken a fashion-focused approach to their product, providing a broad range of cuts, colours and styles of underwear to give consumers the same kind of purchasing experience and product they'd get at a fashion lingerie retail store or website.
"Initially we're selling through our own online store, and we're selling internationally on that. That's a critical path for us because it enables people to buy discreetly," says Davey.
"In the future we'd love to see the discussion become more mainstream - a bit like depression has become - but we're also pretty cognisant of the fact that at the moment it's a psyche thing. People usually just don't like to admit that they have any problems and that's understandable, but for something that affects as much as 25 percent of the population in New Zealand there needs to be more awareness."
Diane Hurford is the founder of waterproof bed linen brand Brolly Sheets, whose products target the toilet training, as well as special needs and seniors markets.
Hurford says people are very open to talk about toilet training issues with young children given it's a stage everyone goes through. People can also be quite open to talking about bed-wetting issues related to caring for people with special needs or seniors, but it does depend on the environment or forum.
"We've exhibited at a lot of special needs shows up in the UK, and we've also done a couple here and people are generally quite happy to talk about their issues - I suppose because those issues can be such a big part of their lives and they're looking for help," says Hurford.
The personal touch does help. Hurford says her products glean a lot of positive reviews and testimonials, for example, and featuring the feedback of real people on the company website is a helpful marketing tool.
And ultimately some topics just don't seem to be as touchy as you might first think. Gail Mcjorrow is the founder of Better Send Off, which she describes as "a one-stop-shop that acts as a 'virtual funeral guide' with information, planning tools, and products and services".
Mcjorrow says she hasn't had to work around any sensitivities marketing a business related to death, particularly to her target market of baby boomers and beyond.
"As I expected, the younger generation who expect to live forever don't engage on my Facebook or Twitter pages, but there's huge interest from baby boomers," she says.
"Because of medical advances the elderly are being kept living longer, or taking longer to die - whichever way you look at it - which means baby boomers' parents have time to think about their mortality and time to think and plan their funeral and discuss their wishes with their family. I visit retirement villages, and when I do the venues are always filled with the residents eager for information about funeral options."
Michele Surcouf, FlowMotion
Michele Surcouf is the founder of FlowMotion, an organic personal lubricant brand.
How did you come up with the idea for FlowMotion?
Due to chemical sensitivities I was making all sorts of things like lotions and eye drops and toothpaste, mostly for myself. And as I was making them I would think 'oh developing that might make an interesting business'.
With FlowMotion I was actually trying to make a hair gel when I literally had one of those epiphany moments where I woke up one morning and thought 'I know what I need to do with this' and grabbed the domain name for the company. Since then this has been my main focus, because there are a million hair products and lotions out there but there aren't that many natural and particularly organic lubricants.
But sex can be a difficult topic for people to talk about. What are some of the strategies that have worked well for you in terms of getting our message across about your product?
I find it helps if I talk to someone directly, and for me now it's like talking about toothpaste. I bring up the fact that sex is one of the most natural things to do and we're embarrassed to talk about it - how crazy is that?
I've talked at Chamber of Commerce meetings and business breakfasts and I was nominated for a business award where we had to do a Dragons' Den-style pitch. I've done a couple of trade shows as well. Generally the reception is quite good, and interestingly people tell me a lot about their sex lives and relationships. I think that's quite a privilege that people can be quite open with me.
So is educating the market a big part of your strategy, particularly through channels like your website?
That's really a big part of what I want to do - not only to offer people a healthy choice, but educate them as to why they need to make that healthy choice. I have a lot of information on the website, and that's about education, but also transparency.
I know the kinds of people who will buy this product do their research. They are concerned about what they eat, they are concerned about chemicals in their environment and so on, so having that transparency and everything out there is really important. It's also a forum where people can ask questions, and I'm always happy to answer.
Are there any other strategies that have worked well in terms of reaching your potential markets?
I did a survey before I started of 350 women and asked them a lot of questions around things like the ingredients, price point and where they would buy it. From that I learnt that 64 per cent would buy this kind of product at the supermarket.
Intuitively you'd think it would be more something people buy from a website because perhaps people are a bit shy about it, but actually I think it's probably more just part of everyday shopping for people. So my focus has been to get it on the supermarket shelves, where I really want to give the big boys a run for their money.
My website is one of my most important marketing tools and I've had almost 2000 requests for samples through my website, which is amazing. I've done a little bit of blog content through NZGirl up in Auckland and had quite a few people find the website through that, but a lot of people just find it through search. So the website search stuff is really important and I've worked quite hard on making the SEO work. I'm also going to be commissioning a TV commercial to give it a good nudge.
What are some of the lessons you've learnt through the process?
When I first started I didn't know what a business plan was. I'd never done anything like this before and I didn't know where to start. But the biggest lesson I've learnt as I've gone along this path has been to go with my gut.
Even though I knew nothing about business when I began, I had a sense of the ethics and the philosophy I wanted to maintain and I've held on to that. In this sort of industry there can be almost a crassness about it, but in terms of the product I'm selling I want to maintain those ethics and philosophy. For me it isn't just about making money; I'd much rather that there are healthy options out there.
Coming up in Your Business: The end of the financial year for many is on its way, so what is your business doing to ready itself for EoFY? If you've got some good tips to share about getting organised at this time, drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org