Malcolm Bell and his wife Dessi have had a phenomenal few months. When Malcolm arrived at ToMax, he leafed through our program, which detailed a future talk called 'Bread and Butter'. The headline speaker, Tim Roupell, spent 23 years building his business up from nothing into a catering outfit with a turn-over of £14m. “It's funny to think of this guy” said Malcolm in his unplaceable, amicable accent “23 years of sweat and tears! The web has made so much possible, especially, I think, for brands with a real product.” In a promotional video he observes that “Social Media has supercharged our growth,” while during our talks he stressed the opportunity for brands to sell online, instead of just using social media to improve their PR or characterise themselves, as Tesco have.
Zaggora launched in July last year. Dessi Bell, Malcolm's wife, invented the 'HotPants' (for which they secured the trademark) when she wanted to shed some pounds ahead of her wedding. The clue is in the name: the shorts help women lose weight by raising their core temperature during exercise - sweating buckets is a side effect, clarified Malcolm, and not the cause of the weightloss. And the HotPants are selling like hot-cakes. So far, 350,000 pairs sold; 178,000 Facebook Fans; 22,000 Twitter followers. The HotPants retail at £45, and you don't have to be a genius to work out the revenue. Everyone wanted to hear the secrets.
“It's simple” said Malcolm, who engrossed the audience with his personal narrative. He is one of those approachable guys with the gift of rapid yet accurate speech who indeed makes eveything sound simple. Although Malcolm has spent much of his career managing property for wealthy families such as the Greek Panayiotous, he clearly has entrepreneurship in his blood:
'I began my entrepreneurial life when I was about 8 years old. My friends at school wanted to watch a lot of movies. But at this time there was no internet and no such thing as Blockbuster. So I rented out my parents DVDs for a pound a day. As an 8 or 9 year old making ten twenty quid a week...I was pretty happy with that!'
Undergoing 'a kind of early midlife crisis' as he approached thirty, Malcolm abandoned managing portfolios for the likes of the Kuwaiti Royal Family, and turned his proactivity and hunger to investing his own money through his Dessinka fund. First stop, Zaggora.
So what are the secrets to the popularity? As Malcolm put it 'Anti-cellulite weight-loss shorts are not new, they've been around for 20-30 years. Boxers have been using this technique for a long time - wearing ski-suits to sweat a lot...' There's no doubt that the HotPants work, but so do other brands. Hermione Way also rose from the floor to challenge the uniqueness of the product. "Tomorrow, I'm going to start a company called Sexy HotPants! What are you going to do about it?"
But that would not worry Malcolm any more than other anti-cellulite shorts: 'Our product definitely doesn't look sexy!'
So how are the shorts positioned?
'We've managed to make the message “Have fun! Take the two week challenge, can you lose two jean sizes?!”...if we're going to do a weight loss product, aimed at helping women lose weight, that's kind of nasty...that's a bit ugly. A lot of brands out there are not particularly inspiring. Of course, you have the Nikes, and the Reeboks, and the Addidases, and they all focus on how strong women are and how athletic they are - how they can run up mountains. It's not really true...for most women of course. So we thought “how about making a business and a brand which is far more positive in message, with the product name 'HotPants'?” It's a little bit cheeky, but it does what it says on the tin because that is really how the product works.'
So, point one: accessbile positioning of the product. But how did Malcolm and Dessi disseminate this message through social media?
At first, it was slow going. Then, they introduced a competition: 500 women were sent HotPants and asked to publish their results on the facebook page (see here). 200 pairs were never seen again. 100 appeared on e-bay. But, little by little, the stories trickled in – and then a deluge.
'Consumers are interested in stories. So create a forum for discussion. It seems like a difficult thing to do, but actually it's quite easy. It's about starting a conversation. If you can get it going, then people will take it forward.'
Iron Logic! Toms Shoes told a great story. Reggae Reggae Sauce had behind it the tale of an audacious Dragons' Den winner. And often I buy an acquaintance's book because of the part I know it plays in that person's life.
So, two tips for social media: be fun and involve your audience in stories.
This is the first time that Malcolm has had the trouble of communicating with customers, and it hasn't always been mutual adoration. To demonstrate this point he read out an e-mail from Jenny, in Colorado:
“I still don't have my fucking pants, you mugs!”
Gotta take the rough with the smooth.