How to be a giant killer

Corporate Goliaths that dominate a market can be more fearful of the brave and cheeky interloper than they are of their known rivals - and with good reason. These case studies show how an upstart can prevail against all the odds.

by Dominic Midgley
Last Updated: 07 Nov 2014

Some entrepreneurs are lucky enough to come up with a wheeze so radical that it creates an entirely new market, but most are forced to enter a sector already dominated by a more powerful and established competitor.

Although the upstart's idea may have many innovative features and the commitment of its founders may dwarf that of the wage slaves working for the big names it is up against, its opponents will have the advantages of brand recognition, economies of scale and access to large marketing budgets.

On joining the fray, the interloper is stepping into the commercial equivalent of no-man's land in the Valley of Elah to stage a David-and-Goliath style battle re-enactment. But, as the diminutive but plucky Israelite showed, the higher they stand, the harder they fall. Even if sending him to the graveyard is a tall order, you can at least have some of his lunch.

The market leader may have size on its side, but this can be used against it. The more workers a company employs, the more layers of management it introduces and the more regional offices it opens; the longer its chains of command become and the more vulnerable it is to more nimble competitors.

And so, although it may be impossible to compete on price, it will often be possible to offer a product that is more attractive to a certain type of consumer who has not been satisfied by the one-size-fits-all approach of the Goliath business. We look at three resourceful firms that have had the temerity to mix it with the big boys.

FEVER TREE - SCHWEPPES

 

When Charles Rolls, an ex-managing director of Plymouth Gin, and Tim Warrillow, a former ad agency executive, got together to produce a premium tonic water five years ago, there was no doubt about the elephant in the room: Schhhh ... you know who.

Coca-Cola subsidiary Schweppes dominates the £300m UK mixer market in a way that few giants do in any other category. It may have lost ground in recent years to the supermarkets' own-brand products, but it is still estimated to account for 50% of sales in the sector.

'Schweppes comes with a reputation and marketing muscle,' says Warrillow. 'At the same time, it's a juggernaut, and in some ways that makes it a very good competitor, because it's actually very difficult for it to respond to us.

'For example, we can go off in pursuit of very high quality ingredients irrespective of the size of batch available, whereas it is obsessed with production efficiencies and economies of scale and can only buy in enormous quantities, and that restricts the products it can buy.

'We can develop products that the customer and retailer really want, rather than what the production department wants us to produce.'

Schweppes was also vulnerable. While premium gin and vodka producers have made great strides in developing more subtle and nuanced drinks, they were all too often being drowned in a saccharine-packed product preserved with sodium benzoate. After all, tonic tends to make up three-quarters of the liquid in a G&T.

Fever Tree - so called after the local name for the quinine-rich cinchona tree in the Congo, from which the company derives its main ingredient - was a different proposition entirely. Composed entirely of natural botanicals and flavours, the company's tonic water and all the other lines in its 10-strong mixer range held a powerful appeal for a generation of consumers that is increasingly convinced that you are what you eat - or drink.

Getting this marketing message across to the trade was a crucial plank in Fever Tree's strategy and - unlike bigger outfits, which tend to outsource the legwork - Rolls and Warrillow made a virtue of the personal touch.

'We have a small, highly motivated, emotionally involved team and that's impossible to replicate in a large company,' says Warrillow. 'With Oddbins, for example, Charles and I motorbiked and cycled to each and every branch in the chain.

'It had an enormous goodwill effect. Oddbins told us it had gone down in their sales history, and they even wrote about it in their in-house magazine in an article headlined 'Tree Huggers'. They said they'd never had any other company come in to tell them about mixers before, let alone visit each and every outlet regardless of bank holidays or weekends, day or night. It made all the difference.'

Their efforts certainly paid off. In 2010, Fever Tree's bottling contractor, Brothers Drinks of Shepton Mallet in Somerset, produced more than 19 million bottles of everything from tonic and soda water to ginger ale and bitter lemon. In the same period, the company doubled its turnover to £8m and its profits were up 90% year on year.

At HQ, though, small remains beautiful, with just 12 people directly employed at Fever Tree's premises off London's fashionable King's Road.

FRANCO MANCA - PIZZA EXPRESS, ZIZZI, ASK! AND OTHERS

To see the scale of the task Giuseppe Mascoli has taken on, go for a stroll down Chiswick High Road, in the prosperous west London suburb known locally as Nappy Valley. At number 156, there is a branch of Strada. At 252, there's the inevitable Pizza Express. Across the road at 219, a branch of Ask!, at 235 a Zizzi, and at 299 a Perfect Pizza. And if it's a takeaway you're after, there's Clever Wally's at number 85. Mascoli's own pizza restaurant, Franco Manca, is in the heart of this dough-kneading war at 144.

It's also worth bearing in mind that Zizzi has more than 100 restaurants nationwide, Ask! has about 120 and Pizza Express has well over 300 - and all three chains are owned by the private equity giant Cinven.

If ever there was a David-and-Goliath confrontation, this is it. But Mascoli - who entered the pizza market when he acquired a popular outlet in Brixton Market in 2008 - sees it as a battle between Max Weber and Milton Friedman, the former a German sociologist who advocated a moral basis for capitalistic behaviour, the latter a hard-headed economist who saw the market as red in tooth and claw.

For Mascoli is not your typical entrepreneur. A Neapolitan, he came to the UK to take up a research post at the LSE. Today, he combines pizza-making with ownership of Soho private members' club Black's and the proprietorship of highbrow arty quarterly The Drawbridge.

Mascoli's role model is not a sprawling conglomerate but a family-owned American outfit. 'There is a (burger) company called In-N-Out in the US that has been very, very well received by customers and the media,' he says. 'All its produce is sourced locally and it has good contact with artisan producers. Like us, it puts the product first and then attaches a price to it. But big companies say: "These are our overheads and costs, what can we produce that will sell at a certain price?" That is upside-down thinking, from my point of view.'

And so Mascoli and his partner, the artist Bridget Hugo, get their organic mozzarella from the water buffalos at Alham Wood Organics in Somerset and wine (mostly sulphur-free) from small producers of natural and organic vintages in Italy, and they make their own authentic brand of lemonade. 'The public in London in particular has got to know about food by travelling more widely and its palate has become more sophisticated, and it's more conscious of where it comes from,' he explains.

'The quality has to go up and the prices have to stay down, not the other way round. This level of interest and demand is not something a small company can satisfy, and so the others will have to up their game. Why should people such as Pizza Express be serving the same product it served 20 years ago?'

At least one former member of the chain gang has already seen the light. David Page, once chairman of Pizza Express, who sold Clapham House Group to Nando owner Capricorn Ventures last November, is one of Mascoli's 20 partners in a new 'co-op' of investors.

Adds Mascoli: 'We are raising hundreds of thousands rather than millions, and hope to open a couple of restaurants next year (at least one of them a branch of Page's nascent Rocca chain) and maybe two more the year after.'

'We are looking at various options. We want not very expensive locations and also bigger locations, maybe in a station. We are looking at Brick Lane and train stations where there are lots of people passing through.'

Mascoli and his partners are experimenting with various English grains to produce their own pasta, including spelt - an ancient cousin of wheat - from Mulberry handbags founder Roger Saul's 300-acre farm in Somerset.

There are already signs that the Franco Manca effect is winning over the competition. 'I am not here to keep (this approach) to myself. I hope we will start other people to do the same. I know that Zizzi has started using natural and organic wine for the first time.'

JURA WATCHES - GOLDSMITHS, WATCHES OF SWITZERLAND AND OTHERS

At first sight, the luxury watch sector might appear an unpromising target for an ambitious entrepreneur. After all, it is a mature market dominated by a handful of household names, with hundreds of stores between them.

But it was the very established nature of the market that appealed to ad man Alistair Laidlaw and his partner, IT specialist Matt Warren.

Such was the manufacturers' insistence on the necessity of the 'see, touch and feel' boutique experience, the dotcom boom had largely bypassed the fine watches sector, and therein lay the opportunity.

'We definitely saw the potential to grab space as the premier retailer of luxury watches online,' says Laidlaw.

'Four years ago, the internet was still seen as being an area of concern, of potential danger. I think it took a very clear vision from us to persuade and inspire brands that what we were proposing to do would actually be to their benefit, would bring incremental business and would not in any way damage the brand reputation and experience that their customers were accustomed to.'

The first step was to create a user-friendly e-commerce site that presented watches in a professional fashion. After that, the challenge was to refine it to offer users who were being expected to spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds on watches from top names such as Baume & Mercier, Bell & Ross and Raymond Weil a better idea of the product they were purchasing.

'Once we'd established a robust working e-commerce system, we looked at how we could improve the customer experience and meet more of the manufacturers' requirements in terms of delivering the brand experience,' he adds, 'and so we took ultra-high resolution, 360-degree images of every single watch.'

The beauty of this approach is that site users can now rotate watch images on screen and examine the depth of the watch, the engraving on the back, the type of clasp it has, how the strap integrates with the watch and so on. They can also freeze the image at any angle and zoom in on particular features.

The next step was to introduce 'The Virtual Watch'. Laidlaw explains: 'The holy grail of the internet is overcoming the issue of not actually physically being there with the product, and the closest you can get to that today is a technology called 'augmented reality'. You download a marker, which you print out and wrap around your wrist, and by pointing your webcam at it you can superimpose the watch on your wrist.'

The mouldbreaking approach has helped take Jura's online sales to more than 40% of its £4m turnover. Its remaining revenues come from two bricks-and-mortar operations, one in the heart of London's luxury watch enclave in Mayfair - where Jura rubs shoulders with the like of Cartier and Patek Philippe - and Fulham, home of its superbrands outlet, the Watch Gallery.

'In five years' time, we would like to think that we would have made some form of exit, probably via a trade sale,' says Laidlaw. 'We would very much hope that we would become a target of one of the large organisations, either a UK-based retailer or a large international company that doesn't have a presence in this country.'

He adds: 'The major reason that they would want to buy us would be because of our genuine and proven core competence in e-commerce.'

SIX STEPS TO KNOCKING OUT A HEAVYWEIGHT

Study. Get completely under the skin of the big guy. Find his strengths and, especially, his weaknesses. Know everything he does - how he operates from top to bottom. And what his customers don't like about how Goliath operates.

Find that niche. Spot the thing Goliath hasn't thought about. Then create something new and individual that neatly fills the gap.

Choose your tactics. Never attack at Goliath's point of strength. David won by using a sling shot when Goliath expected to be fighting hand-to-hand with a sword.

Try very hard. David's trump card is his enthusiasm, commitment and energy. It gives him more attentive customer service, quicker thought processes and the ability to execute faster than the lumbering Goliath and his time-serving cohorts.

Be small. But always be professional. Small can be cute but must never be amateurish.

Plan your payoff. When you're good and ready and the Goliath in your marketplace is becoming irritated by you nibbling at his ankles, impressing his customers and starting to reduce his profits, consider selling out to him - assuming he's still alive and kicking.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Subscribe

Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today