It was a bold move to take on the likes of L’Oreal, Nivea and Dove, but in Simon Duffy’s case it appears to have paid off. Bulldog, the male skincare brand he created with friend and former investment banker Rhodri Ferrier, expects to turn over £9m this year, up from £5.9m in 2013, and is sold in 14 countries around the world.
His inspiration for the brand was the result of a shopping trip when he lived in New York in 2005, where he was working for Saatchi & Saatchi's product innovation arm. He was picking up some natural skincare products for his then-girlfriend (and now-wife) Annabel when he realised there weren't any similar products available formulated specifically with men in mind.
At first Duffy wasn’t sure if there was a viable gap in the market - in the UK less than 25% of men regularly used moisturiser and face wash. But he decided this could be remedied by launching a brand which was explicitly targeted at males, rather than being adapted for them by larger brands.
'I can't think of a more feminine brand than L'Oreal,' he told MT. 'We wanted to create a brand that was obviously masculine and as part and the parcel of that we wanted it to be straightforward and we really focused on results and quality,’ he tells MT. ‘So we came up with the idea for Bulldog, man’s best friend, as the organising idea.’
As well as putting time into the brand, the pair also had to put in the hours to develop the creams, gels and scrubs. Working with experts, including a professional ‘nose’ who helped develop the products’ signature fragrance, they tried hundreds of combinations of ingredients, ensuring they were all considered ‘natural’ and cruelty free, before settling on the final recipes.
The products then had to undergo thorough testing to make sure they comply with consumer regulations. This included exposing them to bacteria to make sure they can cope with the hot, humid and sometimes dirty environment of a bathroom.
Brand designed, products tested and packaging sorted, Bulldog was ready for launch. The plan was to go straight after the supermarkets rather than slowly building an online presence or selling in specialist shops, and 18 months after the brand was first conceived it appeared on Sainsbury’s shelves.
The business has grown alongside a broader trend of 'metrosexual males' taking greater care of their health and appearance. Last year a report by Mintel found that sales of male facial skincare products rocketed 20% in five years and that moisturiser is now used by 42% of men in the UK.
A year after the Sainsbury's deal Bulldog launched in Tesco, Boots and Waitrose. It wasn’t long before Duffy and Ferrier, who work as equal co-founders, set their sights on more distant markets. Bulldog began exporting in 2010, initially to Sweden.
‘It was a sensible choice because it was close in terms of location,’ he says. ‘It’s not a small market but it’s not a massive market either, somewhere we were comfortable learning about export and the supply chain and the international implications of that.’
Bulldog is now stocked in 9,000 overseas stores in 13 other countries including Thailand, the US and Australia, accounting for 30% of the company’s revenue. Duffy is a big advocate of exporting, not just as a way of generating money, but for its effects on the company as a whole.
‘It’s a wonderful thing for small or medium-sized businesses to wrap their heads around,’ he says. ‘It’s a good way internally within your team, for all the systems and processes, all of the partners that you work with, to get fighting fit, because it provides additional challenges and tests your organisation and people in new ways.’
He says it’s also a great way to learn about how your market works on a global scale and adds that it’s ‘tremendous fun.’
Despite rapid turnover growth the business had just four staff in 2013, which had the benefit of keeping costs down and the company simple. Duffy says it was also a great motivator.
‘The best organisations feel like they’re a person down,’ he says. ‘You want a group of people to feel busy and up against it rather than having people sitting around, getting bored and like they’ve got too much to do. That creates a bad atmosphere.’
Nonetheless, the company recently reached a point where it needed to boost its headcount and has taken on four people in the past year and is currently recruiting for five more. Duffy says that in the early stages he was having to be on the ball early mornings, late nights and weekends, but the work/life balance has improved a little since things have taken off.
He and Annabel have a four-year old daughter and another baby on the way in the new year, and when he’s not working he spends time with them and also tries to keep in shape by attending boxing-style fitness sessions.
Looking back on what he’s achieved so far he says he feels ‘very proud’ to have competed successfully with some genuinely massive brands, but admits it can sometimes be tempting to think: ‘Could we achieve more, could we have reached some milestones more quickly?’
‘We feel content with where we’ve got to but the overriding feeling here is to kick on to the next level,’ he says. ‘There’s so much more we can do and we feel like we’re just getting started.’