Last modified on 14 February 2010, at 02:40

Getting Started as an Entrepreneur/Market/Profile: Cleaning Up

Cleaning up: Sun & EarthEdit

Art Rogers is trying to make the supermarket cleaning aisle a little cleaner. According to Rogers, most of the household products we use contain “elements that you would not want to have in your personal environment or the environment in general.” After assuming the CEO position at Sun & Earth, a natural cleaning products company, his objective was to convince retailers to move the company’s detergents and spray bottles out of the organic section and into the cleaning aisle.

To do this, Rogers tailored his pitch to his audience, and didn’t try to stand on a soapbox (no pun intended). “The product worked,” said Rogers, “and I sold it to retailers based on that. The other things are in the background. Most consumers are concerned only with products that work.”

He admits that people are skeptical about Sun & Earth products’ performance because environmentally friendly cleaners introduced in the 1980s didn’t work very well and were more expensive. Sun & Earth is different: all products are 3-5% better to 97% as good as the name brands on the market, and cost only 10% more.

Sun & Earth began in a Pennsylvania garage where its founders developed cleaners without harmful chemicals as alternatives to existing products. They convinced local stores to carry their products, then bigger stores in New York, Boston, and Washington DC. This strategy allowed them to successfully grab “highly enlightened” consumers who were strongly environmentally and health conscious. As the company grew and was partially acquired by Ben Cohen’s Barred Rock investment fund (his first investment after the sale of Ben & Jerry’s), it strove to gain a wider consumer base.

Rogers believes that the key to reaching this objective was understanding the “ripple effect.” A pebble thrown into a pond creates a splash—this splash represents core customers who understand the product’s value and currently buy it (the “highly enlightened”). But the pebble also creates ripples. The ripples closest to the splash represent customers who are predisposed to buy the product (such as those with chemical sensitivities in the case of Sun & Earth). The further the ripple from the splash, the further the customer group is from understanding and relating to the product’s message.

Sun & Earth tries to reach the ripples closest to the splash and continue moving out to spread its message. While grocery store coupons and promotions yield higher sales, they do not necessarily create repeat customers because they entice bargain hunters rather than groups that identify with the Sun & Earth’s values. Rogers tries to focus on marketing at events, like Race for the Cure, a breast cancer research fundraiser, that draw people who are more likely to be health conscious or environmentally concerned.

Although his objective is to mainstream Sun & Earth’s products, the company itself is anything but mainstream. Their sense of social good extends far beyond the ingredients in their products. Located in a transformed argyle sock factory, the company employs workers from the surrounding low-income community and promotes community building through volunteer projects. Consistent with the company’s environmental focus, its plant is the first in Pennsylvania to be run completely on wind power.

Rogers notes that while 99.8% of for-profit companies measure themselves with one P (profit) Sun & Earth uses 3 P’s: profit, people, planet. His investors, all social venture funds, demand returns in each of the three areas. Besides sharing similar values, an advantage of being funded this way is the network that Sun & Earth has built. The company has used its connections to reach important players and gain accounts from companies that are also committed to sustainable and socially responsible business, such as Starbucks.

With his experience boosting sales at major companies like Saucony and Proctor & Gamble as well as Sun & Earth, Rogers has simple advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. “Make sure your product has a unique selling proposition. And make sure it works.”

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