IT WAS a wet December evening when we ran into the home of our friends Ron and Judy Cella, and shook the raindrops off our coats in the hall.
With a big smile, Ron handed Jackie a gift bag which she quickly opened and gave an OMG yelp. It was a box of Pixy natural skincare products, beautifully wrapped in cellophane and topped with a gold ribbon. Inside the box was an array of Pixy skincare, lotions, bath bombs and soaps. The colours were stunning, a cayenne and sunburst yellow with a Pixy girl with Cayenne wings.
As the package was opened, there were more OMGs as the girls smoothed the lotions on their arms.
That introduction to Pixy was why I ventured to meet Professor Peter Weedle, the owner of Pixy Natural Skincare in the production factory in Mallow, Co Cork.
Peter is a well-known, highly respected pharmacist with two pharmacies in Mallow, which were established by his grandparents in the Thirties. After 25 years of wide-ranging experience, he decided to look closer at the skincare and beauty market which was an ever increasing part of his business.
After a lot of research and experimenting, he developed a range of products and Pixy was born in 2011.
With the help of Enterprise Ireland, he got a low-rent building in a nearby industrial park. He employed a production team of eight people.
Peter was determined to produce the very best of natural skincare products and insisted that "natural handmade Irish "would be his unique selling proposition". All his point of sale (POS) material and packaging displays the 'Guaranteed Irish' logo. As he got production up and running, Peter used his reputation and friends in the industry and got 200 pharmacies around the country to become stockists of his product. The orders rolled in with a focus on the 2011 Christmas market.
He outsourced his marketing to Finn Media, and got Ann Marie Gannon for his PR and Nigel Robertson as graphic designer. This back-up team he describes as "Gold!" The Pixy girl logo and the colour mix are exceptionally attractive and the packaging is a real head-turner. They have also produced a very attractive POS stand.
Pixy had jumped into the market covering most of the criteria necessary to get the show on the road. The challenge was to be able to produce enough product on a handmade basis to fulfil the initial stock-up orders.
The challenges of getting products into the marketplace were compounded by Peter going on Dragon's Den. He was prepared to sell 10 per cent of his business for €250,000. Dragon Gavin Duffy was prepared to invest – but wanted a 35 per cent share in the business.
Peter was aware of his investment costs and the stress of cash flow and was willing to do a deal. But the 25 per cent gap was too wide for him to start haggling about and he let the opportunity go.
However, there was an upside to his TV appearance. The exposure from the highly rated show brought a lot of interest in the product which in turn created a flurry of sales in the shops and on the website. The wheels of production started turning strongly and the brand was now better known than before.
Peter has his eye on exports. He is aware of the huge markets for skincare products in the UK and Europe and has already found some interested parties with capacity needs for really big volume. If he cracks this market he will have created a product that has the capability of becoming a high-flying brand.
But first things first. Having created a very attractive product and gotten TV coverage, it takes a lot more than that to be a winner.
I asked around among many female colleagues and there was no awareness of the product at all. I tried several chemists and again came up with a blank. There are 1,800 chemist shops in Ireland and Pixy is on display in only 200 of them so there is a lot more work to be done there.
Being well known in the pharmacy business meant Peter got his first 200 stockists relatively easily, and it should be a piece of cake for him to get 500 stockists at least. The hard part is creating a desire among women for the product.
This desire is largely created in the beauty pages of weekly and monthly glossy magazines, online, on beauty blogs, and with beauty writers. He might also consider a Pixy Day linked to a charity where a percentage of all products sold in the Pixy range that day will go to a hospice or women's refuge or the Rape Crisis Centre. Get PR for that locally and nationally. Sell an emotion along with the product.
Women are inundated with skincare information and there is a general overload of products. Luckily there is a new awareness of buying Irish and there is a new sexiness around "handmade" – but is it enough?
Give women a special reason to buy your product over the next. A good example is the Dove campaign which targeted real women in its advertising and dropped the skinny, impossibly perfect, flawless models from its campaigns. It related to real women, sending out the message, "this product is for you".
This is a big job for the Pixy marketing team. The orders are coming in slowly and there is little activity online. Pixy is up against the giants like Vichy, L'Oreal, the Body Shop, etc – all of whom have huge marketing spends, so it's like a David and Goliath battle.
Pixy needs to reinforce the awareness cycle. Get the visibility out there. Get celebrities to endorse the brand, even to "like" it on Facebook. Target some well-known women, and send them a sample and ask for an endorsement. You'd be amazed at what feedback you can get, and the cost is very little. The people behind Pixy need to charge the brand awareness with a nonstop passion.
Pixy is a great product and has a very good website but that's no good if nobody knows about it .
So Peter – it's 'On Yer Bike' time. You have to upscale the plan of action with a bigger focus on national awareness. You must consider some of these suggested PR strategies and draw people to your website.
Let the charm of Pixy weave a spell and captivate Mna Na hEireann. They will be all the better for it. Many a great product has sat on shelves and died for lack of awareness, so go for it!
Bill Cullen's monthly series Get On Yer Bike returns in April with the entrepreneur helping kick small Irish businesses into better shape