BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Mike Indursky had marketed everything from detergents at Unilever to Maybelline makeup at L'Oréal before he became chief marketing and strategic officer of Burt's Bees in 2005. Two years later, an acquisition by Clorox Co. brought him back into the mainstream of package goods.
The acquisition also has meant that a quirky little natural brand with a $20 million marketing budget and a sometimes-passionate fan base has had to adjust to life within a conventional marketer best known for chlorine bleach. Add in a recession, slowing sales and retailers clamping down on inventory costs, and you have a pretty substantial challenge to a brand for which Clorox paid about $900 million.
But Mr. Indursky, 48, believes the Clorox connection is helping and that consumers aren't giving up pricier natural products just because of the recession. Sales are $200 million annually.
Reporting to CEO John Replogle and a member of the executive leadership team, Mr. Indursky said he's involved in major marketing decisions as the marketer, whose agency is Pool, New York, works through its challenges. And because the R&D and global-brand-development departments report to him, he has final say in all of the product ingredients.
In an interview with Ad Age, Mr. Indursky discussed how Burt's has retained its passionate fan base and is resisting the urge to cut prices or marketing.
Ad Age: How does the recession affect Burt's Bees and what you're doing to deal with it?
Mr. Indursky: While we're having such a big problem in the economy, that also creates a lot of opportunity. ... We've made a decision not to cut back. In a bad economy is when people's value equations change, and it's important for us to really make sure consumers understand the value that comes from buying Burt's. It's not about playing a price game. It's about underscoring the importance of natural personal care.
Ad Age: Don't you need to change your pricing structure because of the recession?
Mr. Indursky: No, pricing structure won't change. Truly natural products using real natural ingredients are harder to formulate and more expensive.
Ad Age: It sounds like sales have started to slow. Why?
Mr. Indursky: Most categories have slowed. Virtually every industry has felt the effects. Yet natural personal care is still growing at a higher rate than personal care. More and more retailers are showing support for natural personal care.
Ad Age: Are you still gaining share?
Mr. Indursky: Yes.
Ad Age: You see more focus on promotion in personal care. Is that happening in natural personal care, too?
Mr. Indursky: It's happening in natural personal care, too. A lot of brands are getting mass exposure for the first time. ... Very small or underperforming brands might not make it. ... What they're doing before they do that is some real hard-core discounting to try to keep afloat.
We try to do promotions that support our consumers and are consistent with our values, but we're not going to do these huge price discounts we're seeing some others do.
Ad Age: Have you changed anything about your media or marketing approach because of the recession?
Mr. Indursky: One of the things that's hard in beauty and personal care is that you don't sell a brand. You sell products. You sell a brand through your products. So for us, a lot of communications we did that talked about the brand give way to things that talk about products. And if it's well-communicated, that will build your brand.
Ad Age: Burt's always has been focused on things like relationship and experiential marketing. In the past year, you've done [magazine] advertising. How has that worked for you?
Mr. Indursky: Burt's started with all grass-roots, one-to-one marketing at craft shows. ... We got to the point that we started getting distribution in Target and now Walmart. You need to complement that with more mass-awareness vehicles, so we added print ads. ... But it's still very much about a relationship-building company.
Ad Age: How do you do your relationship-marketing programs?
Mr. Indursky: The first one is the Beautify Your World tour. We've gotten excellent return on investment from it. Consumers firsthand are trying our products and gaining experience with them. We've run that for three years. Our website has more than tripled the database since we started. We just started our Facebook page. But for people just to say we need to do a Facebook page is wrong. It depends on your content and brand proposition. We're fortunate that Burt's has such a love affair with the brand. There's all these unofficial Burt's Bees sites on Facebook as it is. ... Burt's Bees is one of the few brands that really can carry off a strong relationship on something like Facebook.
Ad Age: How are you trying to maximize that presence?
Mr. Indursky: By recognizing there's a difference in the tone of voice we're going to use and a difference in the quality of the relationship on Facebook. You have to remember who's on Facebook. You have to realize they're looking for really good social interaction, and Burt's Bees has to come across more as a friend than a company.
Ad Age: Would Facebook be a good advertising vehicle for you?
Mr. Indursky: I don't know. We want to build the relationships and then see how this works and to what degree it becomes a good advertising vehicle for us.
Ad Age: There's a Burt's Bees Guy on Twitter. Is that an official presence?
Mr. Indursky: No. We know him. He actually applied for a job with us. He's a really talented guy, and we like him very much.
Ad Age: There's this thought that recession changes people's mind-set, that they start caring less about things further down the hierarchy of needs, like natural or green products. Do you think that's true?
Mr. Indursky: I separate the two things. ... When it comes to environmental messages, it's probably less important than it was before. But I don't think it's going to change people wanting to do what's right for their bodies or their babies.
Ad Age: There's certainly a lot of talk about retailers cutting brands and products. Is there a threat because Burt's Bees has a lot of items?
Mr. Indursky: We've seen in some of our accounts that we're not being kept in stock at the level we should be. You go into a store and see your hive is well shopped, and on the one hand you're glad that people are buying. But on the other hand you're wondering why they're not stocking the shelves back up. The retailer has to make some hard calls on what to go long and short on. And you need to go long on the leaders, despite the number of [stock-keeping units], and go short on the bad performers.
Ad Age: Are you better off now being part of Clorox rather than independent?
Mr. Indursky: You couldn't have asked for a better relationship than we have with Clorox. We know that should we need the resources in a tough time that they'll be there for us.
Ad Age: Has it been what you expected?
Mr. Indursky: It's actually been much better. They really want to make a difference in the world of health and wellness. That's why they've got us, Brita and Green Works. ... It could have been very different if we were acquired by a personal-care company with their own expertise who might say they know better than Burt's.
Ad Age: Certainly Clorox has a reputation for strength on the analytics and ROI-measurement fronts. Is that something you're tapping?
Mr. Indursky: That's one of the areas we really lean into. What's so nice is that it's not about "use this to prove your stuff is working." It's "use it to make sure you can manage your business and make the best decisions."
Ad Age: Do any consumers still have trouble thinking about Burt's Bees being owned by the maker of Clorox bleach?
Mr. Indursky: We really don't hear it anymore. We heard it a lot in the beginning. And for the consumers who left a phone number -- John Replogle and I called virtually every person who left a phone number and talked to them about what their concerns were and how we could help assuage any fears they may have. And the response was terrific. Not everyone in the end agreed, but the fact that we took the time to make a personal phone call, people said, "Oh my God, I never expected this. I feel so much better about it."
In the end, the proof is in the pudding. If they see the standards go down and see us doing things that aren't sustainable, then [critics are] right and things start to go awry. But our standards have only increased.
Ad Age: What's it been like working with Burt's after working at Unilever and L'Oréal, some of the biggest in the business?
Mr. Indursky: I've been fortunate to work for some incredible brands. What Burt's gives is two things. It's a brand with a conscience. And I can't say there are an awful lot of those. ... And it's willing to do some very provocative, poignant advertising to make a point, knowing that not everyone is going to love it. Having that conscience changes you as a marketer and changes you as a person, too. Everyone who's come here from other CPG companies have all gone through a change. The second thing is ... people love Burt's Bees. You tell people you're from Burt's Bees and you get this knee-buckling reaction, and they want to share.
Ad Age: Your advertising takes some pretty hard hits at the ingredients used by some of your old companies. Do you catch any flak from any of your former colleagues or the companies?
Mr. Indursky: It's safe to say not everyone in the industry is happy with our advertising. There's nothing we're doing that's illegal or misleading. We're very confident about it. A lot of consumers don't know the issues with some of the ingredients in synthetic products. What we did in this campaign is really started a conversation that people weren't having before.
Ad Age: What keeps you up at night?
Mr. Indursky: The biggest threat we have is brands that are synthetic and position themselves as natural and using ingredients that natural products shouldn't have in them. They have a lot more spending power than we do, and therefore are influential. The real shame of it is you have consumers ... putting things on their bodies or their babies' bodies thinking they're doing the right things because these things seem to be natural.