The CMO Interview

Brita's Marketing Flows From Grassroots Effort

VP Sengelmann Taps Into a Need With PR Move and Spurs Growth

By Published on .

BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Gaining share in a business growing at a double-digit pace is awfully good anytime. Doing it during a recession, as Brita has, is that much more remarkable. At the same time, the Clorox Co. brand believes it's doing well by doing good.

Suzanne Sengelmann, VP-marketing for specialty products, Brita
Suzanne Sengelmann, VP-marketing for specialty products, Brita
Its growth comes from urging people to replace bottled water with filtered water, thus reducing packaging and energy use. That concept, which grew so big it became the centerpiece of Brita's advertising earlier this year, started with a request from the city of San Francisco to develop a filtered water bottle that could replace bottled water. That led the Oakland-based company into a partnership with Nalgene and the "Filter for Good" PR and online program, which urged people to pledge to replace bottled water with filtered water.

Bono has called, too, leading to Brita replacing all the water backstage at U2 concerts. Then the Sundance Film Festival followed suit. And in a paid arrangement, NBC's "The Biggest Loser" eliminated all bottled water in favor of Brita Nalgene bottles from its set.

Behind these efforts and growth has been Suzanne Sengelmann, 42, VP-marketing for specialty products, who's found that even with a 2008 media budget of just over $18 million, per TNS Media Intelligence, PR has become a driving force for Brita.

Ms. Sengelmann has been with Clorox for 20 years, moving to her current role in early 2008 from a general-manager role overseeing the company's cleaning division, where she led development of Green Works, among other things. Reporting to George Roeth, senior VP-general manager of the specialty division, she has responsibility for marketing of Brita as well as Clorox's auto care, charcoal, food and cat-litter businesses. Her charge has been to grow the businesses' profitably while improving their environmental impact.

In an interview with Advertising Age, she discussed how offering a greener alternative to bottled water moved from being a PR program to a product to the focus of Brita marketing.

Ad Age: How do you grow share in a category growing double digits, particularly now?

Ms. Sengelmann: It's really about our growth idea, which is transforming tap water for consumers. Historically, it's all been about great-tasting water. Just in the past few years, we've gone in the direction that it's not only great tasting, but better for you, the environment and your wallet.

Ad Age: How can you keep it up?

Ms. Sengelmann: We're trying to build on it by refreshing the ideas. Our whole "Filter for Good" campaign has been a key enabler. Previously, one of our biggest predicaments was affordability. We had a great business in the home. But outside the home, where people are seeking water when they're exercising or at sporting events, it was difficult for us to participate.

Ad Age: How much is the green backlash against bottled water driving the business?

Ms. Sengelmann: A lot. I have two little boys, 9 and 6. In school nowadays, we're being asked to pack so they can bring everything back home with them. In all kinds of sporting events we're being asked not to bring bottled water unless it's a reusable bottle. We're seeing that on a national basis as well. We do promote that we replace 300 standard water bottles with one filter.

Ad Age: What's worked the best for you in marketing?

Ms. Sengelmann: This idea of Filter for Good, which started really as a PR idea in our partnership with Nalgene. We developed a website called for people to go get information on where to purchase the products or, more important, what they can do to make a difference. That started as a grassroots idea. We kept getting so much traction behind it that we actually altered our broad-scale mass-media message to reflect that as well.

Ad Age: How strong has retailer support been for converting people from bottled water to filters?

Ms. Sengelmann: It's been good. The bottled-water business is still big, and it's not necessarily going away tomorrow. So they do want to continue to support that; at the same time they definitely understand what we want to do from an ecologically conscious perspective.

We've gotten increased merchandising, particularly during peak times of the year.

Ad Age: Have you gotten pushback from retailers afraid you're killing their bottled-water business?

Ms. Sengelmann: No. There is a big upfront investment in getting pitchers and filters. So they're just seeing growth everywhere. They're seeing that consumers are going to vote, and so they want to be participating.

Ad Age: Sustainability has been an important focus for Clorox. How important is Brita in that broader picture?

Ms. Sengelmann: There are some things that aren't as visible to the consumer, like transportation and reducing corrugate and things like that. One of the benefits of Brita is that it really is more visible, and it represents a growth opportunity in addition to being more sustainable.

Ad Age: What do your brand demos look like?

Ms. Sengelmann: We tend to segment more based on attitudes than specific demographics. One of our key growth areas is people who are just incredibly water-involved. We call them assertive self-improvers. They drink, on average, 120 ounces of water a day. And they historically have been bottled-water-heavy as well. The Nalgene partnership has allowed us to penetrate this group, because they want the right water at the right place at the right time.

Ad Age: How do you find those folks?

Ms. Sengelmann: We just make sure we're messaging to them in a relevant way. We like to make sure we're always in health clubs, places where people are thinking specifically about hydration. We find them on TV and some of the traditional channels as well.

Ad Age: In general how do you measure ROI?

Ms. Sengelmann: We have pretty advanced analytics capabilities here, and they do all of our business driver analysis, and it's pretty darn good.

Ad Age: What stands out when you do those analyses?

Ms. Sengelmann: Again, this is no surprise because of the efficiency involved; TV works very well for us in creating desire. And our PR [capability] is phenomenally effective.

Ad Age: With Filter for Good, were you surprised a PR initiative could build into a product and ad campaign, too?

Ms. Sengelmann: Over time I'm realizing big ideas don't happen overnight, and my experience has been that some of the biggest ideas come from PR. It makes some sense, because it tends to be very fact-based and there's a pull for the information, which means it's on trend.

Ad Age: Where do the big PR ideas come from?

Ms. Sengelmann: I'm going to give a lot of credit to our PR agency, Edelman. We also have an internal PR group, and the brand team pretty quickly pulled together with Nalgene and had the foresight to brand it Filter for Good, put the website up and get the pledge with this whole idea that people can take very simple steps to make a big difference.

Ad Age: What keeps you up at night?

Ms. Sengelmann: Just continuing to drive this concept of accessibility and portability. There is still a fair number of occasions I feel like we're not there for. It's where the opportunity is. We want every water opportunity to be with Brita.

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