Formulators and Marketers: Working Better Together

Nancy Trent is owner and founder of Trent & Company, Inc., a global marketing communications firm that specializes in publicity for beauty and health products. One of her first positions in journalism was working for an engineering trade publication, where her primary role was to liaise between the technicians and the marketing department. That experience led to the company she founded, and to the topic she chose as guest columnist for this month’s “Bench & Beyond.”

Note from the Column Editor:
It is often said that the most challenging interface during product development is the one between R&D and marketing. Five years ago the Journal of Product Innovation Management reported1 that significant barriers exist between these two key product innovation functions. Individuals at this interface disagree about what they should do together, according to the report, and added that R&D folks are the more reluctant cooperators.

Formulators and marketers of personal care products face similar problems at their interface, but their problems are often compounded by the need to communicate in a sensory language. In this column,
Nancy Trent suggests some reasons why formulators and marketers should want to work together, and offers some ways to make it happen. Her comments belong in this column’s space because formulators who work with marketers need to communicate at the bench and beyond.

—Bud Brewster
C&T magazine

When people really understand something well, they are more likely to be enthused by it. Combining the forces of research and formulation with sales and marketing can create an excited and informed atmosphere in all aspects of a product’s life cycle—from concept and development, to production and manufacturing, to sales, marketing and public relations. Opening the lines of communication between different departments or individuals can only enhance and improve the product’s impact on the industry. Unfortunately, those communication lines are not always connected and hazardous gaps occur.

“Communication gaps exist between product developers and marketers,” says David Wilemon, PhD, professor of innovation management and entrepreneurship for the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University in New York. “The product development people have one view of the world, which can be quite different from how the marketing people see things. Keep in mind that each group has its own culture and values that shape communication. When these values clash, conflict is likely to develop. To have a high-performing organization, you need people who can deal with these differences whenever they develop,” Wilemon said.

A few years ago, I noticed a communication gap between formulators and marketers; it demonstrated the vital importance of the two functions working closely together. One of my clients was preparing to launch a line of skin and body care products. The line was effective but contained ingredients that were found in other, similar and more well-established brands. According to the client’s formulators, there was nothing special, new or different to distinguish my client’s products from others on the market. To them, it was just a nice “me-too” line that achieved good results. Fortunately, they provided an ingredients list.

The findings of a research study published in an obscure science publication provided a solution. Conclusive results showed that one particular ingredient found in certain plants and grapes actually extended the lifespan of a species of fish significantly. That ingredient, resveratrol, was in my client’s products and provided the basis for our separating his product line from the rest of the pack. Later, resveratrol, which was the focus of studies at Harvard University, became the subject of articles in newspapers and magazines, including Newsweek.2 In fact, resveratrol became the product additive du jour and many of my clients’ competitors were quick to point out that they, too, had the potential life extension ingredient in their formulas.

Marketers depend on formulations to provide them with unique selling characteristics that will differentiate products from the competition. In a crowded marketplace, being able to call attention to what makes the product remarkably different is vital for success.

The cosmetics industry is not alone when it comes to a communication gap between product formulators or developers and marketing. Donald Christiansen, a former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum, points out that the gap in communication between engineers and marketers in his industry appears to be based in part on different cultures. He notes that engineers see marketers as “middlemen who are not technically qualified to interpret customer needs” and marketers see engineers “as good analysts, but poor listeners.”3

While a handful of companies big and small have solid working relationships between formulators and marketers, others could learn how to benefit from one another. As with any business, opening the lines of communication is key.

“When representatives of formulators and marketers team together to receive and share comments, no one has misaligned expectations as to form, function, cost and claims,” said Jeffrey Light, retired founder of Jason Natural Cosmetics, who now serves as a strategic planning advisor and corporate consultant at Better Business Building Coaching.

Formulators could be more effective and especially time- and cost-efficient if they knew what marketers were looking for, such as popular claims and ingredients or packaging trends. What properties or claims are in vogue—is it antiaging or green? What ingredients are popular and which ones are on the rise—is it resveratrol, açai, green tea or polypeptides? How important is packaging—will it sell the product?

Marketers could be more successful if they knew what was behind the products they represent. Is a new ingredient being used because a significant amount of compelling research has recently been published? Are the ratios of ingredients important to the functionality of the product? What about new research in preservatives? Why is the product packaged in certain ways? Formulators need to tell marketers about all of the latest industry news that they are privy to.

Large manufacturers often have highly developed teams dedicated to research and development, and an entirely separate team for sales and marketing. The first step is bridging this gap. How? Monthly or even weekly meetings where each team presents its current projects, upcoming initiatives, success stories and trouble spots can promote closure of the gap, as will brainstorming about how each team can help the other.

What about younger employees? They have grown up with digital devices that provide an excellent means for encouraging communication between marketers and formulators. An Information Week article4 titled “Communication Gap” discussed techno-savvy young people. In the article, Raj Goel, chief technology officer at Brainlink International Inc., an e-commerce and Web-hosting company, is quoted as saying, “Anyone under 25 right now, especially in the 15- to 20-year-old crowd, will not function” without being connected to their omnipresent connections. Goel supervises ten interns who work with advanced technology systems for his company’s customers. “In the office, our primary method of communication is instant messaging, even if we’re sitting next to each other,” he says.

The important thing to bear in mind is that by connecting regularly, marketers and formulators will not feel as though they are in foreign territory and a mutually beneficial relationship can be built.

“It is important for marketers and formulators to mutually respect each other,” said Guy Langer, president of The Qumulus Group, a consulting service for personal care companies providing technology transfer and licensing representation. “Marketers should understand the demands made on research and development, and how realistic their directives are. Also, letting formulators know who the market is, i.e., demographics, age, sex, etc., would increase their effectiveness and could save time, money and frustration.”

John Kressaty strongly agrees. An independent consultant and formulation chemist, Kressaty is an experienced veteran of the cosmetics and skin care industry. He believes the gap is especially wide when marketers are not specific about their requirements.
“It’s like night and day when the marketer merely says, ‘Give me a product that smoothes wrinkles,’” said Kressaty. “The formulator will provide a liquid, when the marketer wants a cream. What one person says is not what the other one hears.” Kressaty recommends a detailed new product brief to bridge the gap. “A product brief can save years of wasted development work, tens of thousands of dollars, and avoid any confusion between formulator and marketer.”

By the same token, smaller companies who do not have dedicated marketing or development teams can use the resources they have. By using the staff and knowledge base at hand, one can find surprising marketing and sales insights from a chemist and tips on the latest ingredients from a PR pro. Also, using consultants or even acquaintances on a per-project basis can lend insight into how to develop and sell more effectively.

“For this cooperative system to work, team leaders need to have the experience, respect and power to make minor adjustments if and when necessary, and should include the direct involvement of uppermost leadership,” said Light.

The key is using human resources to the best of their abilities. If a company has a star formulator on its team, that individual should be included in the next sales meeting. Their knowledge is often so vast that it adds credibility to the meeting. Conversely, a marketing whiz who is up on the latest trends could tour the lab to talk about what’s relevant and what the industry wants.

Pamela Busiek, president and CEO of CBI Laboratories, Inc., a leading manufacturer of private label and custom contract skin care products, takes this a step further. She suggests that customers become involved in the research, development and marketing. “Include the customer on site and within the process. Formulators and marketers both should explain ingredients, protocols, etc., and accept the redirects and critiques of customers as part of the process. By embracing solutions-oriented communication, [companies will find] the process becomes smoother and more streamlined.”

So, how have formulator-marketer communication efforts worked at various companies?

“Our R&D team includes six chemists and they interact among customers, marketers, staff and suppliers on a regular basis. More information contributes to greater end satisfaction and fewer redirects during all phases of product development,” explained Busiek. “Developing an ‘other-centered’ corporate culture has certainly been an asset because it assures an ongoing dialogue between formulators and marketers, as well as customers.”

According to Light, “Jason Natural Cosmetics was run with an open dialogue between formulators and marketers, and by having departments interconnecting by involving team members and top level management, the company was able to become the first cosmetic company to be certified organic, the second in the United States to be certified ISO9001, and the largest dollar volume brand sold in the natural food store industry.”

Combining the forces of formulators and marketers by establishing effective communication strategies can create company-wide excitement and in the long run, a better product. By becoming aware of the challenges and research that formulators face, marketers can better use the behind-the-scenes information to serve their sales tactics. And, if formulators have access to marketers’ insights about new trends, needs and desired ingredients, they could better create a more on-target and successful product.

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1. AK Gupta, SP Raj and D Wilemon, The R&D-marketing interface in high-technology firms, J Prod Innov Mngnt 2(1) 12–24 (2003)
2. TH Lee, How to help your heart. A Harvard cardiologist passes on the latest news about the tests you need, lowering blood pressure and the real pros and cons of drinking red wine, Newsweek (Apr 9, 2007)
3. D Christiansen, Irreconcilable differences?, IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer Online (Apr 2005) (Accessed Oct 3, 2008)
4. T George, Communication gap: Tech-savvy young people bring their own ways of communicating to the work place, and employees old and young need to adapt, Information Week (Oct 21, 2002)

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