Finding entrepreneurs and companies here or offshore to spearhead branded product campaigns in the United States is the next strand of SWAG’s workplan.
When the Strong Wool Action Group’s CEO Andy Caughey updated Federated Farmers Meat & Wool delegates in March, he described the in-depth US consumer research SWAG had commissioned from San Francisco-based design-led company IDEO. As with other primary product categories, the research pointed to sustainability credentials being an increasingly important aspects of people’s buying decisions.
The USA has 45% of the world’s carpet manufacturing capability and the trend towards natural products and against synthetic, petroleum-based consumer goods played to wool’s strengths. Andy said the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise in people working from home opened up opportunities for wool carpet, blankets and other luxury items with all of wool’s natural and sustainable, fire-retardant, non-leaching, non-odour, moisture and mould-resistant credentials.
The brief to IDEO was that the identified market opportunities for New Zealand strong wool had to have global influence potential, would have impact on both volume and value, and would be disruptive within the category in which the products were transacting. The model held up as an example was Allbirds, former All White Tim Brown’s merino sports and leisure shoes that kicked a hole in the market dominance of the likes of Nike and Adidas.
SWAG is taking the IDEO findings and three projects – two of them direct-to-consumer and all of them US-centric – out to find the right entrepreneurs or companies to bring them to market.
“Our first approach was to consider New Zealand-based companies and entrepreneurs with links or associations with the US market,” Andy said.
But quite possibly it will be companies already operating in the United States that will be selected.
“That direct to consumer skillset is quite specific, and there’s also the requirement to understand, utilise and optimise that US-centric research. The prospects of finding someone who has those core competencies, the capital, the timing and the ability leads us to think that probably that person or organisation is offshore.
“If we’re being disruptive within a category what will happen is we’ll get ‘me too’ competitors coming in – and that’s something we want to encourage,” Andy said.
“Look again at Allbirds. They’re sparked a whole lot of ‘me too’ types also looking at lowering the carbon impact of their products and moving towards using sustainable materials. A whole range of companies are now integrating merino into the fabric of their shoes.”
If SWAG’s wool-based category disruptors inspire a trend, those competitors still need to buy their raw product from somewhere. And New Zealand’s wool has an excellent global reputation.
“If we build integrity around the quality and traceability of the New Zealand fibre, then any other new entrants coming in will want to emulate whoever is deploying the initial project – to replicate it, or do it even better.
“You’ll know yourself that when competitors take you on, it helps you raise the bar, improve your standards. And it’s providing consumers with choice,” Andy said.
SWAG is working towards having a suitable partner, or partners, on board by the end of the year.
“You won’t necessarily see products in the market [by then] but we want to see the project or projects have been adopted and incorporated into the business strategy of a company and that there is clear intent that it’s going to be initiated soon,” Andy said.
While SWAG has government funding through until the end of December, another vital role is identifying an industry structure that can provide the continuity with the work already underway.
“There has been a lot of discussion and positive energy…it was never going to be a hard stop for SWAG but a transition into an entity, or perhaps a number of entities, that will continue the work we’ve initiated.”
The shape of that entity/entities will be influenced by efforts to bolster onshore activities required to make the strong wool fibres suitable for the projects to be pursued. SWAG has commissioned Scott Champion and KelvinWhall of strategy and capability building experts Primary Purpose to investigate training and education initiatives, as well as what data, statistics and research & development is needed going forward to underpin the opportunities identified.