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Grin Natural is a Kiwi oral care brand taking export markets by storm, and for its GM Tara Tan its success is the result of a well-considered strategy and a total team effort.

At the 2019 Air New Zealand Cargo ExportNZ Awards in June, a New Zealand brand marketing 100 percent natural toothbrushes and eco-friendly oral care essentials came out of almost nowhere to win the DHL Best Emerging Business (for Goods Exports).

Judges commented that a cornerstone of Grin Natural’s strategy was understanding that to succeed in the highly competitive oral healthcare market with an innovative new premium natural product, you needed to begin with consumer education and a cost-effective sales channel.

This has indeed been the approach taken by Grin.

Since launching in 2015 and introducing its biodegradable toothbrushes to the market in March 2017, Grin has exceeded expectations – and sold more than 1.4 million toothbrushes.

For Tara Tan, the company’s co-founder and GM, the award recognition and sales success is the direct result of hard work and a focused strategy – making the most of opportunities when they present themselves and any support that’s offered.

Having moved from China to New Zealand with her parents, Tara remembers her family not knowing much about oral health – as a youngster she suffered from bad teeth and the social stigma that came with it. This led her to become passionate about helping educate parents on oral health to ensure their children didn’t suffer as she had.

Later on, Tara was also drawn to businesses and inspired by leaders who aren’t afraid to break the norm and shake up their respective industries.

“After learning about how good oral hygiene can positively impact a person’s overall health, I also wanted to do something which made a difference to the lives of others, that’s why I’m so passionate about this industry.”

Grin has had to compete with multinationals to gain market access, and it has not been easy.

“Multinationals are tough to compete with because they can quickly develop new products, launch them in-market through well established distribution channels, and support their launches with large-scale campaigns,” explains Tara.

“But we can be more nimble at a local level, especially in categories that are expanding due to consumer demand, and where there are opportunities in niche segments.”

Grin is now a partner of the Alibaba Group. Tara remembers meeting Piers, the director of Alibaba New Zealand at an overseas trade show. “He was quite taken with our story and excited by the change that we were bringing to the market, not just in New Zealand, but globally.

“He then introduced us to their business development team, and from there our relationship grew. We are so privileged to have been given the opportunity of working with Alibaba as they are one of the inspiring brands we look to and can learn so much from,” says Tara.


Strategy and lessons

For now Grin is focusing its export plans on China and, more recently, Australia.

In terms of strategy, Tara says their research showed that if they could make their brand successful online first, it would significantly increase their offline success rate.

“For this reason, our strategy combines both online and distributor models. With online, we can clearly communicate our USP, establish our price points for the market, build our brand equity and reputation, and have the ability to respond to consumer feedback at a smaller scale.

“This then allowed our distributor to present a stronger case to retailers – who now already understood Grin’s value proposition and didn’t require the same level of education.”

Tara says they learnt early on how to look for opportunities and test their hypotheses.

“When looking for opportunities, we only look at where Grin can add value. When assessing which partners to work with, we look for opportunities where the market leader has a gap in their product offering – most importantly, a gap which matters to consumers.

“There’s no use going head to head with a market leader if all we’re offering is parity.”

A Grin team member also spends time on the ground in-market to pressure-test their hypotheses.

“We do this by talking to retailers, customers, and potential distributor partners in that market to validate if the perceived gap is genuine,” explains Tara. “If the pain points are important enough to the customer, and if Grin can truly close the gap.”

So, looking back to Grin’s beginnings, would Tara do anything differently with the benefit of hindsight?

“In our first couple of years, I was too set on determining what success and failure looked like for our people,” she says. The problem with this is that it leaves no room for creative thinking and it limits people’s growth potential.

“We face new challenges every day, and we can’t expect people to know everything. When we embrace people’s perceived failures and allow them to learn from their mistakes, we can accelerate their growth and the growth of our brand follows soon after.

“It’s the same when managing retailer channel and business partner relationships. Some partners are good to work with from the outset. Others need more direction. Our ability to build a solid and sustainable business relies heavily on how we coach and guide our key partners.”


Export assistance

Since entering into the China and Australian markets, Tara says Grin has been supported by the likes of NZTE, Callaghan Innovation, ExportNZ and EMA – as well as individual business leaders in various industries.

“They’ve shared their export knowledge, data insights, previous mistakes – all of which are hugely valuable in helping us in our decision making and planning. 

“One of the things I love about New Zealand is that it has quite a tight business community and if you reach out and ask, there are always people willing to help.

“For us, we are excited to help promote and showcase what New Zealand companies can achieve and help define New Zealand as not only a market which produces high-end primary goods but one that produces premium finished goods for the world to enjoy too.”

This story was first published in the December 2019 issue of NZBusiness.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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