Awards case study: How Breaking Blue helped boost Ahlstrom’s teabag profitability

Find out how Breaking Blue helped Ahlstrom boost profitability and instil a strong sense of purpose and strategic direction 

Summary

Ahlstrom came to Breaking Blue in 2012 as sales were not meeting expectations in its significant teabag material business. Insight was needed to support the organisation in creating a strategic plan for business growth.

The core insight programme involved voice of the customer (VoC) research – a semi-structured telephone survey among 60 teabag paper buyers, as well as interviews with leading tea packing machine manufacturers.

The insight helped inform a detailed action plan comprising short, mid and long-term actions enabling Ahlstrom to close the gap on the competition, re-establish customer relationships and establish a lead in the market. Ahlstrom adopted an integrated marketing campaign based on the concept of ‘we see tea differently’, far more customer-focused than anything Ahlstrom had produced before in the tea business. The marketing efforts culminated in the advertising campaign ‘The future is brewing’, built around three core themes emerging from the customer insight: sustainability now, portfolio breadth and service commitment.

Today, the teabag business offers a contrast to that of 2012: increased profitability, with solid leadership and customer-focused employees with a strong sense of purpose and strategic direction.

About the client company

Ahlstrom is a high-performance fibre-based materials company. Its materials are used in everyday applications such as coffee and tea filters, medical fabrics, life science and diagnostics, wallcoverings and food packaging. It employs over 3000 staff across 22 countries, with net sales of €1.1 billion in 2015.

Strategy – broader business issues the company is facing

In 2012 Ahlstrom’s sales were not meeting expectations in its significant teabag material business:

  • Customer complaints and product returns were on the increase.
  • Its new, sustainable product was not fulfilling expectations.
  • As the tea market was growing, the competitor set was increasingly global and the pressure intense.
  • The business wasn’t reaching profitability goals.

Objectives of the campaign

Insight was needed to support Ahlstrom in creating a strategic plan for transforming the teabag business. Specific objectives were to:

  • Understand how Ahlstrom is perceived by customers.
  • Determine what customers want from their relationship with their supplier (Ahlstrom or others).
  • Identify key points for improvement to best meet customer needs and grow Ahlstrom revenues.

Target audience

Research participants included Ahlstrom’s own customers in the global teabag manufacturing market, as well as lapsed customers and prospects. Manufacturers ranged from large multinationals such as Unilever through to small independents.

Interviews were conducted across 25 countries.

Media, channels or techniques used

Customer insight approach

The insight programme involved VoC research – a semi-structured telephone survey among 60 teabag paper buyers. Discussions covered: drivers in vendor selection; satisfaction with Ahlstrom, perceived strengths and weaknesses of the Ahlstrom brand, products and services versus key competitors; areas for improvement and future needs. Breaking Blue also conducted machine manufacturers’ research – with customers saying they take advice from their machine manufacturer with regards to brand and specification of teabag paper – it was critical to acquire their perceptions.

Breaking Blue and Ahlstrom met in a series of workshops to deliver the results of the research and our recommendations and to develop a detailed action plan comprising short, mid and long-term actions addressing each of Ahlstrom’s objectives and enabling Ahlstrom to close the gap on the competition, re-establish customer relationships and establish a lead in the market.

Follow-up marketing approach

Ahlstrom adopted an integrated marketing campaign based on the concept of ‘we see tea differently’. It used a range of tools, including offline (brochure, posters, sample books, trade shows) and online (movie, digital campaign, website) components. The marketing efforts culminated in the advertising campaign ‘The future is brewing’.

Ahlstrom Tea Bag Materials

The overall campaign was far more customer-focused than anything Ahlstrom had produced before for the tea business. It focused around three key themes which emerged from customer research: ‘sustainability now’ – a clear finding from the research was that the market was hungry for sustainable products they could use and sell further down the value chain, ‘portfolio breadth’ – customers said they wanted clarity on the range of products on offer, and ‘service commitment’ – the customer research challenged how Ahlstrom had been relating to some of its customers and a recommendation was to build a customer service model focused on needs and greater partnership working.

Timescales of the campaign

The main customer research programme took place between March and September 2012, with follow-up work in September 2013. Over the course of 2014 and 2015 Ahlstrom implemented a strategic marketing campaign, culminating in the ‘future is brewing’ work produced in later 2015.

Budgets

The total value of the customer insight work between 2012 and 2013 was approximately €100,000.

Results

Breaking Blue provided recommendations which Ahlstrom has adopted as part of its ongoing customer service delivery and marketing efforts in its tea bag business:

  • Short-term recommendations focused on rapidly restructuring sales teams to establish a firm foundation on which to rebuild the relationship. By the end of 2012, plants which had been facing disappointing sales volume were at capacity and Ahlstrom’s market share increased.
  • The mid-term goal was to establish peer-to-peer relationships with customers. To move from meeting customer needs, to delighting customers and becoming the vendor of choice. To achieve this objective Ahlstrom put emphasis on continuing the focus on service and getting closer to customers to understand how to drive value within that relationship. Other actions include continuous training programmes for the sales force in interviewing techniques and market knowledge to enrich customer visits. This customer closeness programme continues today.
  • The long-term objective was to establish Ahlstrom as a thought leader in tea through disruptive product solutions. The insight fed directly into the transformation of Ahlstrom’s tea materials communication. Ahlstrom has refocused its communications on the importance of the tea bag material in delivering an optimal result in the cup versus focusing on functional specifications of its product. Its latest BioWeb® product is leading the charge in that domain.

The teabag business has seen considerable growth in market share, contributing to the division’s twelfth quarter of profitability improvement in a row.

Ahlstrom has embraced the importance of putting the customer at the centre of the business. The company is now closer to customers and at the heart of the industry and its innovation, as reflected in its position on the board of governors of Edana, the international association for the nonwovens and related industries.

Client testimonial

Brian Oost, VP food and beverage at Ahlstrom, said“The study shed light on the crucial need for improved customer focus. We now put more emphasis into visiting customers and truly understanding their needs. The study also confirmed that the various machines customers use determine most of the characteristics the tea bag material needs to help our customers win. Therefore, we developed strong relationships with machine builders, ensuring an efficient convertibility of Ahlstrom materials on every tea packing machine available in the market.

"Following the study we optimised our product portfolio to include high efficiency products, and today we are very proud to be able to state that Ahlstrom has the most complete product portfolio in the market. Ahlstrom is now leading the market with a big focus on sustainability.”

B2B Marketing Awards 2016

This case study was submitted as part of the judging process for the B2B Marketing Awards 2016. It was shortlisted under Best use of customer insight: ‘Transforming Ahlstrom's global teabag business’ for Ahlstrom by Breaking Blue.

See the shortlist