Big Interview: Posting the 3M message

Awareness of the 3M brand is pretty much unrivalled in the business supplies sector. But while the ubiquitous Post-it note is just a tiny cog in the overall 3M wheel, it serves as a good example of what phenomenal branding, continuous innovation and a

Say 3M, think Post-it notes – arguably no other brand in this industry is as synonymous with the company that makes it. And that’s astonishing given the broad product portfolio that 3M has in five very diverse business segments and the fact that its flagship product only hit the market in 1980 – 78 years after the company was founded.

OPI’s Heike Dieckmann speaks to Jürgen Vent, Business Director West Europe of 3M’s Consumer Business Group about the enduring appeal of a small, bright-yellow sticky note and how this and many other 3M brands hold up against evolving micro and macro industry dynamics as well as changing customer behaviour and demands.

Being transparent and consistent throughout the entire organisation – from a geographic as well as product point of view – is vital, says Vent.

OPI: I wouldn’t typically begin with talking about a product, but it’s hard not to when you’re dealing with something as iconic as the Post-it note. Everybody always talks about the decline in paper usage as a result of digitisation – does that apply to Post-it notes as well?

Jürgen Vent: Not from what we’re seeing. Certainly in my market of Western Europe, sales of Post-its have increased over the past three years. What you have to bear in mind, however, is that the product and – very importantly – the use of the product, has evolved hugely over time.

Ten years ago, for example, these notes were used to communicate. People left messages for others on Post-it notes – it was a means of communication. Then they realised – and this is where digitisation comes in – that there are other ways to communicate much faster and much better.

Today, and this is backed up by our consumer research, people are using notes to remind themselves of what needs to be done. According to a study, writing down something by hand increases your chance of remembering it by 42%. People are so busy now in their work and personal lives that they feel a greater need to remind themselves about all sorts of tasks, jobs as well as goals.

Secondly – and this is another big trend that we’re seeing in our research – people are collaborating a lot more. They meet spontaneously and they want to have an easy solution to brainstorm and to exchange ideas.

OPI: When I hear the word collaboration I’m thinking of interactive whiteboards, easels and flipcharts. You are still talking about a little paper sticky note, is that right?

JV: 3M’s portfolio of solutions offers a real opportunity for sales growth to our distributors if they want to tap into this megatrend. There’s massive potential in this segment and the Post-it brand has a range of collaboration solutions to meet needs in the market.

We have big meeting notes, meaning larger versions of the original Post-it SuperSticky notes that can be stuck to any vertical surface, and so on. But we also have meeting charts in various sizes that are based on Post-it technology. There are plenty more products in this area – and many more in development – that are tapping into the collaboration trend. You can also combine these with a note app, thereby sharing information digitally.

OPI: I believe you’re something of a ‘3M lifer’ and have seen many of these developments?

JV: You could say that! I started at 3M in 1989, so I’m in my 28th year now. I worked in a number of 3M divisions over the years, including the automotive sector, before moving across to office products in the Consumer Business Group in Western Europe.

My work in this unit has been quite varied and I was on assignments all over Europe before becoming permanently based here at 3M Germany’s headquarters in Neuss. I was working in a number of functions for three years before I started my Six Sigma training and became a certified Six Sigma Black Belt for two years in Germany.

Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for process improvement which Jack Welch, for example, made central to his business strategy at General Electric. When you do your Six Sigma Black Belt you are taken out of the everyday business and spend two years purely on project work. The idea is to improve the processes within the company, whether that be selling, marketing or any other business practices.

When I finished that assignment in 2005, I became the country business leader for the consumer and office business in Germany. Since 2015, I’ve been heading up the total Consumer group in Europe as Business Director West Europe.

OPI: What’s your definition of Western Europe?

JV: It’s eight regions within Western Europe: the Nordic region, comprising Scandinavia and Finland; the UK and Ireland; Benelux; Germany, Austria and Switzerland under the DACH umbrella; France; Iberia; Italy; and Greece.

OPI: And what are your core responsibilities in your current role?

JV: The Consumer group’s entire business development. We have a matrix type of organisation whereby our staff are organised in a subsidiary environment as well as in a business environment.

My job includes driving our product portfolios, setting prices, developing sales and marketing activities, overseeing product development, etc.

OPI: Please tell me a bit about your specific Consumer group that you’re responsible for. 

JV: There are four divisions in this group which has total global revenues of $4.4 billion – that’s out of $30.1 billion for the whole of 3M.

The first one is the Stationery and Office Supplies division where you will find the classic products for the office market, like Post-it notes and Scotch tape. Then we have the Construction and Home Improvement division which comprises products related to DIY. You would typically find them in home centres, rather than in an office, although there’s an overlap.

The third division is our Home Care segment, which revolves around Scotch-Brite cleaning products in the home environment. Lastly, we have the Consumer Healthcare division – these are over-the-counter products that we are selling into either pharmacies and drug stores, like plasters, bandages and so on.

How we’re organised in Western Europe pretty much mirrors the structure in the rest of the world in terms of broad company set-up.

OPI: Which of these divisions are selling into the office channel? 

JV: Well, the Stationery and Office Supplies division, as the name suggests, is aimed completely at the office channel, while the others are less specific, but certainly overlap into that target audience.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Scotch-Brite cleaning products from our Home Care division, for example, are now really moving into OP catalogues because of the resellers’ focus on jan/san as an adjacent category.

So the boundaries are blurring and this will only accelerate over time. What’s important for our distribution partners, however, is that our set-up is the same wherever there’s a 3M subsidiary. That works well for our transnational accounts and working with resellers like Staples, Office Depot or Lyreco, for example. If they open a subsidiary in any market, they know they can get exactly the same product from us.

OPI: What are your are best performing markets for the office channel, geographically-speaking? 

JV: Well, the biggest market is North America. China and Asia Pacific are important growth areas.

Western Europe is big in terms of overall size and has been slightly growing recently, after a pretty steady decline in the previous six or seven years. We refocused on a couple of things and reinvented the wheel a bit with some products and we are now back into growth mode. Western Europe is the third largest region for the Consumer group, after North America and Asia Pacific.

OPI: What can you do to minimise and counteract declining sales in the stationery and OP division? 

JV: I’m a very strong believer in category management. I think 3M was one of the first companies in Europe that took category management from the retail arena and applied it to channel tools like catalogues and increasingly now also websites.

What we do is we really customise the principle of category management. This means we develop a portfolio of products either on a shelf in a retail shop, in a catalogue or on a website. It has to meet the needs of consumers – whether it’s a home user or a white collar worker – and allow them to find the right product, of the right quality, at the right time and for the right price.

It’s important to offer products for all price points, not just the cheapest or most expensive. In fact, even price lists should be created through category management, rather than in alphabetical order or by brand. One of the benefits of proper category management is that it results in better margins and higher growth rates for everybody in the chain.

OPI: And a fuller basket?

JV: Absolutely, because you are able to fulfil customers’ entire demands rather than just a portion of it. To find out what these demands are you need to do is what we call shopper marketing. So you have consumers and you have shoppers – two very different things, certainly in the B2B market. The consumer is the user of the product while the shopper is the chooser.

If you go into the office of a medium or large company, the user of the Post-it note is almost certainly not the one who is ordering it, ie the shopper. As a company and in collaboration with our reseller partners, we need to satisfy the needs of all end consumers – the user, who might want a specific size of Post-it note, or a certain colour, and the shopper, who will have very different demands and think more about multipacks and price.

On the other hand, if you have a SOHO or small business customer, the user and the shopper are likely to be the same person. By having all that information to hand, we can build portfolios around different demands – category management at its best.

We centralised all our marketing functions in Western Europe about a year ago. Now we’re driving all product launches and our entire portfolio out of this central organisation to all countries in the region. It makes it much easier for our channel partners to work with us.

As you can imagine, we partner with a wide range of companies in the office channel. Some are the large transnational companies such as Lyreco, Staples and Office Depot and then we work with the wholesalers which address the smaller dealers. We also have the bigger national operators like Printus and OTTO Office in Germany or JM Bruneau in France. And, of course, we have a presence on Amazon, on the B2B as well as the B2C side, as well as other B2B marketplaces such as Mercateo.

OPI: Amazon Business only launched in Germany last December, so I presume it’s early days for that? 

JV: It is very early. Amazon B2C has a very high consumer penentration. With their Business platform they want to target commercial end-users in small and medium-sized companies offering their full portfolio.

OPI: You also mention Staples and Office Depot. What are your thoughts on them leaving Europe?

JV: After the consolidation process that we’ve seen over the years with so many companies being bought in Europe – Buhrmann, Guilbert and all the others – it’s interesting that these two global companies are now drawing back from Europe.

When the mergers happened years ago, it had a minimal impact on us, apart from short-term warehouse consolidation. And strategically, we don’t expect much of an impact now. What I believe will happen with Staples and Depot is that there will be more centralisation in their organisations which is something I see occurring elsewhere as well.

Like I said, it’s already happened at 3M. Our customers – say ADVEO as an example – are telling us that they want to drive more and more from their central organisation and also deal with us from a more central perspective.

OPI: To finish up, what’s your view of the industry as a whole right now?

JV: It’s an exciting time right now. If you go back about ten years, it was all a bit quiet. Yes, we had some consolidation on the reseller side, but all in all it was pretty settled.

What we have now is a totally different dynamic. And that is because requirements have changed and much of it has to do with technology. Everything is faster and the entire industry is finding ways to cross the bridge to the digital world. It’s exciting and we see a lot of opportunities to generate profitable growth together with our channel partners.