Unblocking the Magic: Buster - From Challenger to Leader

Unblocking the Magic: How Insight Propelled Buster from Challenger to Leader

The challenge

At the start of our story, our client’s brand – Buster – was a challenger in the plughole unblocker category, competing against the global might of Reckitt Benckiser and S.C. Johnson. Their highly ambitious business objective was to become market leader. In the past two years they’ve reached this goal – but back then there were two major challenges:

  • As a small, family-run brand with limited marketing and research budgets, leadership was a tough call
  • In a low engagement, reactive category it’s been a huge challenge to disrupt consumers out of habitual purchasing behaviour and to look beyond the big players

Over seven years, we’ve run multiple qualitative projects for Challs helping them reach this goal

How Folk Research helped get them there in three key stages


1. Deep consumer understanding via ‘disruptive ethnography’

To stand any chance against the marketing clout of the likes Mr Muscle, we faced two further challenges. 

  • Firstly, we needed a much more profound understanding of the consumer’s current relationship with their plugholes.
  • Secondly, we needed to change the way they engaged with the whole category and specifically disrupt their default position of grabbing the big brand’.

Disruptive ethnography was the cornerstone of the first phase. We deliberately set out to challenge the consumer’s understandable visceral revulsion. Bit by bit we took them deeper down the plughole, both literally and metaphorically

We helped them unburden themselves about how they mistreated their plugholes, got them to draw what they imagined existed ‘down below’, asked them to give this ‘zone’ a voice and to express its emotions though abstract drawings. We had them confess their fears and loathings to a few of their friends we brought round, so we could compare and contrast these in a safe environment. 

Together we looked down, poked into and sniffed their plugholes and got them to give us a commentary on what they found down there. It was dirty work but somebody had to do it!  And it paid huge dividends in the richness of understanding we gained. Not least in the psychological links between the links between the rotting hair, skin and nail clippings and their own intimations of mortality.


2. Positioning overhaul

Using insights from the ethnography we worked collaboratively with Challs to completely revamp positionings for all products in the range. We also helped them innovate and were integral to devising brand strategy and guiding execution of their new Preventer product. We worked with stakeholders at all levels of the business from R&D to senior management to develop and embed this strategy.

It would be very easy to exploit deeply held human fear and revulsion of the plughole by dramatizing what ‘lies beneath’ and shaming the consumer into action. This is exactly what the competition does – and what has perpetuated a strongly ‘problem / solution’ category identity, keeping the consumer at a comfortable arm’s length from the issue – until forced to confront it.

We have helped Challs carve out a much more sensitive – yet powerful – brand narrative. Our strategy has been to form an alliance with the consumer, becoming a trusted partner in managing plughole problems – ultimately putting the consumer in control.


3. Continuous refinement of brand assets using qual groups + semiotic analysis

This phase diligently and meticulously worked through all the brand assets to align them with the strategy.

A cornerstone of this was a great deal of detailed exploration of every element of all pack visuals and description. Lacking big budgets meant every tiny aspect of brand presentation needed to work as hard as possible.

Quantitative approaches could have told us which combination of elements was liked best say on a given pack.  But it would never have helped us understand how each product or pack could play a role in gradually shifting consumer perceptions over time. So we developed a kind of simplified qualitative conjoint approach.  Showing multiple versions of different combinations of elements and analysing both Type 1 and Type 2 responses, to understand the best possible role each part of the portfolio could play at each point in the brand’s development.

Insights generated significant pack design changes and a new TV ad. The pack design changes disrupted the category by focusing on different needs in different parts of the house. The ad dramatised how we use and abuse our sinks in order to change perceptions: it challenged consumers to start caring more for this generally ignored area.


The impact: market growth and brand leadership

Over time we have seen this strategy bear fruit. Dramatic category growth – influenced by the Sanitizer and Preventer ranges as well as buy-in to the need for separate kitchen and bathroom unblockers – is proof of a more engaged audience, taking more action to manage their plugholes. The successful launch of the Block Preventer in 2017 was perfectly timed to respond to a more engaged audience, ready to tackle the issue head on.

Our research has helped this small independent brand push past the global might of S. C Johnson and Reckitt Benckiser to become the market leading plughole unblocker, growing 20% YOY (vs. 4% for Mr Muscle). We’ve also helped them innovate to grow the category, which has expanded 50% in the past 5 years. It has now knocked Mr Muscle off the top spot to become the market leading plughole specialist brand in both volume and value terms. Buster is now the top-selling unblocker brand in grocery.

Gradually and incrementally, we have worked to establish Buster in the consumer’s mind as the ‘plughole expert’ – a title we’ve heard played back to us in many a focus group.