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Tension at the Interface

Written by Dennis Abbeduto, Personal Care Business Manager, Colonial Chemical, Inc

“I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all”


– Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”

“I’ve looked at sales from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s sale’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know sales at all”
With sincere apologies to Joni

I’ve been working with surfactants for *mumble* years now and have spent many hours studying the interfacial tension between water and surfaces. But today I’m going to opine for a bit about a different interfacial tension, one that we all are likely to experience; the interfacial tension between a formulation chemist and a salesperson. When navigated successfully, this relationship can benefit everyone involved. When unsuccessful, disaster awaits. I’ve had enough hits and misses on both sides now that I would hope that I can offer some useful information here.

On the side of the formulator

we have an individual who is eager to create innovative and commercially successful products on shoestring budgets and compressed timelines. Partners beneficial to the formulator (I’m talking to you, salespeople!) are easy to contact, can provide useful technical guidance, and are powerful advocates on behalf of the formulator.

Timely guidance is key, as many formulators have just a few months to proceed from concept to commercially scaled product. As there is an endless desire to create new product forms, meet a continuously shifting claims landscape, and satisfy an increasingly chemophobic consumer, the formulation techniques of even a decade ago are now irrelevant. New chemistry requires new formulation approaches and that means more technical support than ever before.

In Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail, he outlines the effect of the limitless marketplace we are now faced with. The proliferation of brands has resulted in more and more brands occupying the long tail, each with a slightly smaller share of the marketplace, but collectively occupying a larger and larger share of the overall market. Suppliers ignoring the long tail do so at their peril, and formulators in the long tail must work hard to gain what attention they have. They desperately need salespeople who will act as their advocates, willing to treat them as if they were a “key account”. Quite often what constitutes success for those occupying the long tail looks a lot different than it does for their suppliers.

On the other side, we have the salesperson

who shares in every success and failure along the way, continuously pulled in a nearly limitless number of directions, struggling to serve their customers as well as they can. For their part, partners beneficial to the salesperson (I’m talking to you, formulators!) can clearly outline project expectations, including as much detail about the brand positioning, what a successful solution looks like, volume potential, and target price as possible.

Making every touch point valuable to both parties involves transparency and openness on both sides.

When formulators communicate clear product expectations, they shorten the amount of time the supplier will take to get to the right answer. Outlining brand positioning helps suppliers determine which technologies will be useful to introduce and which products will need to be avoided. That includes things like required NGO certifications, retailer guidelines which may need to be followed, corporate “no” lists, and other expectations for performance, sustainability, etc. As the number of potential guardrails increases, the formulator must also be prepared to accept that the “perfect” product may not exist (yet!). Communicating project changes along the way also helps salespeople adjust accordingly.

Formulators occupying the long tail also need to acknowledge that success looks different for many suppliers and look for commercial partners who will support their version of success. Residents of the long tail must likewise accept that minimum order quantities and lead times will be in play and plan accordingly. Communicating volume potential and target price up front will prevent surprises on both sides and ensure that the formulator’s project gets the attention it deserves. Quite often only minor trade-offs are needed for a formulator to use a product with lower costs, shorter lead times, and smaller minimums. Formulators open to those trade-offs will find they have the largest toolbox to work with.

Let’s be brutally honest here:

  • Formulators are looking for magic bullets made just for them that result in unique formulations at the lowest cost and highest performance possible.
  • Salespeople are looking to sell off-the-shelf products in large quantities at maximum profit.

There is space in between for everyone to work together, but we all need to be honest about the commercial realities. There are no magic bullets and no hens laying golden eggs. But there is still plenty of room for commercial success when both sides work collaboratively toward mutually beneficial goals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dennis Abbeduto has over 20 years surfactant and formulation chemistry experience and currently works for Colonial Chemical, Inc in Southeast Tennessee as Personal Care Business Manager. He has also served as Product Applications Manager at Colonial Chemical.

Prior to his time at Colonial, he worked for Alberto-Culver Co in Chicago, Illinois on skin care technology and as a formulation chemist for the St. Ives and Noxzema brands. Dennis also worked for McIntyre Group, Ltd in University Park, Illinois as an R&D synthesis, applications, and claims chemist. He has a BS in chemistry from Governors State University in University Park, Illinois.