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Sweet Connexions founder Carl Richardson on how confectionery clients can enter new markets
Carl Richardson. You have over 20 years’ experience in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods sector. Tell us about that; what’s your background?
I began my career in FMCG in the summer of ’95 so it’s my 25-year anniversary – yay! I joined a fledgling business called Mr. Lucky Bags as Export Manager. We re-invented a product which held fond memories of childhood for many people, the Lucky Bag.
Were they the sort of pick-and-mix sweets? With a toy in the bag too?
They were. And I left a safe, secure job working for the Department of Trade and Industry to work on that. I did question my judgement one night, when I came home in a bright yellow van, with a picture on the side – of a turtle wearing an eye patch straddling a rocket!
I think I recall that! The turtle wearing an eye patch, I mean; not you coming home in a van… It was the right decision, though?
It was in the end; 100%. Retailers couldn’t get enough of those bags and it was a great feeling when Woolworths, Tesco, Morrisons and many more actually called! Eventually, my role expanded to selected domestic customers and all marketing activities, including licensing. I looked after some great licenses and made some great connections.
How long were you there?
Until 2009. Then I joined one of the UK’s leading producers of licensed confectionery, Kinnerton. My role was to develop a new, all-encompassing brand for licensed sugar confectionery called The Great Character Candy Company. The Kids Character Surprise Eggs on shelves in Tesco, Asda and other grocery retailers remains one of their best-selling lines.
And when then, specifically, did you get into licensing product? And why?
It was either in 1997 or ’98. We needed something to offer which was a step above our own brand, something with high levels of awareness which kids and parents would know. We bought Cartoon Network and had access to characters with heritage like Wacky Races and Tom & Jerry. There were newer shows, too; crazy ones like Dexters Laboratory and Cow and Chicken!
I recommended we look at Nickelodeon as a natural progression. It was a case of “own it then” and my licensing journey began. It wasn’t all sweetness and light – pun not intended! I did a couple of bad deals, but who hasn’t? I became more and more engaged with licensing over time and by also keeping my role active on direct sales to retailers, I gained a good overall knowledge of both elements.
Great answers. So now you’re the founder of Sweet Connexion which aims to, “…improve performance and add value at all times.” In what ways? What kind of activities and services do you execute and offer?
It’s a pretty grand statement I guess – but true… Without improvement, what’s the point? The added-value part is also self-explanatory. Given my clients are small- to medium-sized businesses, the added value is a crucial factor. There’s no budgets half the time, there’s little marketing spend. It’s like being the manager of a non-league football club trying to get promotion to the Premier League. That said, we don’t half make some amazing achievements together.
You’re not limited to confectionery though are you?
No. My business contains the word “Sweet” but I’m proud to have delivered some really worthwhile licensing deals from clients from Swizzels Candles to Tango Freeze Pops. I’ve helped my clients not only in licensing, but also many other business disciplines. They include finding new customers, developing new products, managing sales, managing projects and improving operationally.
Can you tell us about a couple of projects that exemplify your work?
In 2012, Rose Marketing UK employed me as cover. The MD was off to France to get married. I was to hold the fort until he came back from his honeymoon. Fast forward nine years, and Rose remains as a valued client for Sweet Connexion – and no… He didn’t spend nine years on honeymoon!
Well, I was going to ask… He would’ve been exhausted!
My contribution to Rose has grown and extended far beyond, ensuring continued success from retained licensing and key sales support. The business has experienced year-on-year growth for the last seven years, fuelled significantly by a tremendous licensed-product portfolio… It encompasses the very best in food and beverage brands.
And in terms of licensing activity?
There I’d say the deal I struck on behalf of RTC Direct for Swizzels brands ranks with some of the best deals I’ve been involved with. Initially for candles and then for selected air care…
Did you say air care?
I did! There are now room sprays with the sweet smell of – you guessed it – Swizzels Sweets. My office, I’m proud to say, is scented with the aroma of Parma Violets, Lemon Refreshers and Drumstick Squashies! Not all at once of course.
“My office is scented with the aroma of Lemon Refreshers and Drumstick Squashies!”
Brilliant. I don’t know how I could’ve missed that news! So as I understand it, the areas you feel help create profit break down into direct sales, marketing activities and developing new lines… For those that’ve never looked at a company like yours, how would you contextualise each of them?
Well… The three activities you mention are core to any successful business. However, they’re not to be viewed as the only routes to profit: there are, of course, many more. These three I feel I understand best.
Direct sales is easy to contextualise. It’s S.M.S. – Sell More Stuff. I’ve never been totally involved in a production-led business, so I don’t feel as qualified to comment on how that works. I’m going to upset a lot of people and use an old adage, though: “Production spends money and sales makes money!” It’s not quite as stark as that, particularly as one can’t exist without the other. However, successful selling is the driver for my clients, and that won’t change.
I learned, very early on, that the type of businesses I support are ‘selling companies’. So I work hard to ensure I stay current with decision-making contacts from numerous market sectors. I actively sell on each client’s behalf and I look after some diverse customers – from Iceland Foods to Hamleys Toys. Every retailer is different, every relationship is different – it’s what makes for an interesting life.
Marketing for me is pitched much more towards the “doing” as opposed to the theory. I’m involved in many aspects of marketing, such as brand creation and builds, key market signalling, market-gap analysis, licensing activities – both in and out – trade PR, drafting press releases, social-media content, industry-award entries and so on. Suffice to say, it’s a long way from chalk and talk.
Chalk and talk! Great phrase!
Finally, product development is intrinsic to the other two. I help the smaller boats navigate the seas. What I’m getting at here is the ability to move more quickly, to run through the gap, not squeeze through it. It’s so satisfying to see products you’ve had a hand in creating reach the shelves.
Are there any brands that you look at and think, “They’d be terrific partners! We should work together!”?
For sure, yes there are. I’m currently working on one but not allowed to say more than that. Others do tend to be within the food-and-drink environment which is an area of brand licensing definitely on the increase… Some edgy new initial disrupters like BrewDog, perhaps? I’d still like to do something with a Fisherman’s Friend. That sounds really bad, doesn’t it?
“I’d still like to do something with a Fisherman’s Friend. That sounds really bad, doesn’t it?”
Depends on the friend! We need to start wrapping this up, Carl, but I’m curious: which one piece of advice would you give someone who’s working in this area for the first time?
Focus clearly on your client’s needs, remember you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
And what’s next for you?
When I started this business, I thought I’d be more transient: moving from project to project, client to client, one door closes another opens type of thing.
Like the Littlest Hobo!
Well, there’s been some of that – but, on balance, most clients tend to want to keep me for longer, which is great. I’m currently involved in some exciting projects, and I work with some lovely people.
Finally, then, what’s the one question I should’ve asked in this conversation that I didn’t ask?
Why did it go wrong for you in Hollywood?
No! Ha! You should ask, “What keeps you motivated?”
Oh my word! I thought you were serious! Rats! Alright… So, Carl: what keeps you motivated?
Family, not taking life too seriously and “making it happen” – whatever “it” may be.
Brilliant. Carl, thank you so much. I’m off to scent the office with Parma Violets! Thanks again for your time.
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