Gorilla Marketing: 10 Lessons from the Amazing Success of Gorilla Glue
In 1999, when the Lutz Tool Company, owned by the Ragland family, purchased a tiny adhesive business in California, the category they were entering was teeming with competition from well-known, big company brands as well as a wide range of smaller players. Akzo Nobel with Liquid Nails and Henkel with Loctite brand are large, global operations. Elmer’s is a household name with products like their eponymous white School Glue and Glue All. Pacer Technologies, though much smaller, was best-known for their invention of Super Glue. Many other competitors were present as well. Given all that, the adhesive category was a somewhat unlikely place in which to build a substantial business from scratch.
With its iconic branding, Gorilla Glue Inc. today is a $300+ million private company offering a range of adhesives, sealant and tape in 45 countries. While their achievement has been years in the making, it’s safe to say that Gorilla has achieved rare success by any measure…especially in light of the competitive scene that they chose to attack.
Gorilla’s long term success was down to smart moves and innovative ideas carried out over a long period of time. Credit to the Ragland family, Gorilla employees, and the agencies and partners that helped them along the way.
From the outside looking in, here are 10 things that might be learned from Gorilla’s success:
- Start with insight and a defined consumer problem. In the case of adhesives, different glues work well with different surfaces. Few work well for all surfaces. As a result, consumers sometimes struggle to know which product is right for their particular application. Gorilla took this problem on. In other businesses, I’ve found that it’s useful to periodically recheck the group’s understanding of consumer and customer needs and avoid locking in on a static position. Consider also how to ensure that a similar understanding is spread throughout your company: communicate and confirm understanding.
- Understand the competitive landscape. At the start for Gorilla, the adhesive category in the US was crowded, complicated for consumers, and retail shelves were filled with products that looked the same. That view no doubt informed their strategy, branding, and positioning.
- Deliver a solution that addresses the need in a unique way. Gorilla’s strategy was to offer a versatile product that worked well on a wide range of materials and to stand out with distinctive brand imagery. Think about that. How does that apply to your business? These questions might help sharpen the strategic aim:
- What need are we here to solve?
- How is that need being addressed now?
- Why would a consumer buy what we’re offering instead of something else?
- Why would retailers/distributors add our solution instead of or in addition to existing competitors?
- Strive to simplify. Gorilla Glue, their initial product, is a polyurethane glue that adheres well to multiple surfaces. As a result, it addressed a glaring consumer need and made the consumer purchase decision that much easier. It also made the retailer decisions more straightforward as well. Instead of adding yet another SKU to an already crowded category, they were being invited to add an innovative solution that met a consumer need across a wide range of applications…with a single product. As such, retailers benefited from the simplicity of the product too. Recently, I met with a prospective client in the outdoor industry. They had 40 SKU’s spread over relatively small dollar sales, most of which were concentrated in their top 3 items. That complexity wasn’t helping their customers and it certainly wasn’t helping their revenue either. For process or product, I advocate a mantra “be as simple as possible as often as possible.” Simple isn’t always easy but it’s nearly always worth striving for.
- Implement truly distinctive marketing with a consistent voice…across all media from packaging, display, to advertising, and PR. Every piece of Gorilla’s (public) material fits within their brand imagery. While many companies use animals as part of their branding, Gorilla’s has been distinctive from the start…and consistently carried over the years. Those familiar with Gorilla would instantly recognize any product and any communication. Common sense, right? Easy to do? Maybe not. Why is that? Often, the brand marketers get tired of their work before consumers even fully recognize it. I recommend that clients find their voice and stick with it. For the long term. Branding expert David Taylor calls it “building memory structure” for consumers. And it takes time.
- Focus on the core…and build out from there. In its early years, Gorilla focused with a single product on a core area where the need was the greatest. Their marketing efforts were aimed at woodworkers, furniture hobbyists, and Do-It-Yourself enthusiasts. Once they built credibility among those core audiences, they begin to spread their voice more broadly…and by that time had an army of Gorilla Glue believers to help. Solidifying a core market is the foundation upon which a business can be built. It makes future revenue growth much easier and amplifies the impact of organizational effort through focus. Too often, companies allow themselves to get pulled apart chasing too many disparate market segments.
- Build meaning into the brand for consumers. Think of a brand. Now, write down what it means. Even better, ask a few friends. Did everyone get the same answer? Sure, advertising slogans might come to mind especially for brands with big budgets. Clarity, however, often isn’t as common. Gorilla’s positioning as “incredibly strong” was conveyed by their initial brand strapline, “the toughest glue on planet earth.” They reinforced that message at every opportunity. Ultimately, as they expanded the product line, their position evolved to “for the toughest jobs on planet earth.” The move was a sensible one from where they started and it fit their full range.
- Build in a win for retailers. Gorilla did it with profit. They had the audacity to come in at a higher price and then proved it at the shelf. I counsel people to be sure that their own view of the merits of their product/brand/business is directly translatable into tangible benefits for their intended customers and channel partners. In the process of new product development, it always pays to involve the opinions of customers early on. Ask questions like “why would you bring this product into your category?” and “why wouldn’t you add this?”
- Unless your core business is ailing, innovate in ways that relate to your core and will be distinctive in the marketplace. After the original glue, one of Gorilla’s first new products was Gorilla Tape – their take on duct tape. Duct tape is a gigantic category (good) and heavily commoditized with low price-driven entrants and store brands (bad). Gorilla Tape was launched with a unique, thick plastic with very strong adhesive…at a much higher price. They weren’t aiming to capture a slice of the commodity market. The move to tape made sense as it fit existing needs of Gorilla consumers and customers. In trying to build a business, it’s often much easier to sell more stuff to your existing customers and consumers than to achieve success with new stuff for new markets requiring new relationships. In sum, stick to the core…and understand it really well.
- Engage good people in your business. Get good people involved – inside and outside the company. Gorilla Glue Company has won multiple awards in the Cincinnati area for being an outstanding place to work. They’ve also fostered effective relationships with agencies and partners to produce distinctive, award-winning creative. While employee and partner engagement could be another large topic in itself, there are simple steps to consider in guiding these important relationships…
- Set the tone. At the start of relationships with new employees and partners at WD-40, I always said that my hope was that each of us would be able to look back and be proud of the work we did together. I believed that we would get there by challenging each other in respectful ways, learning from each other, and with each of us bringing our best to the table.
- Establish mutual expectations. Everyone comes into a relationship with expectations. Often, though, those expectations aren’t shared and agreed at the start. Define success for each party explicitly. Make time to do so.
- Review, recognize, and reward. Once you set the tone and establish mutual expectations, it only makes sense to follow up, right? While most projects and employee performance reviews call for formal measurement, I think it’s even better to monitor progress on the fly, share what’s working and what isn’t, and utilize simple rewards along the way.
While each situation is different, I believe we can learn from other analogous examples. I hope that the Gorilla case illuminates opportunities within your own business. Maybe your company can be the next gorilla in your industry. And I’d be happy to help.
Mike Irwin is an advisor, mentor, operator, and strategist. Drawing from his past as a startup co-founder/President, executive officer of a $1+ billion market cap company (WD-40), public company CFO, VP Marketing, global chief strategy officer, head of sales, and board member, Mike uses his diverse background to help companies grow sales, improve profitability, and scale up. He serves as an advisor, consultant, fractional or interim CEO/GM/MD, and on boards of directors. Follow him at BottleRocketAdvisors.com, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect on LinkedIn.
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