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The business of birth

A new-born baby
New-born babies present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some marketeers

By Philippa Busby and Sarah Treanor
BBC Business Unit

When it comes to the commerce surrounding birth, it's all about getting there first. And nowhere is that more in evidence than with a company called Bounty.

There's barely a new mother in the UK who won't have received a cheery bedside visit from the Bounty lady, pre- and post-natally.

THE BUSINESS OF LIFE

She strolls maternity wards with her free packs of samples, which are complemented with advice leaflets and child benefit forms.

It's a commercial role, and Bounty ladies are paid per packet they hand out. But Bounty's unparalleled access comes from the support of hospitals, which they justify perhaps by the social service Bounty provides.

It's a direct approach to marketing and offers brands the opportunity of a lifetime, with third party producers such as Pampers nappy maker Proctor and Gamble targeting only their most relevant customers.

The most recent figures for births show there were 708,711 in 2008. That's a lot of parents for companies to reach before their rivals get there first.

Bounty claims 96 per cent of all new mums in hospital are receptive and want to start a relationship with the Bounty "club".

A 1950s midwife with two babies
Bounty has worked with midwives for more than 50 years

Mothers are asked for their consent to share their details with brands so that they can be contacted again in the future with further product offers and vouchers.

New mothers we saw on the maternity ward at the Whittington Hospital in North London, seemed happy to receive a bag of goodies, and their valuable Child Benefit form, when the perky Bounty lady popped her head round the curtains of their cubicles.

This was sometimes just hours after they'd given birth. Handing out her bags, she would collect their valuable personal information - to be sent on to companies ranging from ASDA and Boots to producers of washing powder.

Alison Poole, Professional Relations Director at Bounty says "The access we achieve through providing relevant information means that we offer an opportunity for brands to put their brand in front of mum when perhaps it's the first time she might have seen it.

"To give mum a free sample to have a try with before she actually goes and buys is a fantastic opportunity for us."

When asked what value the brands put on the Bounty relationship she says "individually they come back to us year after year so we assume it's worthwhile, but I can't possibly put a monetary value on that".

Neil Saunders, from the retail analysts Verdict Research, says it's impossible to underestimate the marketing opportunity new parents bring.

Our top 25% of customers buy from us at least 10 times a year
Jojo Maman Bebe's Laura Tennyson

"A lot of the items they haven't bought before and they might not know where they are sold or much about the products, so you have to be visible. It's more than just a poster or an advert on television it's about connecting with them at the time they need those products."

For big retailers, such as John Lewis, that connection is established through a combination of sales and advice. At the bustling Oxford Street store, Rachel Wardell Selling Operations Manager, explained that parents are invited to have a two hour nursery advisory appointment.

These are used to talk parents through the baby products available and draw up a list of those they'd like to buy, and are worth about 800 pounds a time in terms of sales for the company.

"We have an opportunity to capture that customer in the early stages of pregnancy when we offer a bra fitting service to help customers choose the right bras for carrying their babies...

"The intimacy of the fitting room allows us to then to end the conversation, to end the fitting with an opportunity to introduce them to a brochure that outlines the nursery advice service and what we do and then we can make the appointment there and then or they can come back at a time that suits them".

"Nursery trade is very important to us, simply because it's one of our key ways of communicating to our customers and making them a customer for life," she explains.

Mother and baby in silhouette
New mothers are in the market for everything from nappies to nurseries

As Neil Saunders explains, the recurring theme is that to sell in the nursery industry customers need to feel they are part of a club. "It is a route to selling," he adds.

Some retailers offer their own clubs and online forums where parents can share advice and keep in touch with new products. Others' stores like to use the familial term to describe the relationship they hope to have with their customers.

It's a word used by the founder of the upmarket store Jojo Maman Bebe, Laura Tennyson: "Our top 25% of customers buy from us at least 10 times a year. So they almost feel like they are part of a club. When they start buying from us during their pregnancy they tend to keep on buying from us if they like the brand."

Tennyson also manages to tap into the need that new parents have for advice by targeted marketing on independent forums such as the influential website Mumsnet.

Neil Saunders says that online forums or clubs such as Mumsnet are something of a double-edged sword. "Companies almost run scared of them… a bad word on Mumsnet and you've lost the very customer you're trying to target. It's so powerful now, it's almost become a lobby group in itself."

With the birth rate going up in the past couple of years, and big grocery chains like Tesco planning to open a series of standalone baby stores to rival UK giant Mothercare, the business of birth is only going to get bigger.

And companies will have to respond with even more creative ways to deliver their message first.


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