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New General Market: Sundial’s Dennis emphasizes potential for needs-based innovation

It has been a long, but extremely successful, journey for Richelieu Dennis.

While unable to return to his homeland of Liberia because of a civil war that gripped the West African country after graduating from Babson College business school in the early 1990s, he saw an opportunity to provide skin and hair care products for a group of consumers who were underserved by the marketplace.

The result is Sundial Brands, a Long Island, N.Y.-based company that has truly taken the industry by storm, growing by strong double-digit rates over the years and making a deep impression on both retailers and consumers across the country.

“I think what we were doing back in 1992 was so foreign to everybody,” he told the audience at the New General Market Purpose-Driven Summit as he related how his college roommate and mother got the company off the ground by selling specialty soaps on the streets. “We spent many, many days listening to what consumers were missing and asking for, and then going back home and making it, and then bringing it back the next day and seeing their reaction. There is a particular sort of energy that you get from that when you see somebody appreciate you listening to them, and then giving them what it is that they ask for.”

That, he said, was the genesis of the company. “I can’t say that we set out and said here’s a strategy as to how we’re going to go do this,” he said. “It was more, ‘Here’s what we need to do and here’s the right way to do it.’”

Dennis said that the company was thinking out of the box from the get-go. He emphasized that Sundial went after a multicultural consumer who was most definitely being underserved, and learned what her needs were. “We needed to have a complete mind shift in order to really get at what was needed by that consumer. So that was the first thing that I think was very different in our approach in trying to come to market.” The second factor was offering natural products when it was not yet top-of-mind with consumers, and many shoppers simply did not understand the benefits of natural items.

“I don’t think that many people really understood natural products that actually deliver a benefit to the consumer from a performance and a functional perspective as opposed to from an ideological perspective of ‘I want better-for-you products,’” he said. “So, we had those two things that made it challenging for our retail partners to understand the opportunities, and how to unlock value. It forced us to find ways to help them understand the opportunities, and to help them understand how to make structural changes in the way that they were doing business in order to go after those opportunities.”

Now, Sundial has become a success because of its uncompromising focus on research and innovation, which enables the company to explore holistic and culturally authentic practices and ingredients from around the globe and incorporate them into its unique skin and hair care formulations.

“I think that vision today is what is bringing a lot of change to the marketplace,” he said. “I think it’s gone well beyond what we saw and what we envision, and it’s now taking other people’s visions and other people’s ideas around this idea of serving a consumer based on what their needs are, and creating products around what their needs states are versus by their ethnicity or by the structural setup within the retail organization — and you’re starting to see that shift.”

This story is part of a Special Report on the New General Market Purpose-Driven Summit — to read more insights, click here
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