From the source: Ben Young, Frank Green

Reusable coffee cups and other eco-friendly products are now part of the mainstream, and Frank Green founder and CEO Ben Young is on a mission to bring his Australian-made products to the rest of the world. Here, he discusses changing consumer behaviour, product innovation and global expansion. 

Inside Retail Weekly: How did you come up with the idea of Frank Green?

Ben Young: As a little kid I spent a lot of time outdoors. Every afternoon, my parents would go into the bush and everywhere I went, I saw people using cups and bottles and I really didn’t like that there was this pristine area with so much waste. I went through life seeing bins overflowing with waste and unsustainable production. 

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I went to uni and had a corporate career, doing mergers and acquisitions, learning a lot from different businesses, then I got to a phase in my 30s and realised that waste is such a big problem for our environment. I did a lot of research into why people weren’t using environmentally friendly products and it’s because they don’t have style and functionality. Things would leak, they’d look horrible and have no tech in them or inspire them to make a difference. We went on a three-year journey to tick a 101-point checklist to design a product and started the business in 2015. With all the amount of plastic on the earth, not one piece has biodegraded. There’s an emergency when it comes to the environment. We’re talking about it, but we really need to bring that to action now.

IRW: Can you tell me about what the product development process was like?

BY: It was a combination of those three years. If you start with the design, there are equations and curves that please people’s eyes. They’re called golden ratios and people like looking at them. There are a lot of cups where you have to push the lid on and when heat builds up, they pop off, which wasn’t good enough for us. We wanted people to have a leakproof lid, so they can put it in their bag and take it home at night. We could have sealed the cup by turning it in one rotation, but we made ours turn three times. When you have a hot coffee in something, it can burn you and in people’s minds, they want to turn it a bit more to make sure it’s sealed. 

We have a triple-walled stainless steel version of our product but what makes it really innovative is the ceramic lining, so it’s like having your coffee out of a mug in a cafe. So it has the taste and aroma benefits of whatever they’re drinking in their cafe, but then they’ve got the heat production and thermal properties of the stainless steel.

Our customers enjoy knowing that when they get a takeaway coffee, they don’t have to drink it quickly, they can savour it – you can drink some on the train, some at work, then maybe even later at 11am.

Even after we first brought out our first product, we kept innovating. Nothing beats stainless steel. Glass coffee cups break, glass doesn’t hold temperature very well and it’s hard to hold it in your hand. There are amazing benefits to our cup in our business; if we see one thing customers don’t like, we’ll be relentless in trying to engineer that out.

Other competitor products haven’t been on that same journey that we’ve been on. We’re relentless in trying to understand our customers.

The water bottles have a similar technology but they have a different lid. They have what we call a straw lid. In America, they have filtered coffees and ice coffees and they’re drinking in those big 7-Eleven slurpee containers, so we had to create a product like that that was easy to drink from. Rather than having a plastic straw, we put in a stainless steel one. Our lids for our coffee cups fit on our water bottles too, they’re totally universal.

IRW: Tell me about the new tap-to-pay range.

BY: If we can do anything to increase the participation rates of reusable products, we’ll do it. We found that the modern consumer wants more from an innovative product, so by putting payments in it, we’ve solved a problem for them. They’ve got the ability to load a predetermined amount in the cup, then 4500 cafes in Australia will give you a discount when you pay for a coffee with your cup. Basically, people get a discount for being sustainable – it’s a behaviour change, it’s convenient and it increases the participation rate.

We’ve made a reusable tray, too. In our manufacturing process, we’re owning the fact that there’s waste when we make some of our parts like lids. We chop the leftover material back up, put it through a machine and make reusable trays. It has the same tech like in our coffee cups, so if you get coffees for your team at work, you can pay with our tray. 

You can use the cups and trays anywhere where Visa and Mastercard are accepted in a contactless way. You can use it anywhere you use your credit card to pay, like Dan Murphy’s or Woolies.

IRW: What have been some of the highlights of the year?

BY: Definitely the product development and the collaborations with local artists and truly iconic businesses like Disney, Vogue, Mercedes-Benz and others, that have really elevated our brand. 

It takes awhile to get traction in the UK, but we’re getting traction now with John Lewis. We’re discussing big opportunities in retail in the US, too.

This year, we’ve tried to be agile in terms of product development and getting things to market. We brought out a children’s range because we want to encourage them on their sustainability journey and we don’t think young people should have less performing products than older people. We’ve made it fun and interesting. The range is called The Franksters and tailored to that market. We’ve got water bottles in different sizes with our straw lids – then [mum and dad] can wash it out and put in a gin and tonic!

We have reusable coffee cups, water bottles with different lids and configurations, reusable straws, reusable shopping bags and carry trays. And then next year, you’ll probably see at least five new products – we’ll be doubling in size in terms of our current product range early next year. 

Obviously we really don’t like single-use bags and water bottles. How do you eliminate both? You make one from the other. So we make a reusable tote bag and backpack so you can put your groceries in your bag, and take calls on your mobile at the same time. We make fabric out of single-use PET bottles and make them into bags. We also sell a range of straws as well.

The business has been growing between 3 and 600 per cent year-on-year from month to month, particularly as we move around the world. November will be our biggest month on record for sure, both online and in-store, where we sell to retailers and cafes and corporates. That’s come from developing new products and taking them to new markets around the world. We’ve had some amazing partnerships with Disney and Mercedes-Benz which has really helped drive the business. 

IRW: What have been some of the challenges during the year?

BY: The challenges have been our growth. We’re continuing to make sure that we’ve actually forecasted for the demand and as a business that’s growing, the business has run by its own profit, so you have to be careful about cash flow. 

Everything we do is made in Australia, except for stainless steel, which is made in China. We’ll work with the Australian stainless steel association and government to bring that manufacturing to Australia in the next couple of years. One day, we can come back and be 100 per cent manufactured in Australia. It’s a real badge of honour for us that we’re Australian-made because it stands for something. 

IRW: What plans do you have for the business in the coming year?

BY: We’ll continue to innovate our products and bring them to market. We’ve got some partnerships with companies that are truly iconic, too. The business is forecast to grow 3000 per cent next year, based on how we distribute our product and the ‘wow’ factor around what we’re doing in terms of innovation and personalisation.

Personalisation is a big thing for us, if you put people’s names on products personalise them, people will have a greater bond with them and are more likely to use them. You’ll see greater personalisation functions coming out. You’ll see us do collaborations with artists, we love collaborating with local artists – not just Australian ones either, we’re a global business now.

You’ll see our brand really come to life in terms of its purpose and vision and how we display it around the world. We have such an amazing story. Up to this stage, we’ve been worrying about getting our product right and making sure everything is positioned to take on the world stage, but now, people will know what Frank Green stands for. 

We’ve worked hard this year on our ability to scale. In a past life, when we were doing expansion into America, we couldn’t make enough product but we’ve solved that problem now. You’ve got to make the tools, get the manufacturing facility ready for it…We’ve worked really hard so we don’t have any excuses around our performance and quality when we’re dealing with companies in other countries now. We can get it right. We don’t want to ever make excuses to anyone. 

IRW: Tell me about your plans for the e-commerce side of the business.

BY: We’re really excited about it. Eighty per cent of our consumers buy on their phone, so you have to make your site mobile-first. People get on our site, you can see our products, pick your base, lid and button colour, then you can choose to put your name on it, load $100 on it. If you’re not sure what colour you want, just shake your phone and it can randomise it for you.

That experience and making sure it’s innovative is what’s driven this business. It’s also about what we’ve done in terms of paid advertising and SEO, we’ve worked with some amazing agencies. We’re going to concentrate on what we do best so we need to outsource it by finding the right partners that are truly innovative and suggest things that we can do to improve – that’s what’s really driven our e-commerce growth in the last year or so. 

Our logistics capability is amazing. We work hard on speed-to-market. People spend hard-earned money with us, they want their product the next day or same day. So we really try to deliver on time. 

We want to create occasions for our customers and make it easier for wholesale customers to order from us and give them the opportunity to customise, so a cafe can put their logo on one of our products, see how it looks, play with it, then order on the spot. 

We want to also give people more gifting options too. So people can go on our site to look for a gift and coffee with a coffee cup, or eco-responsible pods. 

IRW: What are your plans for global expansion?

BY: Next year, it really is about building our team to support them – we want marketing people, logistics and sales people to support our growth. Next year will be about taking new products to new markets and being able to scale very quickly. That’s what we’re focused on. 

We’ve got warehouses and offices with staff in the US and UK. We distribute to more than 50 countries today and it’ll continue to expand, but we see expansion opportunities in North America, the UK and Europe. 

IRW: There are so many reusable coffee cups and water bottles out there now. What’s your opinion of the sector?

BY: It’s exploding. You look at the whole category and it’s growing at 15 to 20 per cent per annum. There aren’t many industries growing at that rate. There are alot of products in that category – lunchboxes, reusable bags, substitute clingwrap. They’re all growing. It fuels our passion, but consumers don’t traditionally care about sustainability en masse – they care about how they look in the eyes of their peers. I’m not cranky about that, it’s just the way we’ve been brought up. We see it as a challenge, so rather than beat people up about not not using reusable products, we’ve got to understand consumers and create a brand that people can get behind where it has a real meaning and purpose. A lot of companies have sustainability as an afterthought, so they’re backpedalling and reengineering themselves to make some type of commitment to the environment, but it’s in our DNA. 

I believe people want to do better and we need to continue to recycle, but that’s why we’re making reusable coffee cups and water bottles. It’s the only option so we don’t create the waste in the first place. Reusing will always be the best option. Consumers are starting to understand that now. That’s why the whole reusable product movement is expanding and it’s amazing to see.


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