How to Establish Product Fit: Gavin Armstrong, Lucky Iron Fish (Interview)

Listen to our interview with Gavin Armstrong, founder of Lucky Iron Fish

This article was originally published in Change Creator Magazine issue #6

Many social entrepreneurs often wonder how they can help hundreds of thousands of people, and at the same time build a profitable enterprise so they can turn their venture from a side hustle to a full-time endeavor that multiplies their impact and income.

Gavin Armstrong, CEO and founder of Lucky Iron Fish, has made that happen. He not only created a product that has a global impact, but also successfully commercialized the venture for it to become profitable and sustainable. In this interview with Change Creator, Gavin shared his experience and insights on the evolution of the business.

Iron deficiency impacts over 3.5 billion people around the world! Here’re 5 marketing lessons he’s learned along the way, and how you, too, can apply them to navigate the world of social entrepreneurship:

Understand the Local 1 Community

Lucky Iron Fish was first developed in Cambodia as an effort to help solve iron deficiency. Gavin’s effort to understand the local lifestyle and tap into the Cambodian culture helped him align with the communities and gain traction in the market. He conducted extensive research to understand those he was marketing to.

He spent a few years in the country while launching the product, and paid attention to the psychographic of the market:

  • He developed a focus group kit to gain insights on how the villagers see and feel about things, which helped inform how he could adapt his message for different communities.
  • He talked to the women in the villages – end users who cook for the family – to understand the impact of iron deficiency in the country, as well as their cooking habits, so he could better integrate the product into their lifestyle and routine.
  • He showed them the different shapes under development to find out which one resonates.

He chose the fish design as it’s a symbol of luck in the local culture, making it easy for villagers to accept this new product and use it on a daily basis. When he was conducting research, Gavin didn’t speak the local language. He didn’t completely rely on the translator to get his answers, either. Instead, he paid attention to the facial expressions of the interviewees and the way they physically react to and interact with the product.

To make sure he creates a product that’s compelling to the end users, Gavin didn’t simply ask what they want and take the response at face value. He observed their interactions with the product at a tactile and physical level. The research and interactions with the local communities gave him valuable input to quickly iterate the design through a process of rapid prototyping and refine the product such that it’s widely accepted by the local market.

This level of attentiveness helped Gavin build trust with the community – an essential component to the success of the product. After all, he was asking the villagers to put the product into their cooking pot to make food for their families. Gavin’s deep understanding of the culture and the market also informed the development of the brand’s image and color palette. Like many social entrepreneurs operating in a foreign culture, he had to learn from mistakes and quickly adapt. For example, when they tried to cut cost with black and white package design, they found that this didn’t work because these colors are equated with death in Cambodia.

The final packaging is done in red and blue and white – the Cambodian flag color – to evoke national pride. Every element of the brand – from the shape of the product to the color palette – is carefully considered so the product can be easily accepted into the households of the targeted end users. Gavin also innovated the product to meet the needs of rural Cambodia. The principal feature of the Lucky Iron Fish is that it lasts for about five years, providing a practical and sustainable solution to the iron deficiency problem in the area.

Embrace The Origin

Gavin wanted the brand to have a global impact and implication, at the same time recognize the history of its origin. For that to happen, the brand needed to appeal to a wide global audience while staying true to its original mission. They use storytelling techniques that connect consumers with the brand on an emotional level to help build a loyal following. The design of Lucky Iron Fish’s logo and website pay tribute to the root of the brand by using the color palette of the original packaging – red, white and blue – as well as images of villagers from rural Cambodia.

Gavin shared the story of Lucky Iron Fish’s origin and local involvement, connecting consumers with the product at an emotional level. While embracing the origin, Gavin didn’t lose sight of the global market. The company leveraged the simple 3-color design of the original packaging and translated it into a template that can be adapted to different markets. The simple and customizable template allows the use of color combinations that speak to local markets while keeping a consistent image for the brand.

Develop Local Partnerships

One major blunder in Lucky Iron Fish’s early days happened in sales and product distribution. Initially, Gavin developed the idea of a “traveling road show” – he’d travel to villages and stop for a couple of days, present the product then move on. He made the incorrect assumption that because the value proposition of the product was so clear that he could just go from village to village and sell it.

The biggest disconnect occurred when he failed to establish trust within the local communities. He didn’t stick around long enough to answer questions, engage in dialogues, and give villagers the opportunity to try the product before making their purchase. To remedy the less-than-desirable results, Gavin switched gears. He partnered up with NGOs that have already established trust and a line of communication with the communities.

Local representatives of these organizations are available to answer questions and assist villagers to make sure they’re getting results from the product. Partnering with local NGOs also helps the company reduce costs. Although they still go to villages to offer talks and workshops, they can now increase efficiency by covering more ground in less time.

Leverage Media Opportunity

Lucky Iron Fish has a “Buy-One-Give- One” program – for every fish purchased on their website, they donate one to those in need.

The initial volume of sales (and the number of fish donated) worked fine for partnerships with small- and medium-sized NGOs. However, Gavin had challenges getting in the door with larger organizations.

The big break came when the company was featured in a BBC article. Their sales went from 100 in a month to 100 in an hour. Besides immediate revenue for the company, it also meant they now have tens of thousands of fish to give away. Offering free product is a great way to enter the NGO space. Almost overnight, Gavin had the volume to approach large NGOs and establish partnerships.

This media opportunity not only helped the company increase revenue by turning their online business from a secondary component to being front and center, thereby reaching a global market, but also gave them the traction to gain the much-needed foothold through larger NGOs in local communities they wanted to help.

Introduce Product to Developed Countries

Gavin saw an opportunity when he realized that iron deficiency is also a problem in the developed world. In fact, it’s a serious health concern in the US and Canada. He also recognized the gap in the market – there’s an increasing number of health and socially conscious women looking for a more natural solution that’s healthier than popping a pill every day.

The company started offering the product to this demographic – women who manage the household looking for ways to raise a healthy family – attracting them with not only the innovative feature but also the “buy- one-donate-one” program.

At the time of our interview with Gavin, the product was available in 66 countries, and as of January 2019, they have given away over 45,000 Lucky Iron Fish, helping 200,000 people.

The commercial success of the product, in turn, fuels the social impact that inspired Gavin to start the venture in the first place. There are many marketing lessons we can learn from the success of Lucky Iron Fish. Even though the specifics may vary depending on context, it’s always important to listen to your market, pivot and adapt quickly, and not be shy about introducing your product to developed countries so you can leverage the success to fuel your venture.


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