In South Africa, where barbecues are referred to as “braais” (a word used to describe the activity of a barbecue as well as the cooking unit itself), Weber dominates outdoor grill sales and locals now refer to any black, kettle-shaped grill as a “Weber” – quite like the Brits calling a stove an Aga.
Indeed, many locals are convinced that Weber is actually a South African brand name, despite the prominent American flags pasted over the packaging of each grill.
Ginger Ballenger at the Weber-Stephen Products Co. in Illinois declined to give company specifics in sales and marketing, stating that they are a privately-owned company and therefore “do not share any information on marketing share, volume or unit sales.” However, corporate database Hoover’s indicates that Weber’s sales volume for 2000 was US$ 246 million with an estimated 0.7 percent sales growth.
The Weber Grill was invented in 1951 by George Stephen who worked at the Weber Brothers Metal Works, outside of Chicago, welding metal spheres together to create buoys. Taking inspiration from his day job, he created a covered, spherical cooking unit that would protect food from wind and other elements. Weber’s standard kettle grill still looks like a buoy, with a round bowl bottom and a domed lid that fits over the cooking grate.
Weber-Stephen Products Co. remains a family run business. Its strategy in the US and abroad has been to promote outdoor cooking events whenever possible, and to keep Weber grills in the public eye. It continually works to protect its patent against pirates as evidenced in South Africa, where Weber recently won a law suit against a Chinese-made knock off.
The sole distributor in South Africa for Weber-Stephen Products is Galactex Outdoor Pty/Ltd in Johannesburg. Since 1984, Galactex has sold upwards of 600,000 Weber grills and their number has been steadily increasing on a yearly basis (last year, Galactex sold 35,000). The Weber grill’s popularity in South Africa, and its brand recognition, is encouraging to Herman Smit, the National Key Accounts Manager, who points to a three-tiered approach to getting the Weber brand in the public eye.
First, Weber grills are a prominent feature in the Saturday morning show called “The Weber Cookout Show,” and starring local celebrity hosts who use the grill to create mouth watering dishes and offer recipes, consumer competitions and barbecuing tips to avid outdoor cooks.
Smit also says the company works hard to promote Weber at point-of-sale areas in hardware and larger discount stores like HyperRama, Dions and Boardmans. Weber grills usually enjoy pride of place in the store, with supporting sales information, posters, stand-alone boards and related Weber accessories surrounding the product. According to Smit, accessories – including clothing, hats, aprons, cooking implements, and cooking accoutrements – comprise up to 30 percent of total Weber Stephen sales.
Moreover, and possibly more importantly, Weber sponsors braais held outside the stores themselves, so customers stopping off for home products can see the Weber in action and learn from trained salespeople about the joys of “cooking on a legend.” The on-the-ground sales support and appearances at events like the World Barbecue Championships combined with in-store activities, sales promotions and promotional videos create an invaluable opportunity for brand awareness.
Smit reports that Weber’s traditional target market in South Africa comprises middle-class to affluent whites as well as those of Indian and Malay descent (who make up under 20 percent of the country’s population of 40 million).
Herman Smit notes that the black South African market remains virtually untapped, despite a very strong culture of outdoor cooking and braaing. “They seem to prefer cooking over open flame rather than charcoal,” Smit notes, “but we’ve learned that as soon as black yuppies can afford a Weber they usually purchase the most expensive range of products. It is a big status symbol down here, and they do like the Weber grills.”
The strategy to bring black consumers into the Weber fold is as of yet untried. “We need to figure out payment plans and options for people from poorer segments of society to buy a Weber,” says Smit. “Our biggest challenge is the currency exchange rate, which keeps Webers out of the average black person’s price range.” Nonetheless, he notes that Weber has actively recruited black salespeople and demonstrators in an effort to sell the Weber to this crucial consumer sector in South Africa. “Cultures do change,” he notes. “And black consumers like to keep up with the Joneses just like everybody else. Once they have the car and the house, they will invest in a Weber.”
Weber is making other attempts to grow its market in South Africa by encouraging customers to replace their old grills or move up to a bigger, more deluxe grill. Yet the grill’s cost remains exorbitant by South African standards – the average unit costs three to four times that of locally-made grills. The recent decline in the local currency has meant that Weber is scrambling to offer customers price breaks on grills.
Recently, Smit says, Galactex used a good part of their advertising allowance to help defray the costs of imported Weber units in order to keep end costs down. And while Weber has remained in the public eye through traditional advertising, they also have made themselves into a presence at events like the Barbecue World Championships.
The head of the South African Barbecue Association (SABA) Michael Snyman notes that Weber is the predominant grill used in the World Barbecue Championships, though competitors are allowed to use whatever grill enables them to cook the set menu prescribed by the judges. The Championships, Snyman feels, “Absolutely help promote the Weber brand.” Weber actively makes sure its presence is felt at these events. At the World Championship finals in 2001, Weber donated 50 kettles – and managed to sell them almost immediately after the event finished.
With such a large following already in South Africa and still a considerable portion of the market untapped, Weber may just be getting warmed up.