How a £3 oven cleaner led to “bonkers” sales for Astonish

Howard Moss, managing director of cleaning products manufacturer Astonish on the production line at the Bradford-based factory. Picture: Tony Johnson
Howard Moss, managing director of cleaning products manufacturer Astonish on the production line at the Bradford-based factory. Picture: Tony Johnson
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It’s been four weeks since Astonish’s first TV campaign began and according to the firm’s operations manager, sales have ‘gone bonkers’.

The Bradford-based cleaning products manufacturer features its oven and grill specialist cleaner - the paste product that launched the business more than 50 years ago - during the prime-time ITV advertising campaign.

As John Eaton gives me a tour of the factory ahead of my interview with managing director Howard Moss, he describes what effect the publicity has had on the company.

“We’re only a few weeks into the campaign and it’s gone bonkers,” he says. “The paste line used to work one shift a day and we’re now working 24 hours a day, six days a week at the moment. Plus staff are volunteering to work overtime on Saturdays to catch up.”

The Bradford-based cleaning products manufacturer used to make about 11,000 units of the cleaner a day.

It almost doubled production to 20,000 units a day to stockpile the product in the three months before Christmas. Four weeks after the campaign started on Boxing Day, the factory is starting to run out and has increased production to 30,000 units a day.

“We expected an uplift, of course, but the size of the uplift has been incredible. It’s definitely taken us a bit by surprise,” Eaton says.

To top it off, the cleaner, which comes with a sponge, was named Product of the Year 2020, during the UK’s largest consumer survey of product innovation. It was independently verified and tested before being announced as the overall winner last week in the household cleaning category.

Moss, the second generation owner of the family business, is delighted his £1.25m investment has paid off.

Before 2019, the company, which posted a £20.6m turnover and £3m pre-tax profit in the year to May 2019, barely spent anything on marketing. Instead it relied on endorsements from cleaning influencers like the popular Mrs Hinch Instagram account.

“I took a decision last year that if we’d grown our business to nearly £21m, imagine what would happen if we drove that brand awareness to more people,” says Moss. “Whilst television habits have changed, it’s still the most powerful way of engaging with an audience.”

He adds: “We’re about to end the month of January having beaten our highest ever previous sales month by over 30 per cent.”

The company, which is on track to achieve £27m turnover this year, has about 50 products in its cleaning range together with a luxury personal care range launched in 2018 under the Moss and Adams name.

It’s products are vegan and made out of recyclable packaging. It chooses biodegradable ingredients derived from plants. “There’s nothing we develop that has an adverse effect on the environment,” he says.

Astonish has scheduled new product launches for February, March and April, including concentrate disinfectants and a wrinkle release product that aims to take the hassle out of ironing clothes.

However, the manufacturer’s biggest focus in 2020 is its £15m new factory investment. The 105,000 sq ft production facility, which is being built across the road from its current premises, will double the size of its operation. “That will enable us, in my opinion, to double the size of the business,” says Moss.

Astonish, which currently employs 85 people, was started by Moss’s father, Alan, in 1969 from a trestle table in a garage in Meanwood, Leeds.

He started his career at a cleaning product firm, demonstrating its oven and pan cleaner at trade shows. When the head of the cleaning firm retired, Alan Moss took over the product distribution and when the manufacturer went out of business he started making the product himself in an old garage.

Alan Moss, who originally sold the product under the KLIN name at trade shows, went on to sell via mail order catalogues and eventually landed his first retailer, selling to Woolworths in the mid-1980s when the product rebranded to Astonish.

Ever the salesman, he came up with the idea of producing a demonstration video that was displayed on a TV monitor in the store next to the product.

“Woolworths became a really important milestone for us,” says Moss.

The next big thing was QVC in the 1990s, which followed Alan Moss’s pattern of direct selling through demonstrational videos.

At that stage, his newly-graduated son had joined the firm to make some extra cash while he applied for retail graduate training schemes. “I didn’t want to be involved,” Moss admits. “It wasn’t a natural progression for me to join the family business. I wanted to work in retail.”

However, the more he immersed himself in the business, the more ideas he had for improving it. “We were always having problems with production,” he says. “It was either all or nothing.

“I came in without any emotion tied to the business and said we should be in retail and have a range of products. I guess that’s where my future started to be mapped out and where I saw a real passion for the business.”

He disagreed with his father over aspects of the business, particularly over selling on QVC. “The products were on sale or return and it didn’t make any sense to me. My father thought it was a powerful way to get our name out. I thought we needed to get our products out on shelves and build it from there,” he says.

The company moved to a bigger factory in Pudsey in 2000, a move led by Moss. It ramped up its exports around the world, which today account for 25 per cent of the business.

He eventually took over the running of the business in 2008 during the financial crisis after investing £4m in moving the business to its current premises on the Euroway Trading Estate, off the M606.

“You have to be able to make big, defining decisions at certain times within your journey,” says Moss. “As long as it’s based on real need then it’s not a reckless move. The fact was at our old site we had no more capacity.”

Shortly after the move to Bradford, Moss bought out his father’s shares.

Moss, who is married and has a three-year-old son, says he would never sell the business unless someone offered an ‘insane’ amount of money for it. “My wife always says to me that this is my first love. If you took it away from me I’d be absolutely distraught. It’s not just about the money for me, I also have fun.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Title: Managing director of Astonish

Date of birth: August 23, 1974

Education: Leeds Grammar School; business and marketing degree from Manchester Polytechnic

First job: First and only job at Astonish.

Favourite holiday destination: Italy

Favourite song: Anything from Earth, Wind & Fire

Favourite film: Scarface

Last book read - Craig Bellamy: GoodFella, by Craig Bellamy

Car driven: Aston Martin

Most proud of: My son