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Marketing to Brazil's emerging middle class

Corporations are scrambling to understand and cater to millions of new Brazilian consumers.

A new set of dentures in Pembroke Pines, Fla., Jan. 12, 2009. A survey of 3,500 Rocinha residents found more than a quarter used dentures, and almost none used a denture adhesive. GlaxoSmithKline is now trying to sell them an adhesive. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Armed with a list of 70 names and addresses, a pile of surveys and a box of plastic bottles, Luciana Tavares and Elane Rosa Da Silva Freitas set out last week in search of their target population: denture wearers.

They wove through the bustling commercial streets and twisting back alleys of Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s most famous hillside slum. They bypassed the morning shoppers, the schoolchildren, and the young drug traffickers bearing automatic weapons. In those plastic bottles? Free samples of a new, moderately priced denture adhesive from British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

The purchasing power of the Brazilian middle class is exploding. Workers like Tavares and Da Silva are on the front lines of the mad scramble to understand and cater to the group that grows by the millions every year. The middle class includes 54 percent of the population of Brazil’s six major metropolitan areas, up from 43 percent just seven years ago, according to a study by the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.

“There’s an emerging market that’s avid about consumption, and with money to spend,” said Carol Escorel, a partner at A Ponte, a Sao Paulo-based consulting group that helps Brazilian companies understand and market to the new consumer. (Its name means “The Bridge.”) “It’s necessary to get to know them, and develop a product for them.”

GlaxoSmithKline developed less expensive packaging for its denture adhesive powder.
(Seth Kugel/GlobalPost)

For its first direct attempt to sell to the new middle class, GlaxoSmithKline hired A Ponte. The firm's initial action was to conduct a survey of 3,500 residents, which found that more than a quarter used dentures, and almost none used a denture adhesive. (The most recent state estimate puts Rocinha’s total population at 101,000.)

The pharmaceutical company, which produces Brazil’s top-selling denture adhesive, Corega, developed a more inexpensive version of its powder, largely by reducing the packaging. “We needed to improve our portfolio with a product accessible to this part of the population," said Carlos Alonso, GlaxoSmithKline’s category manager for denture and health care in Brazil. Those were the plastic bottles Tavares and Da Silva were toting around, a month’s free sample in bright colors that matched their T-shirts.

Their work was not easy: market research in the favelas carries its own particular snafus, like the fact that streets were only named after being built, and that numbers don’t always go in order, and that apartments can be hard to find. The first person on their list, Carmela Terto da Silva, was listed as living on Beco da Escada, or “Staircase Alley,” which was named literally.

The women trotted up the stairs, looking for street numbers to little avail. After knocking on a number of doors without luck, Tavares asked a woman doing her laundry on a porch if she had a neighbor named Carmela. “It’s Carmelia, not Carmela,” the woman responded, and pointed to a door across the way.

“Thanks, beautiful,” said Tavarez, and headed into a multi-story building where narrow, steep staircases led to apartments. They finally found Carmelia on the fourth floor.