What colour are a baby’s cheeks? According to Yvon Bock, it’s Hegen pink — the distinctly millennial blush shade that coats the walls of her brand’s first experiential centre, a 15,000 sq ft office, shop, event venue, and consultation space in southern Singapore.
“The pink is a specifically curated Pantone that’s close to parents’ hearts,” says Bock, 43. Wearing blush for this interview, it’s hard to believe the mum of four used to wear all-black. At least until a branding agency revamped her look to match the lighter shades of the bottles, teats and breastfeeding pumps her company makes, which are sweeping Asia.
The shade now dominates her wardrobe. It’s also the accent hue for Hegen’s flagship online shop at Alibaba-owned mega e-commerce site Tmall, where it is No. 1 in the baby bottle category. China is its biggest market, where it can sell over 200,000 bottles just on Singles Day.
Reaching a goal of serving 100 million mothers in 35 markets
If 7-year-old Hegen had a report card, it would have nothing to cry about: 10 million bottles sold, 25 million teats sucked, and a presence in 17 markets. Based on revenue growth from 2017 to 2020, The Straits Times and Statista ranked it Singapore’s 10th fastest growing company. Currently, it is on track to resume its triple-digit growth by next year, despite being mired by Covid-19.
Regardless, Bock, like a true Asian parent, admits with a laugh that she “keeps moving the goalpost”. With a US launch later this year — it will retail at Pottery Barn Kids, buybuy BABY, Nordstrom and online at Kohl’s and Target — and with looming expansions into Japan and six Middle Eastern markets, she plans to double her sales by next year.
Still, her goal of serving 100 million mothers in 35 markets — represented by pins on a “Hegen map” she and her co-founder and husband Leon have had since day one — is only halfway complete. “I envisaged a global brand from the very outset,” the chief executive says. “Motherhood is universal. I feel that if you want to make a difference, make it big.”
Start a breastfeeding brand based on her personal experiences
Hegen Experiential Centre (HEC) is just the latest milestone in Bock’s brand story, which began in 2004 after she bid adieu to a corporate banking career.
Her father, Chan Ching, owns equipment manufacturer Fitson Singapore, whose factory in Malaysia makes baby care products for global brands. Several years into her Fitson career, a painful miscarriage led to an epiphany: why not start a breastfeeding brand based on her personal experiences? With this in mind, Hegen’s now instantly recognisable “sqround” (square-round) bottles and teats were developed over a five-year period, funded by bank loans, government grants, and company loans. In 2015, Hegen made its official debut.
It is Bock’s understanding that there are no other baby bottle brands designed by mothers, for mothers. “A lot of times, I noticed that projects were focused on developing a product because of a business opportunity rather than a pain point,” she says. “For Hegen, it’s not about how many bottles we can sell, but about how many mothers we can serve. The first thing is: What does a mum need? If we put a product in front of our users, and they don’t see it solving a problem, we go back to the drawing board.”
Hegen is a family business. I’m not here to build and sell. I’m here to create a future for the next generation, so they can build this empire together.Yvon Bock, Found & CEO, Hegen
This approach is at the core of the brand’s success. In its early days, with most of its $5 million starting capital spent on product design and intellectual property protection, Hegen relied on word of mouth for its marketing. “As long as the product is world-class, it will speak for itself,” Bock says. “Being a true-blue Singapore brand is in itself a branding.” The strategy worked, as consumers began talking about her bottles both on social media as well as with their sisters, cousins, and colleagues. “We realised that if we do well in Singapore, word of mouth would spread to neighbouring markets,” she adds.
“VIP customers told retailers: ‘I use this product, it’s excellent. Can you bring this in?’ Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines started knocking on our door,” she says, recounting Hegen’s regional expansion in its second year, during which its growth rocketed 11 times.
Carving out a niche in the saturated baby bottle market
Why are Hegen’s bottles so rave-worthy? In addition to the elliptical teat that minimises nipple confusion (when a breastfeeding baby may have difficulty latching after being bottle-fed), a cover that closes and opens with one hand, a stackable square-round design that grips easier, cute personalisation options, and lids that repurpose outgrown bottles into sippy cups, coffee tumblers, snack containers, and sauce dispensers. Each of these differentiators and others have helped the brand carve out a niche in the saturated baby bottle market.
“Everybody thinks round is the solution. We defy convention,” quips Bock, who has spoken publicly about how changing her original design, after it was leaked, led to a new signature shape — and an obsession with intellectual property rights.
“Our design failed more than a hundred times and prototyping was so expensive. But we just kept trying and trying. It was very scary,” she admits. “However, despite a R&D rollercoaster, I had unwavering support from my father and Leon. I realised that blind faith was very important.”
The secret to successful expansion
By year three, Hegen had broken even, and the brand went international, participating in trade shows and conventions in Germany and China.
The secret to successful expansion, its chief executive reveals, is being patient and waiting for the right partner to break into a new market. Rather than focusing on industry players as distributors, Hegen works with firms spanning skincare, pharmaceuticals, bedding, and logistics. The only criterion? Partners must share the brand’s belief that making a difference in people’s lives is key.
“Most of our partners have no prior industry experience,” says Bock. “We met many of them at trade shows, or they approached us. We are all about improving the quality of life.”
Through their expertise in cultural and language nuances, these able partners greatly sped up customer acquisition. “Every market is unique,” says Bock. “However, implementation is much faster when partners fully understand our philosophy.”
Today, this network of partners operates thousands of Hegen retail touchpoints, including some 7,000 in China. As Covid-19 forced people to buy essentials online and kept them at home, physical stores — once the brand’s main method of gaining customers — lost ground to digital sales, with both equally critical.
As a result, Bock opened HEC and its in-house Lactation Centre this May. It represents the next stage in the company’s development, moving away from just selling products to journeying with consumers as they embrace parenthood.
The importance of information to modern parents has never been greater, and Hegen takes pride in being a reliable resource for evidence-based knowledge and practical skills. A full range of lactation consultations, antenatal and postnatal classes are available at its Lactation Centre, while workshops on broader themes, such as positive parenting, sleep training, and diaper weaning, are also offered.
In case of any doubt about demand, consider that most of its classes are full.
What’s next for Hegen
Of course, Bock’s answer to the question about what’s next is, naturally, more experiential centres. She is working on a franchise system that will standardise quality across global partners. As she lists business goals, including educating women about breastfeeding science and creating a supportive community for parents, she adds, “We need to equip mums not just with breastfeeding tools, but information on how to use them as well”.
The more developed a market, she says, the shorter the time women have to breastfeed because of work pressure. “That was very heart-wrenching for me,” Bock says of her experience. “I want to support working mothers like myself.” It is for this reason that fast-paced and urban Singapore — despite not being Hegen’s laragest opportunity — remains its heart.
“It’s very important to go global, because the growth is exponential. But even as we step out, we want to make sure we have home ground,” says Bock. “My journey to encourage and prolong family bonding through breastfeeding lies here.”
In that context, the evolution of her father’s legacy in her hands is even more significant. “Hegen is a family business. I’m not here to build and sell. I’m here to create a future for the next generation, so they can build this empire together.”
Yvon Bock is wearing Montblanc Bohème Day & Night 34mm.