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.


Her home was a textbook example of the mysteries of Brazil’s new consuming class. On the one hand, it was cramped and perched on the hillside, and one side of the living room was blocked from the elements only by a curtain, as if someone had forgotten to put glass in the window. On the other hand, it was loaded with electronics and appliances: a silver Samsung television set, a portable stereo system and a gleaming white Brastemp washing machine churning away at clothes that, a decade, would almost certainly have been washed by hand.

The workers began the survey. As expected, their subject had never used denture adhesive, and didn’t even really know what it was for. “Is it to clean them?” she asked. Tavares said no, that it was to prevent them from slipping or falling out, and Terto da Silva vaguely recalled an advertisement on television where a man’s dentures fall out while he was swimming. They all had a good laugh over that one.

The survey questions did pose some difficulty: Terto da Silva, who cannot read, also had trouble understanding the concept of rating things from 0 to 5, and Tavares had to convert her descriptive answers of, for example, how happy she was with her dentures into numerical categories. But when it came to handing over the free sample, Terto da Silva seemed thrilled, and even more so when the workers told her that buying a replacement would only cost 6.90 reais (or $3.80), rather than the 40 reais she had guessed.

After about 20 minutes, they said goodbye to the newest Corega user and set off to the next address on the list, which, of course, was not where it was supposed to be. “Does anyone know an Antonia who lives near here?” Tavares shouted into a smoky bar nearby, to no avail.

They soon moved on to looking for Raimundo do Brito, whose address was listed as Alley 11, #39. They finally found him in an unmarked building, several blocks down from #37. “Along with the street number, they should have put near this guy’s bar, near that guy’s store,” said Tavares. “That’s how addresses work here.”

De Brito turned out to be a chain-smoking shop owner whose store sold drinks, detergent and some other necessities. His wife Edite was also a denture wearer, and neither had ever tried adhesive, so Tavares and da Silva happily went through their routine and left a free sample for each.

But for GlaxoSmithKline and A Ponte, getting the customers interested is only one side of the matter — they are also working hard to convince Rocinha’s principle grocery stores to carry the new item and to promote it at checkout counters. That requires daily monitoring of the stores, a job that falls to Cassia Vieira, the company’s sales representative for Rocinha.

She said she tries to stop by the stores daily to nudge the owners and managers to promote the product. And to keep the price set at 6.90. On a visit to the Preco Bom da Rocinha market last Tuesday, Vieira tested a Corega package on the scanner, and it rang up as 7.14 instead of 6.90. Frustrated, she went off to corner the manager.

It may seem like slow going, but Alonso, the GlaxoSmithKline category manager, said the goal in Rocinha was “to learn from the experience in order to expand this plan to other communities throughout Brazil.” And for good reason: the Getulio Vargas Foundation study predicted that within four years, 36.1 million more Brazilians would join the middle class. There will undoubtedly be many denture wearers among them.


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