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How a creative marketer rebranded a 200-year-old B2B retailer during a pandemic

Sophie Hill, marketing executive at B2B hardware specialists Rothley

Future 50 inductee Sophie Hill is a marketing executive at B2B hardware specialists Rothley. She shares how she helped refresh and rejuvenate the 195-year-old brand during its most trying period.

Specialist hardware brand Rothley has been trading for 195 years. After almost going out of business at the end of the decade, the firm has made a major comeback, thanks in part to the efforts of Sophie Hill, its marketing executive and a member of this year’s Future 50.

The hardware business grew 10% in 2020, after creeping back from going into administration and a trying furlough. Hill says that “sacrifices were made” but now a “swanky” new office awaits a team that got its head down and did the work in 2020.

But how did this Future 50 inductee get the company into this position?

The role

Hill took on the job and jumped in with a rebrand in her first week, back in January 2020. She was a part of a team tasked with a broad job description.

“It was very much a baptism of fire, but I wouldn’t have changed it. I was handed a new logo and a new strapline and away I went, redesigning packaging and working with creatives to come up with a strong new brand identity.

“Everything up until this point had been red, gray, white and bland. Even Beyoncé couldn’t pull off that color combination.”

Sometimes fueled by a “heady cocktail of Nescafé Latte sachets, Kinder Buenos and the odd Ibuprofen”, Hill works at pace, and with a lot of freedom. “I walk around the office at 1,000mph, to the amusement of my colleagues.”

She’s a bit of a “control freak” who’s had sleepless nights over things such as a handrail box being branded the wrong shade of blue. It is all part and parcel for the brand, “the scrappy kid in the playground who never gives up”.

So with the new brand in her pocket, the marketer – with a background in photography and social – deemed that the product packaging needed improved imagery. “There’s no point just having a product image on a white background. We needed to provide our customers with aspirational lifestyle photography to show them the potential in our product.”

Product

Hill is as involved in product development as she is in promotion. This year, with a substantial online shift, she has had to “heavily invest in product and lifestyle imagery”.

The brand has taken on a more environmentally-conscious tone, and for Rothley right now that means educating the industry and customers on the dangers that hexavalent chrome plating poses. Hill has had a hand in removing it from all its products, and then communicating that change.

“We have a manufacturing plant and supply chain office in Zhaoqing, China, so we can make direct changes to our products and packaging, and reduce our use of plastics.”

The removal of wasteful packaging has in some cases also made products cheaper. “We are out to prove that our decisions are mutually beneficial for consumers as well as the planet.”

She says: “During the pandemic price became a hotter topic of course. With customers struggling with store closures and the cost of freight and raw materials being at an all-time high, this was a discussion we had to have to allow us and our customers to weather the storm.”

All of this work is generally delivered by a team of freelance creatives. “There is no way I could have done that without their support, hard work and long hours.”

All-encompassing

Hill’s job has many demands, but front of mind still is finding an outfit that pairs well with her high-vis jacket. Sometimes she’s in store with a measuring tape, working out the dimensions of a visual display unit. Other days she’s talking product development with the Chinese team, creating pricing brochures for sales or ordering carpets for trade shows. Most weirdly, she once commissioned a 6ft elephant from waste plastic to highlight its work in reducing packaging for a show in Cologne (sadly, the world never got to see it).

“I still love the feeling of going into a store and seeing our new ranges making an impact on customers. This is something that I think is missing in a lot of marketing roles – the opportunity to actually go and interact with the work that you’ve created to appeal to your target consumers,” she says.

Digital push

Very few hardware retailers truly understood the importance of online shopping before Covid-19 shut down their stores, she says.

Those who survived the tougher months (interest in DIY went through the roof, after all) will find e-commerce an indispensable part of the business.

Hill says: “It was a wake-up call for them. My experiences of retail proved, among other things, that a lot of people will avoid stores where they can and only venture in if they click and collect. This is the way DIY shoppers are increasingly looking to make purchases. They will head to Pinterest or Instagram for inspiration, search online or click through a promoted link until they find what they want to recreate it, and then go and collect from store or have it delivered.”

She notes the shift in custom from tradespeople to crafty consumers. She hopes the shift Rothley made will service its base of consumers and attract new ones.

One such campaign includes a collaboration with Ironmongery Direct to gift a utensil rail through an Instagram competition. “We had 500 entries and our following increased by 200% as our account was so new at the time. Working with our customers who are also focused on digital marketing and social media is always an exciting process.”

She also took up the social feed for the B2B company, making it sound more human. “I managed to source some copper kitchen support legs for a customer in Germany and they were so thrilled a UK business had responded to their tweet that they sent me a thank-you and a picture of their dog... I mean, that’s the kind of content I need in my life.”

Breaking tradition

Like many marketers, Hill says she has imposter syndrome having come from retail management, social media and fashion and lifestyle content creation. She’s not from a ‘traditional’ marketing background.

“Bots don’t read between the lines and find the creative and commercial experience those positions gave me. I couldn’t even get in front of an interview panel with that, let alone get the job I wanted. I managed to get a foot in the door at Rothley through a contact of the photography studio I was assisting in.”

She calls herself a wildcard hire, and wonders how many others were left on the shelf because they had more of a creative grounding.

She concludes: “Just a final tip to any employers looking for their next marketing executive: anyone who’s been able to work a Christmas and New Year in a Selfridges and managed to come out the other side with a sense of humor is worth having on your team in a time of crisis, I promise you.”

Discover who has been named the best emerging marketers in the industry in The Drum’s Future 50.

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