One of the limitations of PR is that it is not always predictable. It does after all depend largely on the kindness of strangers for success. And that is what makes Clare Hieatt, MD of artisanal jeans company Hiut, just a little bit wary of it – although not for the reasons you might imagine.
She has had the rare experience of PR that was too successful. Three years ago she and her husband David launched the business with a series of tweets to followers from their previous enterprise, eco-friendly clothes brand Howies: "There was no big announcement, we didn’t have any budget, so we put it on Twitter."
But she was caught off guard by the effects: "That led to articles in The Sunday Times and The Independent. We received orders for 400 pairs of jeans, but we were only able to make ten pairs a day." (That may sound paltry, but they do sell for up to £230 a pair.)
It placed all sorts of strains on the business, not least on cash flow and reputation. As a result they had to stop taking orders for nearly two months. "The only communication we did for that period was customer service stuff telling people their jeans wouldn’t be ready for a while," she laughs.
Today, even though output has quadrupled, Hieatt says PR is still their only comms and branding tool: "We still have no marketing budget, so PR is one of the most important aspects of our brand’s development. It’s all done on social media which gives us a level playing field against bigger rivals."
Hiut has no relationships with agencies, but the Hieatts have a secret comms weapon not available to most start-ups: themselves. "We were both copywriters; I was at creative comms agency Imagination for six years and David was at Saatchi & Saatchi."
So she describes the core strengths of the company as "jeans and content". The jeans are hand-stitched from high-quality Japanese denim. Looking through the articles about them, you feel a similar sense of craft in their storytelling. The Hieatts have fashioned a powerful narrative around their business that informs the entire ethos of the company.
"We were thinking about starting a jeans brand after selling Howies to Timberland and considered manufacturing in Hong Kong. Then someone said why don’t you manufacture here in Cardigan?" says Hieatt.
The town was formerly the site of the biggest jeans factory in Britain, employing 400 people making jeans for own-label brands such as Marks & Spencer before it closed. Hieatt says: "The whole thing is creating brands with a purpose. It dawned on us that we had this resource and we could manufacture in our own home town. Our purpose became to get those 400 jobs back with our brand."
She says having a purpose invigorated their thinking, providing them with a story to tell not only the press but future employees, landlords and bankers. They now position themselves as the only UK jeans brand that manufactures its own products in the UK: "It made sense of our plan; it gave us an incentive to do it."
Hieatt concedes that you can only dine out on your founding story for so long. "We can’t live off that story for ever, so we do need to refresh our narrative," she says, "and we’ll do that mostly by creating films and stunts."
However, using social media is not just about creating a brand story; it is also key to the company’s distribution strategy.
"There’s no margin if we sell through agents," says Hieatt. "So the business plan is to have very limited distribution through shops and to sell direct to customers as much as possible, not just in the UK but in Japan, Australia and the US. Social media has been the key to that."
It has helped the company build a celebrity following including rock bands such as the Manic Street Preachers, The Stranglers and the slightly less edgy Ant & Dec, and their support in turn helps drive customers to the Hiut website.