John St. wins Home Hardware

The Toronto agency beats out five shortlisted shops in six-month review

David Brown September 22, 2016

Rob Wallace 01

Rob Wallace, director, marketing at Home Hardware.

John St. has just been hired to freshen up one of Canada’s largest and best-known retail brands.

The Toronto-based agency has been named AOR for Home Hardware, which has nearly 1,100 stores across the country and more than $5.8 billion in annual revenue. John St. replaces Saffer Retail, which had overseen Home Hardware creative for 40 years.

John St. won the business after a six-month review led by Rick McNabb, who was named vice-president of marketing in January, along with Rob Wallace, director, marketing, and assisted by search consultants Reynolds & Fyshe.

“Rick and I said, listen this company is not broken,” said Wallace of the decision to look for a new AOR. The brand has strong attributes, awareness and visibility, but Wallace and McNabb felt compelled to “turn over every stone” to look for new opportunities as the already stiff competition got even more sophisticated in their marketing and advertising.

Like most businesses Home Hardware is also figuring out how to respond to changing markets, media and demographics, he said. “We need to make sure our brand is positioned to attract younger Canadians, new Canadians,” he said. Many Canadians grew up with a Home Hardware as the local home improvement option, but that’s not the case with new Canadians. Home Hardware is counting on John St. to help the brand be more relevant to those consumers, he said.

The review process began with 60 agencies expressing interest, though only 16 were formally asked to take part, and six shops were shortlisted, said Wallace.

The wishlist included strong strategic capabilities and channel planning, retail experience, break-through creative, and a team in Quebec, where, with only 130 stores at the moment, Home Hardware believes it has a chance to grow.

John St. president Arthur Fleischmann called Home Hardware an “iconic brand” and while it is decades old, he said it’s also very much “on trend.”

The home improvement category itself is growing with people taking more interest in improving the esthetics of their home and surroundings, he said. “But also in terms of people preferring a brand that has an authenticity to it and a humanity.”

Unlike the big box stores, he said, Home Hardware is known for having store-owners actually in their stores ready to provide advice and direction with home renovation and repair challenges. This is particularly important for younger consumers who are interested in DIY projects, but often haven’t been taught the basics of home care the way previous generations were, he said. And of course, reaching younger consumers means more focus on digital.

“I think you can expect some major overhauls to their approach in digital and mobile,” he said.

And while customer service is a core brand attribute, Fleischmann said the advertising itself could do a better job of communicating that strength.

“If you are trying to prove that you are a brand that is knowledgeable and provides help and advice, just putting that in a 15 or 30-second ad doesn’t really bring that home,” he said. “Our early thoughts are that the creative could change quite dramatically,” he said. Rather than have store-owners selling products to consumers, the creative could position the owners as helping consumers solve DIY challenges, for example. Home Hardware expects to be in market with new work from John St. next spring.

Home Hardware’s move to John St. ends a decades-long relationship with the renowned retail branding expert Morris Saffer and his Saffer Retail.

“We couldn’t have become Canada’s largest independent home improvement retailer if it wasn’t for Morris,” said Wallace.

Saffer had just published The Store is the Brand when he visited with Home Hardware’s founder Walter Hachborn in the ’70s. At the time Home Hardware was hundreds of independent stores each with their own branding and marketing, said Wallace. “Hachborn asked Morris if he could help make Home Hardware a brand.”

Saffer has been closely linked to that brand since then, working in more recent years with Havas on account management. Saffer was asked to participate but declined to take part, said Wallace.

As for other agency partners, Home Hardware currently works with PHD for media buying. “They do a great job with our media purchasing, but as described earlier, we are turning over every stone and will review our agreement with PHD further,” said Wallace.

Similarly with PR, Home Hardware works with National Public Relations though much of the work is now done in-house and they are “planning to review the role and requirements we need in the PR space.”