Experts
29 . 03 . 18

David Hieatt: Ideas grow in importance once printed

Words by: Alison Warner
The co-founder of Hiut Denim believes that only average print is dead. Excellence, he reckons, just can’t be ignored…
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At a glance:

  • Print highlights your brand’s commitment and authenticity.
  • If you inspire your customers in print first, you can sell at a time that is right for them.
  • Print that is considered and intelligently written is currently on trend.

If you fancy a pair of Hiut Denim jeans, you’d better be prepared to wait.

The brand’s top line retails at £230 – and even at that luxe price point, it’ll probably take you three long months to get your order filled.

To say this cult global brand is in demand is an understatement. Prince Harry’s fiancée Meghan Markle is a fan – remarkable for a boutique Welsh firm that employs fewer than 20 staff.

Hiut’s co-founder, entrepreneur David Hieatt, is no stranger to success. He sold his first venture – sustainable clothing company Howies – to outdoor giant Timberland back in 2006.

And he started The Do Lectures – a platform for sharing business expertise that was voted one of the top 10 ideas festivals in the world by The Guardian.

Hieatt believes passionately in print’s ability to deliver engaged audiences for brands – even when it appears to make little financial sense.

It’s why Hiut produces an annual 144-page perfect-bound Yearbook that customers have to pay £10 for.

Each issue attracts contributions from some of the world’s best thinkers, designers and photographers – and for the past three years has sold out.

But this year’s edition is late – months late, in fact.

When Hieatt took to Instagram to apologise, a flood of encouragement came his way, rather than complaints: “Remember, great negates late,” said @jamessmi. “Have prepped the doormat in anticipation,” said @thisisalbertrd.

To date, none of the 500 customers who preordered the Yearbook have cancelled their subscription.

So, how exactly does Hiut cultivate this sort of commitment – and how big a part does print play in its clever community building? We caught up with Hieatt to find out.

Your first brand, Howies, had a catalogue – but customers had to request it. Why?

Discovery is important. We like finding a new restaurant, a new hotel, a new band. Having a booklet fall out of your magazine isn’t discovery. It’s litter.

Making something hard also gives it meaning. The fact that our customers had to put in a bit of effort to get a catalogue meant that if they asked for one, they actually wanted it.

This wasn’t just opt-in… this was: ‘I want to be part of something’. Our customers felt special receiving it – and what we were selling – because we didn’t make it easy to get.

Instead of a catalogue, you publish a Yearbook for Hiut Denim. What’s its purpose?

The things that we possess tell stories about us. I’m really fascinated by that.

That’s why our jeans have a history tag on them. Each pair has a unique number which allows you to see six photographs of your jeans being made. It also allows you to upload photos of your journey along the way.

In five years’ time, if our jeans end up in a second-hand shop and their next owner is able to see the history of the jeans, it might be of interest.

In the same way, our Yearbook seeks to bookmark the passing of time.

We bring the same people onboard each year to show all their stories as time passes. We take you on that journey with each one of them. Maybe you will collect all the Yearbooks and look back to see how everyone has changed. I like the idea that we capture that.

Why do you print it?

This is very much the age of digital. But I think digital needs analogue.

We will always want to feel something. To touch something. To pick it up and smell the ink. To see photographs how they were meant to be seen.

There is an authority to print. There is a beauty to it. It has something that separates you. You can read it, put it down, pick it back up months later, and reconnect.

For every brand that cancels its paper catalogue, there is an opportunity for another smart brand. If you pour your heart into print, your customer can feel it.

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The focus of the Yearbook is ideas, not product. Why is that?

Here’s the short(-ish) answer…

Cardigan, where we’re based, is home to around 4,000 people. It’s completely unexceptional, but for one thing: it knows how to make jeans. And for 40 or so years, one jeans factory made 35,000 pairs a week.

At one time, the factory was the town’s biggest employer: 10% of the population. But in 2002, it closed and the town lost its confidence.

I knew from Howies that I could build a brand and make some money, but I needed a purpose to start Hiut. And that was to help those 400 people – with all of their skill, knowledge, passion and care – get their jobs back.

That was never going to be easy – not in a market 80% dominated by jeans that have been industrially washed to look old.

We can’t afford the machines that will wash our jeans to fake their history – and we don’t want to be part of that anyway. So, we’re in the 20% niche: unwashed jeans.

But if we want to re-employ hundreds of folks, we need to play in the 80% space.

The way we solve that problem is to have ideas. An appetite for crazy ideas saw us create a history for our unwashed jeans with the Denim Breaker Club.

We pay 50 creative arts students to be our washing machines. They sign up to wear a pair of our jeans, record what they do in them on their history tag – and not wash them.

After six months, they return them to us and we wash them once. They look old, beaten up and beautiful. And when we sell them, the student gets 20% of the price.

Our job as a company is to go out there and see what ideas stick.

What can we expect from 2018’s Yearbook?

The aim of this year’s book is for it to be a user manual for creativity.

It has five different paper stocks. It comes in a box. It features photographs from Andrew Paynter, who shoots on film. There are illustrations from the top talents in the UK and US. And there are interviews with leading creatives from around the world.

There is a lot of work that goes into it, and it shows people that we are willing to spend weekend after weekend working on something that seeks to inspire them and not just sell to them.

If it doesn’t have a traditional ROI, what is its purpose?

Frankly, from a financial point of view, the Yearbook doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s 144 pages, and maybe 24 of those talk about denim.

But our view is: if we can inspire our customers, we will end up selling at a time that is right for them.

Each Yearbook is a thing of beauty. Which is useful, because we can send it out to some of the most creative people in the world and they will read it. We can give it to the world’s press and not be ignored.

Excellence is rarely ignored. Unlike an email.

And it shows our intention. When we say we’re going to get 400 people their jobs back, the effort we put into the Yearbook signals that we’re going to do it.

Is the collectable quality of print still something modern customers appreciate?

I think so. In a world where you can have anything you want by tomorrow, scarcity is a desirable thing. It’s why we have a backlog of jeans orders – and only run off 2,000 copies of the Yearbook.

I can’t tell you the number of people who say they have every Howies catalogue. Or who ask for back copies of the Yearbook. There aren’t any, just in case anyone asks!

Will retailers continue to use print? What part will it play in brand stories in the future?

Ideas grow in importance once printed. Print has the power to do that. But print that uses beautiful paper, great design and well-chosen words does it best of all.

So, print is not dead. Average print might be. But print that is considered and intelligently written is having a moment.

Print titles like Monocle and Dumbo Feather are pioneering and people are buying them.

Smart brands will continue to tell stories on paper. Patagonia is a great example. It could easily do its thing on digital, but it chooses print. If it didn’t, something would be missing – the magic.

As people, we have a relationship with a beautiful piece of print. We enjoy it. I can’t tell you why. But I can’t remember the last time I smelt an email.

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