By Stephen White, Fresh Business Thinking

Leveraging 15 years’ experience in marketing, Richie Jones is an original digital believer.

At the start of 2015, the passionate surfer and mountain-biker teamed up with Saltrock and is now leading a major brand boost for the famous UK surf-label.

Fresh Business Thinking spoke with the Bristol man to hear how his industry experience and love for the outdoor lifestyle have made him a driving force in content marketing.

FBT: How did your career in digital marketing (DM) develop?

RJ: After 11 years in the industry I founded a digital agency called Yucca. I sold that about four years ago then worked for their biggest client as marketing director. I was there for two years before working for major clients including Edinburgh Woolen Mill Group. At the start of this year I was approached by Saltrock to with a view to giving the brand a massive boost.

Can you tell us about Saltrock and your role in the company?

Saltrock is an amazing traditional British surf-brand from the late 80s. People know about it but they aren’t familiar with the whole picture, so there was a great opportunity to tell the Saltrock story and highlight its surf DNA. Going forward we are moving into different sports such as mountain biking and skating; it has been great to put on events with our brand ambassadors like big wave surfer, Andrew Cotton.

I’ve surfed for 20 years now and mountain-biked for longer, so it’s amazing to put my experience and passion into a commercial context, bringing in my knowledge of branding and digital marketing.

How important is digital marketing to a brand like Saltrock?

It’s hugely important, but there are two strands to it: Firstly there’s the standard e-commerce and transaction side. We can reach so many more people than our 39 retail stores can. We have a national reach at the moment but we’ll be launching internationally before the end of the year, targeting Australia, the US, Germany and the Netherlands. We’ll also be going into Amazon and Ebay. DM is also important because we’re not doing any big above-the-line advertising such as on television. We need to raise brand awareness and digital plays a vital role in achieving that.

The second angle is to tell brand stories. There’s so much depth to what we’re doing and we’re coming up with so many content ideas; there’s the VW bus which will be going on tour, there are store openings, interviews with our brand ambassadors. We are constantly trying to tell the story behind the brand and that feeds our content marketing.

How are environmental concerns brought into Saltrock’s marketing?

Corporate social responsibility are key. We have to be very aware of our supply chain and aim to be carbon neutral this time next year. The issue covers are far reaching, down to the low emission company cars we use. These are things we can really shout about to help define our brand.

From an eco point of view DM sees less getting sent through the mail. Better management of supply chains comes in, cutting out on imports. We’ve worked closely with Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), implementing a five pence bag levy in our English stores with the proceeds going to the SAS. We work closely with them to raise awareness of issues such as marine litter.

What hurdles do companies face when building a brand online?

There are lots of pitfalls for start-ups, especially around the basics. If it’s an e-commerce website you need to make sure product imagery is good, allowing shoppers to zoom in to the top-level detail of a product. So many firms don’t spend long enough on descriptions which are also crucial. If it’s clothing, what trend is being tapped into? It’s really worth getting product-related content sharp as this helps sales as well as Google ranking.

Online video is also vital. On our site we have a VW video shot with VW enthusiasts. We paid them with merchandise, the video was very cost-effective and it made the brand look really good. Above all, spend time getting your content right then mobilise that through blogging, tweeting and all other social media platforms.

How has the consumer’s role changed with digital marketing?

The consumer is increasingly in the driving seat from a feedback point of view. The brands doing it right are those that embrace reviews and product ratings on websites. Without this consumers can feel the company has something to hide. Increasingly there’s the expectation to have detailed reviews like there are on Trip Advisor.

Saltrock’s newly launched website has reviews at its core; we are really proud of the quality and value of our clothes, and the reviews will really shout about that. Platforms like Bazaarvoice can really help you if you’re a small brand. You always get a little review request email after buying from Saltrock - it’s a powerful but simple tool that helps with SEO and helps consumer experience. You can stay in touch with customers and work to get things right.

Does the use of digital marketing impact on the size of business teams?

I would say yes, but if you’re employing someone who responds to reviews and ratings, then the extra outlay pays for itself. Definitely teams are getting bigger. In the past I’ve been the guy who makes teams bigger - I’ve put the costs in but shown the return as a result. The great thing about digital marketing is that you can prove that ROI. I’m happy to say it’s never been a problem for me!

If you come into business and are trying to implement a big digital strategy, you need to make sure that the people signing off the strategy and the investment you put in are agreed on the success metrics up front - that could be sales, incremental sales or profit. When the goals are reached they can be ticked off, which is really important.

What does the future hold for digital marketing?

I started off in digital, then I went offline for a bit, now I do it all. Primarily I think it will just become known as marketing. Maybe it’s a generational thing - you currently have younger people coming into digital marketing who are very savvy, and the generation lagging behind are retiring and disappearing from the scene.

Eventually I see it all becoming one thing - an integrated multi-channel marketing strategy, be that digital, above the line, below or through the line, all these different facets - ultimately it’s all brand marketing.

Is this the death of the real store?

The successful retailers are joining off and online, but I think a highstreet footprint will be imperative. People still want to go into a store and pick up their items but there’s vastly more opportunity in going mobile than anything else. It’s the more retail-savvy that are driving the footfall to the store using digital. That’s what’s happening with Saltrock; I’m developing a full multi-channel strategy - it encompases an offline marketing strategy which is heavily integrated with a mobile-first approach; driving footfall in so that you can redeem vouchers, using beacons to check how to make apps respond to how we are performing.

On the smaller scale of things, you might get someone from California who makes specialist products like surfboard fins; they may have a strong presence on Tumblr where the detail of the brand can be mobilised. North Cornwall firm, Love Foam, lets you shape your own board. It’s really hot on Instagram and loads of people are getting interested. These marketing methods obviously depend on the volume of trade surfboard shapers want - do they want to run a big business or do they just want to go surfing? There’s nothing wrong with wanting the latter!

What strategies should SMEs look to if they want to expand their digital presence?

It’s all about developing a wholescale content marketing strategy. We are identifying content pillars holding up the brand; they might be corporate responsibility, the story of the founders and the eco-sustainability strategy, things like that. It’s then about coming up with content to flesh those ideas out, bringing a story to life that can be told online, instore or through digital merchandising.

The successful brands are nailing this. Crucially, SMEs are full of passion - they really care about what they’re doing and, often, if you’re up against a big corporation and you are an agile, savvy small business, you can be quite sassy in your marketing and stand out with a really distinct strategy.

SMEs can get away with being a bit cheeky, putting across a genuine sense of humour and personality and there’s far less pressure to comply to the stiffness of corporate conduct.

Currently at Saltrock we are doing a lot with the corporate responsibility side of things, making sure it all stacks up, putting protective strategies in place. We aiming to get a more efficient supply chain from a shipping point of view. We’re also expanding on the retail front - six more stores have opened in Wales. We are sorting ourselves out for growth.