We sat down with R+Co’s Creative Director and co-founder, and he shared his brand-building knowledge with us. But that’s only part of it.
It’s the moment right before Summer begins its sharp descent into fall. We step onto our back porch in Edmonton for a conversation with Howard McLaren. In California. Thanks, Zoom.
Before our 15-minute chat begins—which R+CO awarded to us for carrying their products—we rack our brains figuring out what to ask Howard McLaren. What do we want to get from this? For Neutral Support, it’s clear that Howard—a world-famous brand builder—will have some proper knowledge. We decide to go in looking for inspiration and tips to build a brand people love.
After saying hello and discussing the complexities of wifi on mountaintops—it’s not as good as you might think—we dive in. Howard speaks in a charming Glasgow accent, but his wisdom is universal. Even beyond hair.
He talks about how consumers are smarter and they know what they’re looking for, “Which is brilliant,” he says. “Things change quickly. And because of that, brand’s need to adapt quickly.”
We’ve seen him do that with his own brands, so his insight isn’t just textbook. It’s earned.
Tactically, Howard knows how to get people through the door. In our experience, that’s half the battle. Not just anyone, but the right people. “To do that,” Howard says, “be consistent with your brand, it's design and messaging.” He reminds us that we need to have a clear picture of who we’re talking to before we speak with them.
Then we tell him about our new venture, Neutral Support. The idea for the brand came from necessity. Quality capes for salons don’t really exist. In the salon world, there are everyday items that thoughtful design and innovation have left behind. We want to do something about it. But to do it right, we know we need to build a brand people love. This is when Howard lays it all out for us.
“Once we figured out who our customer was,” Howard begins, “We kept on that and built that part of the brand. It’s about brand identity and the translucency people are looking for. Once people like a brand, they’re dedicated to it. So make sure there’s a place people can go, images they can see, and develop that relationship. Do it through the hairdresser and the website. Get that part solid. Start with ‘why do we exist?’ ‘Why are we important to the hairdressing community?’”
All this rings true. If you know R+Co, you’re likely familiar with their mission of re-educating people on classic hairdressing. There are plenty of reasons to love their brand. But for us right now, we love that the heart of the brand has remained consistent while adapting to the ebb and flow of a changing world and audience.
Howard speaks candidly about his previous business, Bumble & Bumble. His role in developing the company and its product line was instrumental in its success. But near the end of his time with Bumble, he saw the brand change. It grew steadily. And then one day he found himself watching it get picked apart. “I wouldn’t say we were chasing the customer,” he continues, “but we were trying to accommodate everybody. And one size doesn’t fit all. Understanding who you are and who your customer is.”
There’s no shying away from the fact that expanding a business can be good, but there’s risk there too. As we grow our businesses, Weekly, Take Care and now Neutral Support, we encounter those risks daily. Howard’s especially helpful here saying, “build a good team—like a puzzle—where your work complements each other. Then keep in your lane and trust the people you work with.”
He uses his past lessons to light the path ahead. Howard and his team grew R+Co four times faster than Bumble & Bumble by connecting with their audience on social media. “We employ kids who do this all day. And we let the community blow it up too,” he says, “Five years ago, vloggers were mad for information. We were very aware of how to get out there quite quickly while creating products with ingredients that matter to those people—and to us.” Howard is emphatic about creating an atmosphere for customers. One of the best ways he says to do that is by building playlists for different times in the day because, “You don’t want to walk into your salon at 9 am and there’s rave music blasting. You’re curating. It’s not just a playlist. It’s thought out in as many ways as possible.”
At this point in the conversation, something unexpected happens.
Going in, we considered this conversation a once in a career type thing. Like we mentioned earlier, we received the opportunity to speak with Howard because we’ve been carrying R+Co’s products at Weekly. That was enough. Then, quite casually, Howard goes, “We can do this every couple of weeks if you want.”
He says, “We create relationships. It’s so important that we help each other. There are a lot of people that rival each other. But it’s not the best salons. Smarter hairdressers get along with other hairdressers too.”
As the conversation winds down and summer’s end picks up, Howard’s message and invitation resonates loudly. The chance to continue sharing ideas and learning from someone who’s found—in our eyes—monumental success is a big deal. But looking back on the conversation, it all makes sense. It’s all in line with who Howard is.
Running a good shop, taking care of people and getting along with everyone are essential building blocks for an exceptional customer experience—and a successful business.
Those tips are great for any brand anywhere, and especially so for Neutral Support.
For us, they light the path ahead. Let’s go.