In this episode of Commerce Talk, we are sitting down with George Hartel, the Chief Commercial Officer for Supara Group – GQ Thailand, Southeast Asia’s Leading Technical Apparel Brand. Specializing in innovative apparel that solves everyday problems.
With over 20 years of transformation and multinational business experience, George brings with him a rare and refreshing outlook that challenges the status quo of traditional retail, advertising, marketing, and leadership. From advocating for more “ugly advertising” to removing the filters on what it takes to really understand your customer’s journey and needs.
George’s wealth of experience likely underscores the irreplaceable role that direct customer interaction plays in shaping a successful and customer-centric business strategy.
Aziza: I think from the outside looking in, it seems like GQ is a brand that kind of swims against the stream when you’re talking about, you know, that apparel framework of mass movements, color palettes, all of these things that you sit steadily within. Whereas GQ kinda went against that and did a thing that not a lot of people do, which is a bit mind-blowing, which is just going against your assumptions, going directly to customers, and just understanding their challenges and finding those lovely little nuggets of information to kind of better help solve their problems. I want to talk a bit about how you were able to you as a group were able to start moving through those changes because it sounds like an easy solution. “Let’s talk directly to our customers” but it’s something that doesn’t always have the same rewards for a lot of companies or maybe a lot of brands don’t do the same thing. What made this a success for you?
George: I think the playbook we’re running is very unique. For me, it’s not that other brands aren’t talking to consumers, and they’re not listening. The issue that I see, and we’ll talk more about this later, is when I talk to brands and leaders, whether they’re multinationals or family-run businesses, their issues are really the same. It wasn’t any different here at GQ when we started the journey. There tend to be so many filters put on what’s happening.
Many times, if you ask executives, “Are you doing consumer research? Are you going out and talking to the user yourself?” And they say, “Yeah, of course, we do insights.” But who’s doing the insights? “Oh, we got an agency. The agency then farms it out to a key account manager who then sends it to this other person who talks to the user. And that person filters what they have to say back to their boss and so on.” By the time it gets to you, it’s broken down into full bullet points.
You can’t read bullet points in a PowerPoint 150-slide presentation and feel what the user’s feeling. Someone recently spent an exorbitant amount of money, like 1,500,000 baht, about 50,000 US dollars, to get a research study back that said people would like cool and comfortable apparel. I was like, “They want cool apparel. It’s Bangkok. It’s 40 degrees most days. Of course, they want cool apparel, and they would like it to be comfortable. No one wants uncomfortable clothes.” You didn’t need a research study to know that, but they needed confirmation. It’s a waste of time and energy and doesn’t actually give you anything you can work off of.
We’ve created an environment here where we don’t constantly put a filter on things that water it down into what I would consider a watered-down solution at the end that maybe everyone is happy with. But in the end, the distinctness of the brand story and the brand message is lost. A lot of brands talk about relevancy and differentiation, but we’re talking about the brand being really distinct in the market. Not just different, but really distinct.
We take the insights we learned about a particular item or problem, and we use that message all the way through our product, packaging, and every touchpoint that the customer interacts with, whether it’s ads or the product. They are hearing the same wording that the consumer used when they described it originally. We stay true to that all the time. When we do that, it really resonates with people. Sometimes it doesn’t make for the most beautiful ad or the prettiest copy. If you allow someone to make the copy look pretty or the ad looks pretty, you lose the authenticity of what the brand is doing. This has been really important and has helped us stay as distinct as possible.
Aziza: That last point is fascinating. You’ve talked about this before, and I saw a quote of yours, saying, “What looks good doesn’t usually work well in Thailand.” I’d love to talk about this because it’s so important to mention, I think, in today’s world. Looking good may not always appeal to consumers. Where did this come from?
George: It’s come through a lot of testing of direct-to-consumer ads on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok. You can see a big difference between a polished video with perfect lighting, obviously with a large team managing every detail, and something more natural. Consumers are more interested in scrolling with their thumb. When they see something engaging enough to get them to stop, they will watch. Some of us watch 8-10 minute videos about the most random stuff, and it keeps us hooked. As a result, major global brands struggle to satisfy internal teams, legal teams, marketing directors, and global marketing directors, all trying to keep everything on brand.
The world changed in the last 4-5 years in the way we consume media. What’s natural and almost raw has the potential to scale and sometimes go viral. Brands, especially global ones, still want to use big agencies, big shoots, big creative directors, but those videos won’t scale unless you put a lot of money behind them. We’ve mixed and matched the formula where some ads aren’t the prettiest but perform well. For example, one of our highest return on ad spend (ROAS) ads is a static image of a Shabu Shabu menu with the meat replaced by underwear. It resonates right away, stops people in their tracks, and is one of the best-performing ads in the company.
I was at a meta conference last week, and a gentleman shared all the trending data in Thailand. Number 4 on the list was our underwear ad. Is it trending because we pushed it hard with our ads, or was it trending naturally? I think it’s a perfect marriage where it was trending, and our ad about Shabu Shabu became a huge success. Finding clever creative ways to grow your brand and drive trial and conversion with consumers is sometimes in the most unexpected ways, and this is one example that has been quite successful for us.
If you’d like to hear more about filtered-down insights, the need for psychological safety in innovation, and why it’s important to just be quiet in meetings every once in a while, simply hit play where you can hear it all and delve further into:
- The importance of reconnecting with consumers and understanding their challenges
- Why authenticity and rawness in advertising can be more effective than polished and perfect content
- How to create a safe and innovative culture within a company is essential for growth
- Why leaders must actively listen and engage with their teams and consumers
- GQ’s focus on synthesizing innovation rather than predicting the future has been a successful approach