Rudy’s: How a barbershop mastered social media before it existed

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In the late 80’s and early 90’s Seattle was, by all accounts, a very ugly place.  Fuzzy loud music was the deal and grooming wasn’t part of it (flannel, yes.  flat top, no).  I was, however, applying for a job and needed a trim.  A retro-looking add in The Stranger caught my eye.  Looked “vintage” and advertised a $10 buzz cut.  There was something both out-of-place and intriguing about the concept–what appeared to be the type of old-school barbershop that smells like hair tonic and cigar smoke existing in the middle of the apotheosis of slobbish Northwest metal mania.  Years later Rudy’s Barbershop has expanded in to a multi-located network of branded, profitable barbershops and boutique hotel stores.  They’ve even expanded into the ‘burbs.  From a marketing standpoint they initially accomplished this type of successful growth without Twitter or Facebook or any ‘viral video’ production.  Back then ‘social media’ meant great word-of-mouth buzz.  Rudy’s knew, however, that the secret to staying alive was to create a defined identity that deeply engage their customers.

So how did a low-budget barbershop in a mossy corner of the country connect so well with its customers, expand rapidly and profitably, while staying true to it’s core vision?  Moreover,  now that we have a social media network and highly connected consumers,  how can a small business create the type of customer engagement that Rudy’s generated without a single tweet?  There are five things that Rudy’s did and does exceptionally well and that you can use to improve your business’ level of social media engagement.

1.  Define Yourself.  Rudy’s created a unique point-of-view and identity.  It’s rock and roll.  It’s creative.  It’s in a warehouse or an old gas station.  It’s wallpapered with gig posters.  The barbers are inked up and cool.  They’ll bullshit with you and it won’t be stuffy.  The price is right and they’re almost always open.  That’s what the owners wanted–a place that was fast, inexpensive, and community based.  They created a social hub of sorts with a very distinct look, feel, and perspective.  

If you don’t want to get lost in the social media shuffle then your business must have a clear perspective, identity, niche.  A point-of-view in terms of services, content sharing, culture, and customer engagement not only creates a memorable pull-through for the customer but incentivizes reciprocity and return visits, follows, re-tweets, sharing.  A defined niche means you know who you are.  Your customers can appreciate the specificity, and you can centralize your content sharing around this niche identity.

2.  Test.  There was no real ‘blueprint’ for Rudy’s expansion strategy.  They knew what worked at the original location.  By the owners’ admission they were terrifically surprised when the original Rudy’s location outpaced it’s capacity.  They decided to open a second location.  They also decided not to mess with the look and feel of their business.  Loyalty was high, customer’s loved a cheap hair cut, and it was fun to hang out in Rudy’s.  The type of experience they created at location #2 was virtually identical to the original.  It worked just as well.  Location #2 was an instant smash and quickly led to a third and fourth opening.  The expansion test proved the owners right: they were on to something that connected.

Defining a niche is one thing but testing it’s market validity is the real proof of it’s ability to engage.  Thankfully the social world is a transparent world and it’s easy to determine how far your message is reaching and how deeply it’s being pushed into your consumer’s networks.  If, for example, a shared video connects and is suddenly re-tweeted hundreds of times then you may have content engagement that works for you.  But a one-time spike in engagement isn’t enough to sustain a social media campaign.  It has to happen every day.  You’ll have to test and re-test the reach and relevance of your shared items to ensure the messaging remains consistent and is consistently shared.

3.  Create Without Compromise.  These days every Rudy’s looks more or less the same (hotel locations notwithstanding due to other influences).  The locations are cool, the barbers are hip, the walls are still plastered with posters, and the music is still metal.  After the original vision took hold the owners decided to allow individual location managers to steer the creative direction of their respective locations.  And, because they’d hired very well, they found folks that understood the balance between calculated risk-taking and staying true to what works.  The result is that each of the 7 locations is distinctly Rudy’s but each has a unique ‘twist’ within that framework.  

You’ve defined a niche, you’ve tested the results, your customers are starting to engage.  Now start to explore the content varieties that exist within your defined identity.  Mix it up.  It SHOULDN’T BE all business (actually it should hardly be any business at all).  Create your identity as credible, humorous, likeable, reciprocal, community-based, and trust worthy.  Don’t limit your content sharing simply because you think it might stray outside of your niche!  

4.  Re-Test.  When Rudy’s decided to expand from Seattle to California there was an obvious question: Will the fickle, hyper trendy people of L.A. latch on to the punk-rock barbershop from the Northwest?  L.A. is a different beast.  True to their vision, however, Rudy’s opened their first California location.  The success was almost immediate.  The original vision worked.  Markets change.  Customers change.  But without an original concept of how they wanted to engage their clients the Rudy’s L.A. location may very well have been lost in the shuffle.

There’s nothing ‘plug and play’ about engaging your customers.  Especially in the real time.  Social media planning requires constant monitoring and evaluation as to whether messaging remains relevant, shareable, and true to the original vision.  If the message isn’t connecting then it’s time to take a fresh perspective on what people are talking about and the ways to better align your company’s social identity with their engagement expectations.

5.  Launch.  In the last few years Rudy’s became more than a barbershop.  It evolved in to a brand (although one may argue it was that from the start).  The Standard Hotel connected with Rudy’s on a collaborative project based on ‘The Rudy’s Experience.’  The Standard introduced lifestyle products: hats, sunglasses, logo wear, and pomade.  The Ace Hotel did the same.  Over the years the customer engagement, consistent messaging, and clear company vision outgrew the company itself.  

Most small businesses don’t have a ‘cool’ factor that ends up in a hotel.  But they can create their own brand of service based on a clear set of identities, principles, and actions.  In order to create a Rudy’s-level of customer engagement, however, an owner’s vision and strategy must be solid and tested and re-tested.  Auto-posts and auto-DMs don’t have the same level of emotional connection that personalized engagement accomplishes.  A social media strategy designed to engage has to always feel real to the consumer if they’re going to help co-create your brand.

There was a time when it was impossible to be The Mayor of Rudy’s in as much as it was equally impossible to tell the world that #Rudy’sRules while giving them the big thumbs up.  All anyone knew was that Rudy’s was creating something unique that felt good–it was a unique experience that connected with you on an emotional level and kept you coming back.  Any small business can take a similar journey with the right plan, a unique message, and a clear appreciation for the impact that true customer engagement has on long term growth and profitability.

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