We talk about vulnerability, staying relevant and the importance of authentic marketing.
Editor CAROLINE PAIGE
The main message from me is don’t bullshit. Be authentic.
This interview for the FEMALE LEADERS series is with Hannah Whittaker, Marketing Director at Faith In Nature. We’d met at a couple of sustainability events in Manchester. And I like the positive and open messaging used in Faith In Nature’s marketing.
We met at the Victorian warehouse – clad in bold red sandstone and terracotta – which houses their city centre offices. Inside is a noisy, independent coffee shop that also sells natural wines and craft beers. And it has the laid-back, biophilic (plant-happy) aesthetic typical in the Northern Quarter. I ordered a green tea for Hannah, a black coffee for me and found a spot near a plug socket. She walked in looking relaxed – hair tied up in a scarf – and perched next to me on what looked like an old science lab stool.
What was your career path to Marketing Director at Faith In Nature?
When I was younger, I wanted to be a historian and studied classical literature. But uni coincided with the financial crash in 2008 and there weren’t many academic jobs. My other passion was natural health and beauty – I made my own products. So, I thought about writing about beauty and wellness.
Blogging and online digital marketing was quite new, so I started off writing for free. I joined a blogging group of like-minded beauty enthusiasts and grew my network. I started getting paid for my articles and wrote for companies like REN and Neal’s Yard Remedies. But I wasn’t earning enough to move out of my parents’ house.
I was offered a paid place on an MBA at Manchester. And after that, I got a job at a business consultancy and worked with some big brands – like Boots and Unilever – mainly on infrastructural projects. But my interests were leading me back to marketing. When a brand position came up at PZ Cussons I moved there and started managing brands. Then I moved to Paris and worked at L’Oréal on brands like Lancôme and Biotherm. I built my experience in the global head office – brand building.
What was it like working in Paris at L’Oréal? I’m imagining a Netflix series.
It wasn’t like that at all! Paris is the global epicentre of beauty and beauty marketing. It was an amazing experience and school, but it was challenging and hard graft. It did give me confidence to build the career I wanted. My daughter was born in Paris and life was fast and furious. Eventually, my partner and I decided to move back home.
Coincidentally, I met a Parisian who’d moved to The Hut Group in Manchester to head up their acquired brands portfolio. His task was to create a brand building culture by creating strong beta brand managers and teams. I flew over for the interview and knew I’d love working with him. I moved back to the UK and headed the brand portfolios of these businesses. Together, we built a strong team of about forty people. After a couple of years, I wanted to specialise with one brand again. And I received a message from someone at Faith In Nature.
Did Faith In Nature offer a different challenge?
When they contacted me, they said it was a small family business and they were questioning the future of the brand. They offered me a position on the management team to help nurture, grow and establish the brand. When I looked it up, I realised I’d sort of rejected it as a student because it looked a little dated and not relevant to me. I hadn’t recognised it to start with because it had been through a redesign.
When I joined, there was no marketing team and the redesign hadn’t yet rolled out to the rest of the firm. There was clearly a massive opportunity in the fast-growing wellness space. Covid then meant more people looking for natural hand hygiene options. And there was an explosion of interest in wellness in general. We grew at a rapid pace and quickly went from a small to a medium-sized business. We went through a huge transformation journey – and we’re still growing and learning.
You won’t have all the answers – nobody does.
Faith In Nature seems great at positive and honest messaging. Is that type of marketing important for you?
Yes. I talk on various panels about greenwashing in marketing. The main message from me is don’t bullshit. Be authentic. You won’t have all the answers – nobody does. The important thing is asking the right questions. Finding the answer is part of the process. That honest approach is what people find refreshing.
During cash-strapped times, retailers tend to become more conservative. Smaller brands don’t have the huge budgets and brand awareness of the giants. It’s taken retailers a while to realise it’s authenticity and engagement that makes your brand interesting. It’s not necessarily how top of mind you are.
If you come from blue-chip FMCG companies, historically, your role in marketing is to add this sort of artificial value. If you unpick it, the value often isn’t there. Digital transformation is turning that on its head. The consumer knows so much more now. They can compare you with a thousand different brands. So, you can’t not be transparent. You can’t not be interesting. And you can’t not be on the consumer’s side.
Faith In Nature’s customers trust us to be on their side. We’re backing you to make better choices. We’re not just trying to sell you stuff. We are you. If you look at our team – that’s you. That makes us interesting.
What have you found challenging?
A personal challenge for me is to keep testing the assumption that I know what the consumer wants. I’m getting older. I’ve had kids and I may be moving into a different phase of life. Keeping relevant is a constant personal challenge. I want to be relevant. I love work and love finding it challenging and interesting. Faith In Nature provides that. We made this huge move to put Nature on our board and none of us really appreciate the full implications of that bold step.
Do you look for something that feels a bit unnerving and challenging?
Definitely. For me that’s the real interest. I find working for more mature brands (those uninterested in evolving) more of a personal challenge. That corporate stagnation and lack of curiosity is not for me. Having an element of the unknown – so you’re always asking questions – is part of my DNA. And I like to work with people who think like that.
That corporate stagnation and lack of curiosity is not for me.
Who inspires you?
My eldest sister. She passed away. She was an amazing source of strength. People who go through personal health battles, but they’re still resilient, they inspire me. And people who build relationships and choose to be something in the world – even though their lives are difficult. It’s that human spirit.
I’ve worked with lots of inspirational people. And there are many inspiring people at Faith In Nature, who get me to think differently. I find someone offering me a different perspective interesting, not a challenge.
It’s not a weakness to say you don’t have all the answers.
Do you want your team to challenge the status quo?
There’s been a huge transformation in business. But you do find a legacy of people who’re quite closed to new ideas and think in quite a linear way. That’s frustrating. I want to create an environment where people can be vulnerable. Vulnerability is an asset, not a weakness. I’ve met lots of people who find that difficult.
It’s important to let others in and hear their experiences. That creates a real strength in your relationships. It’s not a weakness to say you don’t have all the answers. Sometimes, people are closed to new ideas. When there could be a million different perspectives and answers. Business is an ecosystem. You must put your ego aside as it doesn’t serve you or the team.
Can you recommend a good read?
During Covid I got into nature writing. There’s a book called The Wood by John Lewis-Stempel. He writes about the wood he manages. It’s his daily observations of nature. It’s beautifully written and gives a new perspective – because it’s not about people (and their relationships and anxieties). When I’ve time, I like to cook to relax. There are great food writers who transport you to another part of the world. And that gives you a new perspective too.
It sounds like nature’s been a theme for you, that you’ve tried to include in your work.
That’s so true. It really has. I was very outdoorsy when I was younger and was very keen to interact with the natural world. I had a snail farm (that was a bit embarrassing later). Friends say I’ve come full circle. There was a very corporate phase in my life. But Faith In Nature allowed me to feel more connected to nature again. My interests in beauty, wellness and nature come together here.
There’ll be times when you need to re-engage with what motivates you.
Finally, what advice would you share with women who want to become leaders?
You can’t be a leader until you understand what motivates you. People are complex and leadership isn’t always enjoyable. There’ll be times when you need to re-engage with what motivates you – to want to be someone who leads. So, find that out first. Write it down and tap into it when there’s a difficult time – because it’s a roller coaster.
Even in a small team you can have a lot of complexities. Find out what people’s motivations are and try to get a sense of what they need. It does require you to be interested in how people work. I’m still learning how to build a good team. I have a great team. But I have to ask why and what they need to feel secure, fulfilled and happy. Also, set boundaries and make sure you’re the leader, not necessarily a friend. Creating the framework for that relationship is super important.
But, most importantly, get to know yourself and be comfortable with that.
Faith In Nature is the first company in the world to give Nature a voice and a vote. By making Nature a director of the company, they hope to make better informed decisions on topics that impact it. They have faith in a future where Nature’s rights are represented and respected in every business. So, they’re sharing their process in the hope others will do the same. They’ll even give you the legal low-down on exactly how to do it.