Kate Hardcastle, ‘customer whisperer’ and founder of Insight With Passion, is on a mission to bring the emotion back into retailing. Lizzie Murphy met her.
FOUR years ago I returned from my first spell of maternity leave to find a bouquet of beautiful flowers on my desk.
It wasn’t from a family member or a friend. The message on the card said: “Read you were back from maternity leave and remembering what that day felt like, I wanted to send you something nice. All the best Kate Hardcastle.”
Cynics might suggest it was a strategic move for the media-savvy retail expert but Hardcastle, who has a seven year old daughter and 16-month-old twins with her husband Matt, has a genuine empathy for working mothers. “I know how hard it is,” she says.
The mother-of-three is the founder of Insight With Passion, a business consultancy which has helped to rejuvenate businesses including the Cooperative Group and school uniform supplier Trutex.
Hardcastle is also a consumer and retail expert on radio and television, has founded a number of charity campaigns and won countless awards.
“The thing I’ve learned since setting up my own business is that I’m selling time, predominantly my own,” she says.
Hardcastle’s working week can vary dramatically. “Last week I was in London for three days and had back-to-back meetings. Thursday was a massive results day for retailers. I did 27 interviews, had four pivotal meetings for one client, a presentation to an award winner for my Positive Image campaign and then had dinner with some friends,” she says.
This week, she is based in the North - she lives in Wakefield. “I average about four hours sleep,” she says. “I’ve dropped my daughter off at school two days this week so that feels like a win and I’ve been with my kids in the same house every night so that’s a good feeling. But there’s a lot to do and thank goodness for technology.”
Hardcastle, 40, set up Insight With Passion in 2009 after working in marketing roles for a number of businesses in the furniture industry. Within two years the firm was working internationally and Hardcastle decided to grow the business, employing 15 people in Huddersfield, Manchester and London.
But she found managing staff a bore and in 2013 she decided to close the offices and scale back the business to just five employees.
“I thrive off turning a project around for a business and I think that’s where I add the most value,” she says.
Dubbed the Customer Whisperer by the media, Hardcastle focuses on consumer behaviour. “The customer is now more emotional, more unpredictable and more informed than ever before and you have to really understand them,” she says.
Hardcastle’s success lies in her ability to create retail campaigns which sell to customers emotionally rather than rationally.
She is credited for turning around Silentnight during her time as the firm’s head of marketing by bringing back the hippo and duck branding and launching ‘My First Bed’ for children. “By bringing back the hippo and duck I was bringing emotion into the brand and My First Bed was a massive emotional sell,” she says.
UK Christmas retail figures have, on the whole, been positive this year. But Hardcastle believes the results mask what is really happening. “Online retailers are learning day-by-day how to connect with customers. Retail on the high street still has to work out how it’s going to make itself relevant to that audience,” she says.
“When you look into the data from Christmas you see that retailers started their sales early and Black Friday was a big promotional period. Were the positive figures a timing issue and are we going to be talking about a really challenging January? I imagine we are.”
An unusual aspect of Insight With Passion, given its size, is its corporate social responsibility commitment, Access for All, which sees staff give 20 per cent of their time back to businesses, charities and organisations for free. Hardcastle admits it was a ‘bold and naive’ move in the beginning but it’s one that has paid off. Most of its work is done in partnership with Welcome to Yorkshire where it has helped more than 1,000 businesses through a number of workshops.
The scheme also introduced Hardcastle to television presenter Carol Smillie who runs a business selling waterproof pants with former tennis player Annabel Croft. “Our job was to make the business blunter and bolder in the way it got to its market, going direct to charities like Endometriosis UK and making use of our retail connections,” she says.
Huddersfield-born Hardcastle describes herself as “hugely ambitious” but not a goal-setter. “I feel the more you try and control things the more you miss out on,” she says. “I have loose plans but that’s as far as it goes,”
She celebrated her milestone birthday and 21 years in business with a huge party at Yorkshire Sculpture Park last September.
The celebration also marked her vast charity and volunteer work. She has launched a number of campaigns to support the work of existing charities.
She founded Charity Dreamgirls which organises events to raise money for charity partners and is also the founder of the Positive Image campaign, which supports young people in gaining confidence.
In addition she is an ambassador for Women in Sport, helping to create more awareness, funding and accessibility for girls and women in sports, especially those working behind the scenes, and a trustee of The Diana Awards
Until recently she worked with Bradford Bulls on a voluntary basis. “I was doing everything to bring money and sponsorship into the club but if the business itself is broken, there’s a bigger job to do and I didn’t have the capacity timewise to do it so I had to walk away,” she says.
Kate Hardcastle Fact File
TITLE: Founder of Insight with Passion
Date of birth: September 17, 1976
Education: Brooksbank School in Elland; Business management degree at the University of Salford;
First job: Retail fashion assistant at Ponden Mill
Favourite holiday destination: Verdura in Sicily
Favourite film: An Affair to Remember
Favourite song: Signed, Sealed Delivered, by Stevie Wonder
Last book read: Not Dead Yet: The Autobiography, by Phil Collins
Car driven: Range Rover Evoque
Most Proud of: My kids