Why it took a decade after the asbestos scandal for James Hardie to return to marketing

A decade ago building supplies firm James Hardie was arguably the most hated brand in Australia, engulfed in litigation around its asbestos products causing the deaths of workers. Marketing boss George O'Neil explains why the time is right for the brand to start marketing again.

More than a decade ago the James Hardie brand pulled all of its marketing in Australia, with the building supplies firm caught in the wake of an asbestos crisis that engulfed the business and resulted in it setting up a trust from which to pay the victims of dust-borne diseases more than $1b.

But now its Asia Pacific marketing director George O’Neil, a former fast moving consumer goods marketer with Unilever, say the time is right to guide the 127-year-old company back into public consciousness, and he’s chosen social media as the way to do it.

George O'Neil focusing on social to build the brand

O’Neil: Hardie’s will use social to allow customers to tell their stories

Speaking exclusively to Mumbrella, O’Neil said the time has come to support the brand again and tap into the goodwill that builders and home renovators had for its products, despite the long-term impact of the asbestos crisis.

Two weeks ago O’Neil presented the new marketing approach to James Hardie employees, for which he received applause and thanks that the company was at last going to market itself again.

He said the suffering and grief the victims of dust-borne diseases had experienced since the scandal over asbestos first broke in the 1980s could never be underplayed, but the time had come to bring the brand back to market.

“What was nice about Hardies and what appealed to me was that it doesn’t operate like a big global brand. From our perspective it’s a great challenge that Hardies’ takes a view about each market and we need to customise our execution for each of those markets,” O’Neil said.

James Hardie moving back to consumer marketing

The move back into consumer marketing reflects growing public interest in home renovating due to shows such as The Block and Reno Rumble

“We are not sitting there with hundreds of millions of dollars of media budget; we are lean. We are very lean as a business.

“You can take a very functional mindset, which is we make fibre cement sheeting. The other side of it is it’s about people’s castles; it’s a very emotional space. And what a great way for us as a brand to reconnect with a lot of people we haven’t spoken to for a very long time and in a way that can be meaningful.”

O’Neil says it was right for the brand to go dark as the many issues surrounding the asbestos crisis played out, from those dying from disease to the compensation funds, litigation surrounding the behaviour of former executives and the decision to incorporate the company offshore.

“The business was predominantly around working with builders and retailers anyway,” he says. “Obviously it was a very emotional topic and all sympathy to everyone that is affected – it is a horrendous disease – and the business at the time decided that it would be better to go quiet.”

Before coming back to market the brand embarked on qualitative research to determine people’s perceptions of the brand. Unsurprisingly the asbestos issues still resonate with some.

“We have been doing a lot of insights work… and there is a lot of truth there that it is fact – it did happen and there is a lot of mind space in that if I don’t hear from you for 10 years, guess what, the last thing I think of is what will come out again.

“The younger people are, the less there is that stronger emotion, unless they are directly affected by it.

“What we are wanting to do is re-associate something positive. Now the fact is James Hardie is doing a lot that typically only comes up when there’s a results call. We are up over a $1b contribution to the asbestos fund, we are working with the asbestos awareness group that have an asbestos awareness month in November supporting medical research, so there is a huge amount that the company is doing in the background.

“It’s also 34 years since we made a product that contained it.”

In 2012 the asbestos saga was the feature of a two-part ABC mini-series, Devil’s Dust, which followed the lives of four people affected by the asbestos crisis including campaigner Bernie Banton who campaigned for years to get compensation for victims of diseases who had worked with asbestos materials.

Even with the issues surrounding the brand, people still believed in the products.

“We were surprised when we started doing focus groups, there is actually a huge amount of love out there for the brand and for the products we make,” he said.

“We know now that being quiet is actually more harmful than saying something.”

Over the years James Hardie has had a number of discussions about changing the name and logo to break with the past – even looking recently at adopting the secondary brand, Scyon.

“The fact is the professional industry forgave the company a long time ago and even products we put into the Scyon brand, the builders say ‘it’s by Hardies’. So our brand awareness is still reasonably high. James Hardie is where the strength is.

Asbestos-based products were once seen as the wonder building material

Asbestos-based products were once seen as the wonder building material

“Doing it in a bold but mindful way means we have been doing a lot of work in the path to purchase.”

O’Neil said in looking at building products, people were seeing things they liked for their own homes in Hardie products and the positive sentiments of the products were replacing the negative sentiments that had surrounded the brand in the past.

“The response from the millennials is, ‘I know there was a problem, that’s a really long time ago, and they don’t make it any more’.”

Social will be the key to the campaign, allowing James Hardie’s own customers to tell the story.

From having no followers on Pinterest nine months ago, Hardie’s now has more than 10,000 for its Scyon page and is growing at a rate of 200 per week, while Instagram has grown from zero nine months ago to more than 14,000 for its Scyon page.

The brand is even claiming higher engagement levels than Taylor Swift.

As part of the process of preparing to return the brand to the public eye, O’Neil conducted an agency review, but ultimately stuck with Hardie’s long-standing agency, DDI.

Caroline McLaughlin, managing director of DDI, said the return to market needed to be handled very carefully. “This is a very complex business. There is a lot going on, there are a lot of moving parts,” McLaughlin said.

“A phrase we use and continue to use is ‘reclaiming our narrative’ for Hardies. For a long time we were in the shadows but I guess we are re-emerging and reclaiming the narrative.”

O’Neil said the timing is right for the brand, with shows such as The Block and Reno Rumble keeping the idea of home renovation and improvement at top of mind for home owners.

“The amount of media out there around The Block and Reno Rumble and all of those, people are paying attention to things they never used to – the flooring that’s sitting underneath the tiles – things that they used to say ‘the builder will take care of that for me’, a lot more people are getting into the space of specifying themselves.”

Hardie’s will track the success of the re-emergence on awareness metrics, looking at ratios of brand love and dislike.

“Probably in about 12 months as we move down, sharing more and more of what we are doing, we will start to get into more refined elements and look at which attributes we want to try and drive and own and how to tailor that to the brand identity itself.”

O’Neil admits that Hardies has spent a long time in the dark but believes it is the right time to bring it back to life as a new generation of home owners seek to put their personal stamp on their castles. And he wants Hardies to be the brand they do it with.

Simon Canning


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