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INTERVIEW: Sutherland Trading's Nicole Rugman

Gary Cooper
INTERVIEW: Sutherland Trading's Nicole Rugman

Confounding its image as a distributor of more traditional product lines, Sutherland Trading turns out to be one of the UK’s more online-savvy suppliers, recently launching an impressive new website for the Crafter brand. There more in the pipeline too, as Gary Cooper found out…

Born out of the roots of Hohner UK, the independent distributor, Sutherland Trading, may have a friendly, folksie image, with a host of traditional brands but don't be fooled.

Yes, it is friendly and a bit folksy too, but Sutherland is also fast becoming one of the UK's more 'net-savvy distributors, with a keen appreciation of what it takes to create demand in this online world.

Leading the drive to make Sutherland's brands appealing to customers who want information right now, is the company's marketing and communications co-ordinator, Nicole Rugman - whose enthusiasm and imaginative use of media has recently been putting some of the company's much larger rivals to shame.
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For evidence, take a look at the recently launched Crafter guitars UK website - and look too at the activity on  Crafter's Facebook page. Twitter? Crafter is very active there too. But it's the new website that really impresses, with its fresh images, not borrowed from the Korean homepage, but recently newly shot to a brief from Nicole Rugman in Cardiff. It's relevant to UK customers, informative, it involves Crafter owners and wannabes - and, Rugman says, it's a sign of things to come from Sutherland. 

Ah, but didn't it cost a fortune? Apparently not, Rugman (who originally joined the company as a graphic designer) built it herself for a sum of money we aren't going to reveal, but which would make a web design company weep.

Crafter is an interesting brand. Under the watchful eye in the UK of industry veteran Keith Twine, the Korean line has been going from strength to strength and, unlike many has largely resisted the temptation to shift production to cheap Chinese sources. In fact, Rugman says, it is still very much a family affair in Korea, founded by HyunKwon Park in the basement of his house back in1972 and now inhabiting a purpose-built factory which is one of the most modern in Asia. Crafter has a 'buzz' about it among its users too and its distinctive instruments are well regarded by specialist retailers and reviewers, as well as end-users.

"I think Crafter is distinguished in part because it is Korean-made and comes from a family business," Rugman says. "People feel they are getting a better built, higher quality guitar with a Crafter and a lot of that stems from the fact that they have kept their loyal workforce with them and not moved miles away from where they started. InJae Park, who now runs the company, is immensely proud of the Crafter workforce and they are really valued. In a way it's an extended family unit building these guitars and it shows.

"I've always wanted to have a dedicated UK Crafter website because when you give out a worldwide catalogue there may be models there that you don’t carry and I feel it's important to focus on the models that we actually do in this country. I pretty much took the project on my own, with the aim of making it appealing to the UK. I did a lot of research online about Crafter beforehand, reading the forums and finding out how the owners feel about them. The general response was that people really do love Crafter but there has been frustration about finding information about them in the past. The new site addresses that and is useful for dealers too as it lets them find out the latest news from Crafter and easily get the information they need. And it all links to the social networks we also set-up about six months ago.

"Musical instruments are lifestyle products and I was inspired in a way by Pinterest, seeing people's pictures of beautiful things that inspire them and seeing how so many people take pictures of their guitars. When people go into shop they want to buy into that lifestyle because they love the look of it and I want to expand that - eventually including leaflets and posters for dealers to have in their shops. A guitar is a lifestyle product that people get passionate about and we want to encourage that feeling."

Sutherland hasn't undergone a complete revolution, however. Veterans, like Hohner oracle, Steve Proctor and Keith Twine remain industry-regarded mines of product history and information, What the company has done is maintain its traditions while adding a modern marketing edge. 

Following the successful launch of the Crafter site, Rugman next plans to build a UK site for Hohner. The company already has a strong web presence but Sutherland feels that, again, a dedicated UK site is needed. Following that will be a site for the impressive Stonebridge acoustic guitar brand.

Sutherland isn't short of potential subjects for its new marketing style. Besides long established lines like Hohner, Sonor and Burns, it has recently started to promote the US string brand Cleartone, which it sees as a replacement for the departed Dean Markley. But can there possibly be room for yet more string brands in a market dominated by a small handful of suppliers?

"Geraint Morgan, who product manages Cleartone, says he has seen a growth in interest in premium strings and Cleartone is a bit different," Rugman says. "They're not coated - they're treated and it is a big difference there. They last longer, sound louder but play pretty much like a normal string. It is something a little different and has an appeal as a premium brand. Dave Mustaine from Megadeth has recently signed on as a Cleartone endorser and their user list is set to grow. We're hoping to begin advertising the brand towards the end of this year, too."

Hohner, too, is quietly strengthening its presence. "Steve Proctor who looks after Hohner says that in the past five years they have really expanded the product range, possibly more so than ever, with two new ranges of guitars, the Roots and the Essentials, and the ER1-MO model won best acoustic under £500 in Guitar And Bass magazine about 18 months ago. There are a lot more products coming, too, including new student products like the 26 and 32 key melodicas and the Ocean and Fire melodicas which are about to be joined this month by a new 37 key melodica which is all black. Then recently they've had Bob Dylan and Steve Tyler endorsed harmonicas added, as well as the signature harmonica for John Lennon - a collector's dream!"

Meanwhile, thanks to the missionary work undertaken in years gone by the (now retired) Alan Townsend, Sutherland was one of the first into the ukulele market and has done spectacularly well with its Kala, Lanikai, aNueNue and Makala brands, though Rugman says there has been a slight sign that ukulele sales may have peaked in recent months - small wonder given the rate at which so many have leapt on the bandwagon.

"We've been doing some advertising, especially with Kala, which has some funky ukuleles with six new lines this year, including electro-acoustics. There's a lot happening with Kala, they really are working with the folk market at the moment which is growing so fast." Did somebody say Mumford and Sons?

And, finally, Revelation - which lives up to its name. Ostensibly a range of 'familiar' shapes, the brand is being masterminded by British guitar veteran Alan Entwistle, who is spending much of his time in China, developing a range of classic electrics said to be selling at very affordable prices despite being made to a very high standard.

Perhaps what is most impressive about Sutherland's recent revival is the enthusiasm you sense from everyone you speak to within the company - now being reflected in a marketing effort which is becoming one of the brightest in the business.

Tags: sutherland trading , Interviews , nicole rugman

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