Diamond in the Rough: How the Hill House Brand Went From Personal Vision to Viral Sensation

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Hill House Home launched their black Nap Dress in February of this year and sold $1,000,000 worth of inventory in twelve minutes.

Twelve minutes.

The Nap Dress is the definition of a viral product. But Hill House is so much bigger than their hero product.

Founder and CEO Nell Diamond started building the brand in a Yale University incubator while working on her MBA. She’s spent the past six years crafting Hill House into something expansive; something that empowers their customers to shape their homes and wardrobes to their own unique identities.

Nell is quick to say that the brand is bigger than just her. Beginning from her initial creative spark, the Hill House team has grown the business by connecting deeply with customers and shaping their expansion collectively.

It’s an amazing story. Let’s see what Nell has learned along the way.

Listen to what your customers want

Most brands exist in a constant push and pull between the founder’s passions and customer demand. The magic happens when these two forces meet in the middle.

Hill House is great at striking that balance. A lot of that comes from their terrific social media presence - seriously, follow them on Instagram.

Here’s how Nell brings the customer into the decision-making process:

“A big business school thing that I did take away is something that's so positive. We did minimum viable products all the time. And what I mean by that is we would literally have a sketch of something and throw it up on Instagram stories and see how people responded.”  

“And I keep seeing this trend of like, you know, small or not small businesses, but like to see businesses asking people to vote on colors on their Instagram like, should we do this in pink or blue? And it's so funny because you can look at that and be like, all right, guys. Like, just figure it out, you know, decide what's your color palette for the season.”

Key takeaway: Hill House knows how to collaborate with its audience, and that’s been built into the brand from the very beginning. What better way to give them exactly what they need?

Launching a viral product

Okay, so let’s talk about the Nap Dress. In many ways, it’s become a calling card for Hill House, but the overnight (or 12-minute) success of the product didn’t come out of nowhere.

For Nell, the sudden virality of the Nap Dress was the culmination of years of work meeting a really amazing product. Let’s start with those years of work.

“So I think it's important to note that it took time and it was a real process on so many levels. It's not just the inventory, it's not just the design. Also getting our site to the place where it could support that kind of excitement. I think getting our customer service to a point where it can support that kind of excitement, getting our fulfillment center... There was a huge, huge, huge journey. And so I think that those stats really represent those kind of five-six years of journey.”

But what drove such fanatical demand for the Nap Dress?

Well, first: it’s not a dress for napping.

“I've always been a dress girl and I really wanted a product that I could kind of wear around the house and feel dressed in and feel good in, but also be really comfortable. And I kind of believed that that wasn't impossible, right. That we could have something that felt practical and beautiful at the same time...

But I think what was really important to me was that A, this dress worked on a range of body types and literally my own range of body types, you know, I've been pregnant with twins in the last year and my body has changed so much throughout that process. And I wanted something that could carry me through that. But that also looked great on a range of body types among my friend group. I think I was also thinking about that.

And I wanted something that kind of washed well, you know, you could throw in the washing machine and not worry about it. I'll have to send it to the dry cleaner. And that felt presentable. So if my mother in law is in the kitchen, I'm not feeling naked. And if I’m running out to the grocery store quickly to go grab something, I don't feel like I'm in my pajamas,” said Nell.

The Nap Dress was perfectly situated in a range of ways.

The first iterations launched in 2019, so when the pandemic hit and we started spending a lot more time in our homes, it was a natural choice for consumers.

On top of that, it’s crafted for a whole range of body types. That means it can cater to a much broader margin of consumers.

Finally, it fits into a ton of different roles in the customer’s lives. It’s versatile in a way that few clothing items are, which makes it an easy pick for consumers.

Show, don’t tell

You almost definitely heard this from your 9th grade English teacher.

And if you work at Hill House, you’ve almost definitely heard it from Nell.

In a branding context, this means using visuals and storytelling to get across the value of a product. The Nap Dress is great for this because it’s so naturally visual, and it fits so naturally into a range of life situations.

Remember when I said Hill House had a great Instagram presence? That ties in here as well.

“We partner with influencers to show us the product and we let them direct, produce, shoot, style, their own photo shoots and show us how they wear it and show us how they live with it. And that's just been so powerful for us because we really get to show people the wide range.”

“And I think that certainly at the beginning and if somebody follows me on Instagram, they might think like, oh, she is very girly. Like, I'm not going to be able to do that because I'm not that style or whatever. And I know that, I know that I like love bows and love -- you know, I'm always wearing dresses and hair accessories and all those things.

But at the same time, I also have friends who wear the Nap Dress with their Converse and like an amazing leather jacket and just looks so cool in a way that I never would look cool and I want to show that too. So influencers have kind of been key to that strategy to really show us how they live and breathe. We also will repost a lot of customers in our communities photos because we love seeing how people kind of style their product and live with that product,” Nell said.

Hill House has an interesting approach to working with influencers. Nell sees influencer marketing as a collaboration. That means allowing them to bring their personal brand into conversation with the Hill House aesthetic.

“So I've always thought it totally didn't make sense to send these like elaborate, like very strict guidelines for working with an influencer if they're going to be touching your brand, because the whole point of it is to see the collaboration, to see how this person who has a specific brand voice puts that brand voice on your product, and that will allow people to kind of see the product in a new lens,” Nell explained.

Why risk retail?

This might be the million dollar question in 2021.

After all the talk of the “retail apocalypse” and the huge impact of COVID on retailers, a lot of brands are wondering whether brick’n’mortar is really worth the hassle anymore.

So why does Nell bother?

“I think brick and mortar can be such a powerful, powerful thing for a business and such an incredible way to connect with customers in person. So I really wanted a brick and mortar store so that I would have a personal opportunity to speak directly to our customers in person. So that meant that I needed to pick somewhere in the neighborhood where I was going to be a lot, which was the West Village, which is where I live and and really use it, use it as a little test center.”

So we would test new products in there and ask people what they thought. I would watch people shop, watch people walk around the store and see what they were doing. And these are all things that are totally unscalable, right, me being in a brick and mortar store every day. But I think that really made sense at the beginning. And I did it for that reason,” she said.

For Nell, retail is all about relationships.

That means stepping outside of the traditional metrics we use to understand failure and success.

“I would like stores to be profitable, right? But do I understand intuitively the kind of halo effect that a great store can have? Yes. And I think that because I understand that that connection kind of happens and it's really difficult to measure, we want to make sure that the stores feel really different than online and that we kind of track them in a different way than we do online.

So whether that's a really great place for us to kind of hold in-person events to highlight our customers in our most busy cities...I think we're figuring it out. But I think certainly in order to get into brick and mortar in this day and age, you have to be not too attached to attribution and metrics,” said Nell.

Long-term, Nell hopes to stick with retail, even as the actual retail experience changes.

“I do think that the beauty and power of being able to walk into a store of a brand you love will always be there. And beloved brands, you will always want to have that kind of emotional and personal experience with. But it just might be fewer stores. It might be really making those fewer stores more meaningful in other ways.”

This focus on the interpersonal is what keeps Hill House Home connected and growing. They understand what their customers need and value, and they’ve been building the brand alongside those customers since day one.

Basically: Nell knows that commerce is collaborative, and that the best brand narratives are the stories that you and your customers tell together.

So here’s something to chew on: Where does the customer fall in your brand storytelling? Are they the hero, or just an incidental character?

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