Developing a One-of-a-Kind Brand: James Hill and the Story of High Cotton

Several of our past Smart Hustle interview guests have spoken on the topic of developing a niche – not trying to be everything to everybody and instead focusing in on that one special thing that only you can offer. Of course, developing your one-of-a-kind brand is challenging, so I’m excited to share my recent interview with James Hill of High Cotton. The story of High Cotton shows how you can carve a niche that resonates with your target market in a personal and meaningful way. It also proves that sometimes a smaller, more customized market is the key to your success.

“We Started with a Yard of Fabric on the Kitchen Table”

The story of High Cotton is the story of an apparel business that started with humble beginnings and has grown to a million dollar company. The story begins in 2010, in the kitchen of Judy Hill’s Charlotte, North Carolina home.

At that time, Judy’s oldest son (James's brother) was attending UVA for med school, and Judy wanted to make him a special gift. She knew that he was always getting dressed up, so she wanted to make him a special bow tie. She went to the local fabric store but couldn’t find silk. She chose cotton instead.

Ironically, that same week, the son (James’s oldest brother) had gotten a memo saying that doctors at UVA could not wear neckties anymore. A study had found that, of all the things doctors wear, neckties are the dirtiest. Patients feared that they’d get ill, so neckties were banned.

Upon receiving the gift, James’s brother (Judy’s son) knew they were on to something. The cotton bow tie could be washed and dried, unlike silk ties that require dry cleaning. The cotton bow tie was a sanitary alternative for doctors who still wanted to wear a tie to work. He started handing out business cards, and High Cotton was born.

As the Hill family started building High Cotton, everyone in the family donated their own skills to get the business off the ground, whether it was sewing, sales, or web design. They also tweaked the business a little. A cotton bow tie is not just a sanitary alternative for doctors. James had attended a fraternity where they also wore bow ties to have fun, to be bright and to get attention. The bow tie represented southern fashion flare, and in that realization, they had found their market.

Building a One-of-a-Kind Brand

As James tells me in the interview, they never went into the business thinking of how they could make the most money. “We wanted to deliver something that was genuine and authentic to ourselves before worrying about the market size or our general business plan.” Their market was discovered as they carved their niche around classic southern lifestyle and fashion.

High Cotton’s products represent southern hospitality and charm. The company sells “classic southern accents for gentlemen” – neckties, bow ties, cummerbund sets, braces (aka suspenders), belts, pocket squares, and more. Further, the designs and patterns they choose automatically whisk you away to the south: classic southern materials and patterns like seersucker, madras, plaid, and gingham.

The family’s manufacturing choices also add to the character of the business and help create that one-of-a-kind brand. High Cotton products are made in the USA as locally as possible. In fact, about 90 percent of their products are made right in North Carolina, and their local manufacturer is located in Mayberry, N.C., made famous in the Andy Griffith Show.

At one point in the interview, I asked James about how (or IF) he tries to market the products to different groups. Can this classic southern style reach a wider market?

James says they have developed their niche and want to stay there. “It’s better to mean something to a small group of people rather than trying to appeal to everyone,” James says. There is a real meaning and a real purpose behind High Cotton. That meaning and purpose has resonated with the market and the customers.

This example from James explains it perfectly: “People are calling us saying on my big wedding day, my most important day, I want to wear this thing because it represents who I am and the way I dress and the world I live in.”

That’s the power you can have when you create a one-of-a-kind brand that truly speaks to the market.

Google AdWords Marketing Advice

Take a few minutes out of your day to hear more of this inspiring story by clicking play on our interview above. In addition to inspiration, you’ll also get James’s advice for small business owners and startups. One of the areas we discussed was online marketing using Google AdWords.

James says that High Cotton’s number one source of traffic is organic Google search. They have such a one-of-a-kind brand that their website comes up as the first result in searches such as “southern bow ties,” “gingham bow ties,” and “seersucker bow tie.” Customers can find exactly what they are looking for at High Cotton, and Google Search gives them exposure right when customers are looking to make that specific purchase.

[Here are 5 Ways to Get Started with Google Adwords and How 4 Small Businesses Used Adwords to Grow Their Business]

Organic search aside, they also use Google AdWords for searches where they don’t have as high of a ranking. For example, by placing an ad for the search term “preppy bow ties,” High Cotton gets a prominent spot on the first page of search results, and by testing various ads, they can choose the ad that gives the biggest returns.

Some of James’s Google AdWords tips include:

  • Start with a test of 10-20 ads to see which campaigns get more traction.
  • Refine campaigns and test so you can further perfect them.
  • Get it down to the three ad campaigns that are performing at your highest rate and funnel your money there.
  • Increase your budget on your best campaigns to multiply your returns.

In the beginning, the Hill family started out with a blank canvas and just began experimenting. However, James’s youngest brother eventually took courses to get Google AdWords certification. They’ve found that by developing knowledge and skills, they can keep their marketing in-house. “No one is going to know your own business like yourself because you’re eating, living, sleeping, and breathing it every day,” James says. By maintaining their own marketing, they can find success by combining these learned skills with their intimate knowledge of the business.

In our interview, James speaks about what it is like to create a one-of-a-kind brand, and he also shares advice for others who are looking to start a small business. On that point, James says “Just do it.” Get your product to market as soon as you can and then refine from there. “We started with a yard of fabric on the kitchen table, and now we’re a million dollar business,” says James. “So it can be done. It’s the American Dream.”