Life’s a little stressful if you’re in the hardware business these days. The all-American, mom-and-pop hardware store has been hammered by the big-box boys—Lowe’s, Home Depot and Walmart. And looming larger still is the unrelenting pressure from Amazon, which, as you might expect, lists a staggering 70,000 items under tools and home improvement alone. In the center of this competitive storm sits Ace, the “helpful place” whose 5,000 locations walk a fine line between chain-store economics and a small-town feel. Each Ace Hardware store is independently owned and operated.
And it’s the latter part of that positioning that headquarters hopes will leave an impression on consumers, at least judging from a new marketing effort breaking today that frames Ace as a “home convenience store.” The creative, from O’Keefe Reinhard & Paul, includes a video spot and supporting social-media material, with additional creative to roll out over the next six months.
The effort, said Ace CMO Kim Lefko, “plays to what makes Ace special and unique and differentiated in the marketplace.” And while some of that is selection, the predominating themes are personalized attention and a physical scale that’s not overwhelming.
According to Lefko, the “red-vested hero” customers meet when they walk into an Ace store (and are all over this video) is a major differentiator for the brand. “They’re interested in serving you, not only with products but access to knowledge,” she said. “The person greeting you is the second- or third-generation [proprietor] in that store.” While big-box competitors also have plenty of helpful staffers (be they in vests or aprons), it’s often the case that one needs to traipse around the aisles before finding one.
That those aisles also appear to extend to the horizon is another theme the new campaign broaches. Not only are Ace stores local—75 percent of the country has one within a 15-minute drive—they have a more manageable footprint. At Ace, the spot’s narrator explains, you can find “the everyday things you need to take care of around the house.” And, to be clear, that place “wouldn’t be a warehouse.”
In addition, the positioning of Ace as a home convenience store is also meant to delineate what the brand is not—namely, it’s not your headquarters for huge home renovation projects. Instead, Ace wants to be the destination of choice when a loose tile needs recaulking or a light bulb burns out. Mobile spots carry messages like, “If it’s not a huge project, why turn it into one?”
“We’re not in the remodeling space,” Lefko said. “We do really well in home preservation in maintenance.”
In fact, Ace appears to be doing well overall, so this effort is clearly not being launched out of desperation. For the quarter ending June 30, Ace’s total revenue was up over 6 percent. Net income rose, too, from $51.1 million to $54.8 million. Thanks to factors including historically low interest rates, the home-buying market has remained vigorous, and that’s been good news for hardware brands. It’s a segment that IBISWorld values at $26 billion, and it’s growing. That said, while the market might be big and healthy, Ace is obviously aware of its competition. “Do we have our eye on Amazon? Absolutely—everybody does,” Lefko said. “And do we watch the big-box stores? Of course.”
In a functional sense, Ace’s latest campaign is merely building on themes that have been integral to the company for years, if not decades. Ace’s founding dates to 1924, when a group of Chicago hardware-store owners joined forces to boost their purchasing power. In the mid 1970s, Ace debuted a jingle—“Ace is the place for the helpful hardware man”—that stressed the idea of personalized service, and while “hardware man” became “hardware folks” in 1989, that message (and the jingle) have been a fixture of Ace advertising more or less ever since. In 2013, Ace rolled out a campaign called “Meet the Aces,” which positioned the store as the place to go for a “more personal kind of helpful.” And three years later, another campaign featured “real Ace customers in real Ace stores getting real problems solved by real Ace associates.” The current spot, made up solely of Ace associates preparing to open a store for the day, concludes with a reminder that “people who know their stuff” are waiting to help you.
“That’s the epitome of what this campaign is trying to convey,” Lefko said. “It’s nothing new.”