Stacking Up: Ash ElDifrawi focused on building Hayneedle brand
Ash ElDifrawi, Hayneedle's chief marketing officer, was the former brand advertising director for Google. Photo by Andrea Ciurej.
Before his days of management consulting and brand advertising, Ash ElDifrawi dealt with clients subjected to complicated marriages and troubled families.
It all began in 1989 at the University of Chicago, where he obtained a doctorate degree in clinical psychology and started training at the Family Institute of Chicago, focusing on marriage and family counseling.
“It was the usual stuff – communication problems, kids acting out and families throwing stuff at each other,” ElDifrawi said.
ElDifrawi also acquired an externship – a learning opportunity offered by the university – with Chicago’s Cook County Jail.
Amidst his clinical work, ElDifrawi opened his own private practice in the area and transitioned into consumer research.
“I was moonlighting, running focus groups for consumer research just to pay the bills and be able to eat my ramen noodles,” he said. “I was kind of sneaking away and doing some of this other stuff.”
A new fascination suddenly evolved for ElDifrawi.
“People have these phenomenal relationships with brands and products,” he said. “They talk about them the same way people talk about their relationships with each other.”
The psychology behind the duty of marketers allowed him to fall out of touch with his clinical work and become one himself, landing roles as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company and as a managing director at Wrigley, overseeing brands, such as Life Savers, Juicy Fruit and Extra.
“They are really good about allowing people to innovate and grow ideas,” he said. “I went to Google to actually foster something new–an new initiative that was important to the company–and build something.”
He was well aware of the notion that Google was primarily known for being one of the world’s top search engines on the web.
“Most people, when they think about Google, they think about, ‘How do I get people to search?’” ElDifrawi said. “Google and YouTube also created a great opportunity for brand advertisers to develop and communicate their brand, talk about their brand and build brand awareness.”
As the company’s brand advertising director, Google was more about ‘How do I acquire people to specifically search for a certain product?’ rather than just searching.
This vision allowed ElDifrawi to formulate brand-building solutions using the Google and YouTube platforms and managing all cost per mille (CPM) based revenue, meaning advertisers pay for ad exposures per thousand impressions.
He was also responsible for building the Google Brand Accelerator, a cross-functional organization for delivering relevant and effective display and video online advertising to Fortune 1,000 brand advertisers.
“Suddenly, Google became a platform for people to engage brands, two-way dialogue with their self-expression [and] getting their brand communication message, not just a search and find platform,” ElDifrawi said.
After more than a year with Google, he was offered an opportunity with Hayneedle, an Omaha-based online retailer of home furnishings and lifestyle products.
“It was about a real opportunity to build something really special…to take a company that was not well heard of but was doing some really great things,” ElDifrawi said.
And that special “something” was the brand.
ElDifrawi joined the Hayneedle team in May 2008 as the chief marketing officer when the company was known as NetShops.
The company, at the time, relied on search engine marketing, which sought to promote more than 220 websites by increasing their visibility on search engine result pages.
“People didn’t even realize we were connected stores,” he said. “They didn’t know hammocks.com was part of NetShops.”
This disconnect empowered ElDifrawi to lead the revamping of the company’s website and brand in August 2009 to Hayneedle.
“To be a brand is about getting people to come back and talk about you,” he said. “They’re only going to do that if they have a great experience with your product, with your customer service, with your delivery [and] on the site.”
The name was inspired by the company’s new mantra – “finding that really hard to find, perfect item for you, the needle in a haystack,” ElDifrawi said.
The sky’s the limit for the “variety, sweet variety” of Hayneedle.
“It’ll stand for good customer experience,” ElDifrawi said. “It will stand for great quality at a really, really fair price and I think that’s what people want."
Ash ElDifrawi's Career Track:
2000-2003 McKinsey & Company
- Industry: Management Consulting
- Position: Management Consultant
- Industry: Consumer Goods
- Position: Managing Director, Global Enjoyment Platform
- Industry: Internet
- Position: Director, Brand Advertising
- Industry: Retail
- Position: Chief Marketing Officer
Compare and contrast the brand advertising strategies behind Google and Hayneedle?
When I arrived at Google, everyone knew what Google was. They built their brand through innovation and through changing the way people think about creating search, not through their brand advertising. They let people discover it. [At Hayneedle] it was, How do I go from zero awareness, from the world's most known to company to a company nobody knew? How do I tell the story and communicate who we are, expose customers to Hayneedle, so that they fall in love with and come back to us again and again?
Compare and contrast the company culture of Google and Hayneedle?
It's very different in size and scope. They're both trying to be very innovative. I think what I really like about Hayneedle is that there's a sense of community here that you didn't have with Google within the company. They love Nebraska, they love Omaha and they are very proud of it and they should be. And they want Omaha to be proud of them. I didn't see that at Google. It was just a great company.
Where does Hayneedle fall into the entrepreneurial ecosystem?
A lot of executives here came from bigger companies because all of us wanted to build something. We try to infuse that in the organization to give a lot of people the opportunity to chase their ideas and grow in the business. I think we should be viewed as a beacon for that because our founders were local Nebraskans and take a lot of pride in the fact they built this phenomenal company.