SME podcast: product design student wins £50k of advertising to drive sales during COVID-19

  • An Aston University student won free advertising on billboards across the UK to help drive sales for his start-up business during the lockdown.
  • The marketing worth £50k helped Joseph Poxon, who graduates in product design and engineering this summer, to pivot sales of Rugged Nature’s male grooming products from wholesale to consumers.
  • Professor Kate Sugden, deputy dean at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said this was a great example of how all their students are taught practical entrepreneurial skills.

A product design student won advertising worth more than £50,000 to help drive public interest in his start-up business’s male grooming products during the lockdown.

Joe Poxon, who’s set to graduate with a degree in product design and engineering this summer, said the free marketing from Ocean Outdoor helped him to quickly pivot Rugged Nature from wholesale to direct-to-consumer sales.

Joe revealed his experiences in episode 4 of a podcast series called ‘Aston means business: SMEs adapting to COVID-19 challenges’, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.

Professor Kate Sugden, deputy dean at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said this was a great example of how all their students are taught practical entrepreneurial skills.

Joe set up Rugged Nature, which creates 100% natural male hair and beard products, with his brother, an A-level Chemistry student, because their mum was having asthmatic reactions to heavily scented grooming merchandise.

He focused on the start-up during his placement year with Aston Business School’s incubator programme BSEEN (Birmingham Skills for Enterprise and Employability Network), and said his degree learning in products, packaging and aesthetics quickly led to growing sales.

Joe said: “We were just about to start going into negotiations with distributors and really big clients when lockdown hit the bottom line quite heavily in the direct-to-shops department. Sales pretty much dropped to zero in the space of a couple of days.”

To keep his business afloat and find new customers, Joe applied to a £10 million advertising fund set up by media owner Ocean Outdoor to help small businesses during the coronavirus outbreak.

Ocean awarded Rugged Nature £52,000 worth of free advertising space on 10 digital billboards across the UK, a marketing spend Joe said he would never have been able to afford. And to keep costs low, Joe modelled for the billboard picture himself, with his girlfriend taking the photography.

He explained: “With lockdown, a lot of people are doing things over the internet, and there’s that classic cliché that if you’re having online interview you wear a suit top up and then nothing on the bottoms. So I got myself a big red pair of boxer shorts, bought myself a nice suit up top, and the picture was me sitting in my underwear on massive digital billboards across the UK!”

To coincide with the billboards, Joe rebuilt Rugged Nature’s website to make it easier for consumers to buy products direct, and since then he’s seen a “definite uptick” in sales.

He said: “People were still buying online, and this really did help take traffic to the website. It was a big pivot and we had to act quite quickly but it’s helped keep the business afloat.”

Professor Kate Sugden said: “The course Joe’s been studying encouraged him to look for an opportunity and equipped students with design skills and engineering knowledge. Our degrees also have business and management content such as branding, intellectual property and product development.

“Joe’s shown he’s taken onboard those concepts but also that he’s not afraid to rethink things if something fundamental such as the business environment changes. £50,000 is quite a big amount of funding for a student enterprise to receive at this stage, and Joe’s done really well to accelerate his business in this way.”

Professor Sugden said all the School’s students were encouraged to do placement years to get better understandings of the commercial world, and that the BSEEN programme Joe had been on offered strong support for growing businesses.

She added that the School had recently developed a new four-year Design, Enterprise and Innovation MSc degree, jointly delivered with Aston Business School.

▪ Episode 4 of ‘Aston means business: SMEs adapting to COVID-19 challenges’ can be found at

About Aston University

Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long-established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive.

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