Fashion business consultant, Joanne Jong and a panel of industry experts discuss the challenges and opportunities of fashion marketing.

Digital has forced the fashion industry to switch from an authoritative voice dictating what we should wear and when to one that must understand and respond to what customers want.

The movement reminds me of a big switch flicked from transmit mode to receive. I call it The Fashion Switch – and it’s the title of my book coming out this year.

I had the pleasure of talking about the impact of digital at my ALIGN launch event in collaboration with The Office Group. This was a great opportunity to introduce clients to the principle and how it can help them.

Using five steps, Align takes the major concepts of the fashion process and frames them in a simple, unique check and balance system. It’s a powerful method that not only helps brands reform but also aligns their creative and strategic vision.

Many fashion brands have been caught out by rapid change, and marketing is where the budget has been diverted. However, without strategic clarity, the time and money spent are unlikely to yield return.

There are so many opportunities waiting for brands that rethink their mindset. I asked my esteemed panel of guests for their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of the new fashion era.

The Panel:

Matt Booker, Print production expert in London. Matt has a very discerning eye for colour.

Rhodri Williams, Digital Marketing Expert working for Liberty Marketing

Ashleigh Davies, Direct Mail Consultant. Ashleigh has worked closely with Royal Mail for years and is an expert on growing business with the use of direct marketing. has worked closely with Royal Mail for years and is an expert on growing business with the use of direct marketing.

The communication challenges of today

JJ: Starting with Matt, what is the biggest communication challenge that fashion brands face today?

Matt: I would say the biggest challenge is the volume of communication that everyone is being bombarded with today. It’s not just small brands that face this, but the likes of Amazon and Google too. It’s a pretty tricky place to be.

There is so much communication out there, how do you retain loyalty? A lot of our clients may get themselves into a place where they think they are growing very quickly, but they are actually just buying customers through a discount scheme.

One positive is that the bombardment of information has made consumers crave authenticity from brands, which is good news for us.

JJ: Rhodri, what do you think is the biggest communication challenge? Is it all about ROI and getting yourself out there?

Rhodri: The main goal is obviously to convert customers, but without being authentic, you can’t sustain this. Consumers are more intelligent than they have ever been and they are spoilt for choice, so you have to hold your integrity and know who you are as a brand. This will naturally encourage the right type of customers.

There are a lot of brands that struggle with an ‘identity crisis’ and send out mailshots asking “how can we change to suit you?” It’s like asking a family member: “How can I be different to make you like me better?” They will say “What are you on about, I like you because of who you are.”

JJ: Do you see that as well, Ashleigh?

Ashleigh: Yes definitely, it is very noisy out there. Brands are starting to notice that not everyone exists on all channels and are considering other options. Many SMEs are hitting a ceiling because not everyone is on Facebook and not everyone responds to digital advertising, so mail and catalogues are starting to resurface. It’s about the multi-channel approach, reinforcing brand integrity.

JJ: The fragmentation in the market means there’s no one-size-fits-all option anymore.

Ashleigh: It’s a multi-channel approach. More businesses establish themselves online without having bricks and mortar stores and catalogues – which are my bread and butter – become the E-commerce shop window, telling a story and driving customers and consumers in.

JJ: Everyone is trying out different channels. Is managing omnichannel presence the problem? It’s a huge struggle.

Rhodri: There are so many touch points these days. You can get advice from your friend, watch a TV advert, go online or use social media. As a brand, you need to figure your demographic out.

Some people would prefer to read a catalogue rather than browse online, and so on. It’s about the message, regardless of the medium. As long as you get the right message across to the right audience, it doesn’t matter if it comes from a catalogue or online.

Ashleigh: It creates a halo effect. If you flick through a catalogue and then see the same brand advert online, the halo effect pushes the brand to the top of your mind and it’s positive reinforcement.

As a brand, you need to be considered important within a saturated landscape where there are so many competitors, and they can all talk about jeans.

JJ: So one thing that remains the same is the target customer and how to reach them most effectively?

Rhodri: There are more opportunities to catch. As long as you know who the type of audience is that you want to resonate with, it doesn’t matter whether you catch them on Instagram or give them something tangible to look at, as long as you’ve got an impactful message.

JJ: Consistency, all the way through. So we’ve covered consistency, explain your findings regarding going digital in business.

Rhodri: It’s a really scattered approach. Jumping on Facebook because the competitors are there or jumping on Instagram because it’s the latest thing. If you don’t have a strategy then how do you know where to go?

You need to find the destination. You wouldn’t jump in a car and drive without a destination. So you need to map out the route and know where you’re aiming for whether that be brand awareness or hitting the top of the funnel.

Not only take time to understand who your customers are but also where are they on the buying journey. Are they just looking at jeans, or are they looking at men’s skinny black jeans?

JJ: With so much emphasis on digital, why is print experiencing a resurgence and where does it fit in the marketing cycle?

Matt: Part of the reason it has come back is that it’s a bit more precious, it’s not so immediate and disposable. When a consumer reads a beautifully curated catalogue or a brochure, they understand that someone took time to produce and send it to them. Compare this to checking your inbox in the morning and deleting the first 15 brand emails that have come through.

JJ: Which is actually ironic, because digital content is also super time consuming, but consumers don’t value it as it’s not tangible.

Matt: That definitely seems to be the case. Print receives premium attention and credibility.

The importance of intangible materials

Ashleigh: Lots of research has been done recently on what happens behind reading a brochure. It can be used as a recruitment tool, it can be used to raise loyalty. It’s about the physical and tactile. It evokes something.

I’m sure everyone can relate to this: The mail is delivered, there’s someone in the household, sorting financial things here, oh this one stays later. It’s shared, it’s kept. In terms of time, it’s a very expensive marketing tool, but the time you have with the customer outweighs a lot of other marketing tools and it’s going into that person’s home.

You are actually going inside their home, without following them around on the internet. It does a different job. The internet is great for specifics, whereas a catalogue can make you think “oh that’s quite nice” and you might spend more time with it and then browse online. Digital on its own is just very, very noisy.

JJ: Customer retention is a huge challenge today. In terms of the customer retention arch, how do digital and print coexist?

Ashleigh: I think the two go hand in hand. Not everybody responds to a catalogue or an email, it’s about personalisation. There are some brands you fall in love with and will engage with in any medium. Conversely, if there’s a brand, that has not made much effort or you’re not interested in, of course, engagement will be low. All communication needs to become targeted. It’s about utilizing the data that is available.

Rhodri: Facebook is huge on this. At work, we are currently doing a travel campaign that targets everyone who is in Terminal 4 and then splitting them up into categories: business, families, stag nights etc. It’s about making the customer feel like they are part of a journey and a case of giving them information which they might find educational, entertaining or relevant. Using data cleverly is crucial.

Ashleigh: Sometimes brands don’t know what state their data is in and that can be quite scary, but you can start off easily. I used to work for Next and we started personalisation with 4 main categories for men’s, kids, women and home. There’s no point in sending womenswear pictures to someone who is just buying kidswear. Instead, push kidswear again.

JJ: Would you say it’s getting more and more personal?

Ashleigh: Absolutely.

JJ: So, Matt you were saying you were looking at technology for personalisation?

Matt: Yes, I think that’s going to be the next step. Digital and print, in particular, are going to work on each other strengths and that’s going to be an amazing opportunity for brands to thoroughly personalise the shopping experience.

JJ: A lot of the work that I do with ALIGN is about creating strong brand foundations from the start. How important it is for brands to have a great creative brief from the start when it gets to the end result?

Matt: It’s critical. The same goes for print, there are so many different materials, processes and techniques available. You need to know what the end goal is.

It might be that you want to do something different, so take a look at what competitors are doing in your space. You might want to aspire to look like another brand or you might want to do your own thing. These factors are important to discuss in the beginning.

JJ: Do you find that quite often the project isn’t briefed well?

Matt: Definitely, there’s not that much knowledge about technical aspects of printing because the uni generation was choosing between the printing module and the internet. So it’s surprising actually, how little knowledge there is about it. It didn’t use to be like that.

JJ: What is the biggest job for creatives when putting the message out there? How should they prepare themselves?

Ashleigh: I think it’s about choosing an objective. A lot of SME’s want to do a catalogue, but they don’t know what the objective is.

With any marketing channel, the messaging strategy has to be aligned with it. Many brands want a catalogue simply because a competitor is producing one. It’s quite scary when people think, “oh I should be doing this” but not actually understanding the methodology of why they should be doing it.

I completely agree with Matt, that there are certain skill sets missing. Seasons after and seasons, deadlines to deadlines, there’s little time for innovation.

JJ: Is time a challenge?

Ashleigh: I think so. Taking the team out for half a day to discuss what worked last time should be more the norm because that’s how to stay competitive and also how to figure out to be different. Unfortunately, I don’t think brands have much time to do that. They are constantly under pressure.

There are more opportunities when you allow time to analyse. It’s about testing. Test first to see if it works for you. That’s the advice I’d give to anybody, research it, speak to experts and test it.

JJ: Do you think a change of mindset is crucial? Seeing the high street crash at the moment, I use ALIGN as a chart. I look at pros and cons and use it as a benchmark consistently. Working with Austin Reed, they had full authenticity, but no visual language. They had market trust but refused to innovate.

The corporate organisations often have the finance, but not the innovation, strategy or creative vision for the brand. Do you agree?

Rhodri: The whole industry moves so quickly, you have to be able to adapt. You should constantly keep up to date and reinvent yourself. Customers want change.

I’ve seen it this shift with a good friend of mine, the former editor of Zoo Magazine. Zoo absolutely led their market, but all of a sudden there’s LadBible and UniLad. Because Zoo didn’t adapt to new platforms, they dissolved.

Ashleigh: You can innovate with print it just comes back to being innovative. There’s such a wide spectrum of what you can do with print as well with data. Loyalty customers, targeting a specific category they buy from and timing it in terms of years, multi-buyers, single buyers… There’s so much to test again.

JJ: Basically you are saying, you need to stay on your toes because everything is changing very quickly.

I was talking about digital fragmentation and it has seemingly created a level playing field. There are opportunities for niche brands and for agile businesses to nibble away the market share from the big guys. To conclude, what can brands do to stay relevant in today’s digital market?

Matt: Utilise the best of both print and digital.

Rhodri: No print, no catalogue, just digital. Haha. Just kidding.

Regardless of where you market yourself, be impactful. Once you know who you want to target and who your audience is, make an impact and be different. Don’t be afraid to try something new. People always want to do what their competitors are doing, but that’s not going to get you anywhere if you really want to get ahead and disrupt. That’s what the new brands are doing, they are making a new pattern, shaking it up. Stand out and be brave.

Questions and answers

JJ: (To the audience) Does anyone have any questions?

Guest 1: When it comes to catalogues, is there evidence of whether you are driving purchases or footfall in store, on the brand’s website or marketplace websites?

Ashleigh: Catalogues are a good return on investment because you can attribute them. We got lots of multi-channel, where it’s tricky to attribute which channels actually drive sales. Catalogues have a slight advantage because you can directly attribute back. We have conducted a lot of research where catalogues funnel you online.

JJ: So it’s like a driver then?

Ashleigh: Yes, it’s the amount of time you physically spend with it. Lots of people think consumers throw catalogues straight to the bin, but we have research to prove otherwise.

Matt: I think there’s also a lot of interesting research about the life cycle of mail and how different age groups respond.

Ashleigh: Yes, pretty much everyone responds to mail. It’s not that noisy. Research assumed that 18-20-year-olds want consumer mail because they are digitally savvy, but research showed they were thrilled to get mail because they don’t get any. Think about how excited you get when you receive a birthday card on your door once a year. So actually when it was relevant and targeted, they picked it up and responded.

I was working with Jack Wills’ handbook and we used to get people calling up saying, I’m missing one, please can you send me one. That was 6-7 years ago, social media was just starting to progress. People used to say, “have you got your handbook yet?“ And that was a really young generation.

Matt: Yes, people were trading these on eBay I think, haha.

Guest 2: Talking about communication and route to market, how important is the product in all of this? Georgio Armani for example.

JJ: It’s incredibly important. For example, you can only communicate if the product delivers. This is the challenge with marketing today. You might be piling money into marketing, but if the product doesn’t deliver, then it will be a one-hit wonder and that’s not what builds the brands of tomorrow.

The product has to be spot on, it has to solve a problem and have some intrinsic value in it. Buying is a want, not a need. As far as I’m concerned, a product has to be as on point as possible.

Through the align process, we go through a series of questions, we talk about fit, all the differentials you can add to a product. For instance, a T-Shirt. I designed a ridiculously banal T-Shirt, you might say, which was a simple blue and white stripe T-Shirt, but we built it in 9 different design elements. And yet, it was a product that Kate Middleton ended up picking from a bunch of many complex items. She picked that T-Shirt and wore it to New Zealand with Prince William and it was on the covers of newspapers for 2 weeks! You can talk about a stripey T-Shirt, you can innovate a stripey T-Shirt! I think it’s that detail that really counts to the customer.

Most brands are churning out products and not spending enough time to work out the details. It makes life really difficult for the guys sitting here. If you have 9 details to talk about, you could do that for days: photography, creative side and content. If brands would think like that, they would be engaging for the long term. So absolutely product is key. Do you agree?

Rhodri: Yes, it drives brand loyalty, if Burberry designed a rubbish trench coat, no one would like them. They place emphasis on the trench, because it’s a signature product, but it’s good quality and people know when someone is wearing a Burberry trench instead of a normal trench. I think that’s the key thing. If you want to build a sustainable brand, you can do that through brand loyalty.

Ashleigh: I agree, when I was in Next a few years ago, we had an awful SS campaign. The marketing team were pulled aside and asked, “what did you not do?” When actually the product wasn’t that good, it really let us down, every channel across the business suffered for it and that’s the conclusion. You might have best ambassadors in the world, but if the product is not good and the customers don’t want it, it’s not going to sell.

JJ: Going through the innovation module, I talk about one product that they want to be known for and own within the market. My good friend from Orlebar Brown and I found one good product: tailored shorts which take you from the sea to lunch by the seaside. That is the way fashion brands are succeeding today. They have a range that’s succinct but when you think about their brand, you know it’s the tailored shorts. When I talk to my clients and ask “what is the one product that you want to be known for?” They say “oh it could be this and that..” No, it has to be 1 product. 1!

Ashleigh: I’ve got a men’s chino brand client actually, and they said that they were hitting the ceiling on Facebook and wanted to create a catalogue. Their story was that all of their friends were rugby players, struggling to find chinos that fit their thighs, but Ben, the founder of the company was sick of not being able to find chinos that don’t fit. That’s basically it. They created a 16-page catalogue, showcasing the products and explaining the fit, beautifully executed. They found cold data and they’ve gone from small volume 20,000 to 70,000 within a year. Again, they recognise that not everyone is online. I’ve got a case study if anyone is interested.

JJ: I believe the strategy is for brands to have that one thing they want to be known for and to innovate on top. Clearly, with Orlebar Brown, they have folded digital into their business model. Not only does it create an innovative product, but also a community.

Ashleigh: Oh yes, and his repeat business is really, really high because people found these chinos and they want other colours etc.

Rhodri: You can build on that. Once you succeed within a specific area with one product, you can do something else because you have gained their trust.

JJ: I’ve asked these guys along as they are the experts of growing brands and I think that’s the thing that pulls them together. They each know their business incredibly well and they know how to get the message out as effectively as possible.

Thank you very much for coming.

Joanne Yulan Jong is a fashion designer, creative director, author, and founder of Yulan Creative. Her global client list includes Giorgio Armani, Missoni, Daks Simpson, The Austin Reed Group, The White Company, Liberty, ME+EM and Petit Tribe.

Her fashion consultancy specializes in helping established and entrepreneur-led brands to ALIGN their creative vision with their business strategy, and grow.

Her book “The Fashion Switch” will be published this year by Rethink Press.

Joanne has guest lectured at universities such as Edinburgh College of Art, Kingston University, London College of Contemporary Arts, University of East London, Winchester School of Art and the V&A Museum. * Follow Yulan Creative on Twitter

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