One of the most common questions I'm asked is:
What’s your one piece of business advice for emerging designers?
And every time my answer is the same. From a PR and marketing standpoint, the best piece of advice I can give emerging and independent designers is to create a strong foundation for your business and to have a plan.
Okay, perhaps that's two pieces of advice but they're both extremely important. In order to build a successful fashion business, you have to think like an entrepreneur. There's just no way around it. Understanding how business works, establishing goals and creating strategies to accomplish those goals are a must if you want to turn your passion into a profitable brand. I meet designers all the time who make gorgeous collections but struggle to take their business to the next level. After talking with them I quickly learn that they don't know who their customer is and many times, they don't even have a plan for how they're going to make sales. Their "plan" is to put their collection on their website, post a few pictures on Instagram and wait for the sales to roll in.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. In many cases, the initial momentum and the excitement of starting a new venture can cause entrepreneurs to push creating their business foundation to the side. Things like creating a website, posting on Instagram and scheduling lookbooks can seem much more glamorous and fun at the time but, longevity in the fashion industry requires a strong foundation. Your business foundation makes up the building block for your success and is vitally important.
By my definition, a strong foundation includes:
KNOW YOUR CUSTOMER.
Whether you’re posting on social media, finalizing the details for your lookbook or designing a new collection, it’s important that you always create with a specific target customer in mind.
Your target customer should be very specific. A lot of times designers tend to think that by specifically defining their customer and narrowing their focus they are limiting who they can sell to. Instead of focusing on one group of people, they try to focus on everyone. The problem with this is that by marketing to everyone, you are marketing to no one.
The more specific you can get about who your customer is, what they like, what the dislike, their budget, their lifestyle, and other buying decisions, however, the better. In fact, by narrowing down your target audience and getting to know your customer on a personal level you are actually strengthening your brand and improving the odds that you'll make sales.
Your customer is more valuable than any other component in your business. You can have a flawless production strategy and have awesome manufacturing and materials resources but, if no one is buying your product, it really doesn’t matter.
When you know your customers and consider them on a more personal level, you can create products you know they’ll like; you can style your lookbooks in ways you know will grab their attention. You can also write copy and design your website in a way that they'll be able to identify with and you can share your message in a way that will resonate with them.
Know exactly who you want wearing your brand and speak directly to them.
KNOW YOUR BRAND STORY & MESSAGE AND BE ABLE TO EASILY SHARE IT WITH OTHERS.
The fashion business is an extremely competitive and saturated industry. Although social media has made it easier for emerging brands to compete with larger brands, it has also made it increasingly more difficult for brands to stand out. Everyday there are new fashion start-ups entering the market. In order to be successful you have to find a way to distinguish yourself from the others.
Brand storytelling has always been an important component in marketing but now, more than ever it’s become that much more vital to success.
Your brand story is the story behind your business and behind your product. It’s how your business came to be and it’s what motivated you to start your label and why you continue doing what you do despite the challenges.
Your story and your message are a powerful tool because it can create an emotional connection between your audience and your business, which results in customer loyalty, and ultimately sales.
Take for example Wildfang. Wildfang, is a Portland-based apparel company that was co-founded by Julia Parsley and Emma McIlroy, two women with a tomboy aesthetic who craved masculine-inspired clothing that actually fit. “We created Wildfang for our friends and for their friends and for all the badass women we haven’t had the chance to meet yet. We think being a tomboy is just as much about attitude as it is about fashion, so in that sense we hope Wildfang will become the home for tomboys,” said Emma.
And it has. Nearly three years later they’ve opened two stores, clothed celebrities such as Kristen Stewart, Janelle Monae and Even Rachel Wood. They've also built a massive following by sharing their story and their message of "badass clothing" for "badass women."
Telling your story whether through the copy on your website or through the pictures you post on Instagram is an extremely good way to distinguish yourself from every other designer and fashion label out there. Sure, there are many other fashion brands that perhaps sell similar items, but they don’t have your story or your message.
KNOW WHAT MAKES YOU STAND OUT FROM THE COMPETITION.
What makes you the best in your market? What makes your business unique? Why should people buy from you and not your competitors? What are you bringing to the market that others are not?
To be successful you need to know what your USP (unique selling point) is and how to portray that to your audience. Yes, there are many other designers and fashion labels that are also fighting for the attention of your target customer but it is completely possible to stand out and to be unique even in a saturated market.
The trick is to find what you do differently and share that with your audience. Do you only use sustainable materials? Does a portion of your proceeds go to charity? Do you have an excellent customer service policy? Are you selling quality pieces at an affordable cost? What makes you different?
Over the years the Seattle brand Nordstrom has distinguished itself from other department stores by offering an amazing return policy and customer service care. With the rise of social media, they’ve strengthened that reputation with their social media presence and customer service attention via platforms like Twitter.
How are you standing out? What are you known for? How can customers distinguish you from others?
There are many factors that play a role in the success of a fashion label but creating a strong foundation is a huge part to setting the stage for future success. Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of entrepreneurs at various stages of business development and I’ve found that those who haven’t taken the time to define and set the foundation of their business are often inconsistent. Often times they can confuse their potential customers with mixed messaging because they themselves do not know what and to who they’re really marketing.
When you don’t have a foundation for your business it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Often people will try to emulate, or copy the strategies that have worked for other fashion brands and are left feeling frustrated and discouraged when those same strategies don’t work for them.
Take the time to fully flesh out the details of your business: what you have to offer, who you’re offering it to and why they should choose you.
Whether your business is already established or you’re preparing to start one, remember that the success of your label requires that you think like a designer and behave like a business owner. Start your business strong by building it on a solid foundation.