South by Southwest
Make the Connection

Smart e-commerce isn’t just about opening a store to sell stuff anymore. Today’s forward-thinking start-up retailer instead looks to forge connections with consumers and to build an audience. Purchases become a natural byproduct of bonds formed by common interests and values.

Take Frank & Oak, which opened in 2012. The men’s clothing company’s CEO and co-founder, Ethan Song, explained his approach at this year’s edition of SXSW. Growing up, Song said, he felt that few retailers connected with him from a brand-value perspective. When he and his business partners set about planning Frank & Oak in 2010, they wondered how they could combine e-commerce—a whole new way of shopping—with a more value-driven orientation.

“We created this company for ourselves,” he said. “We think about a younger, socially connected, technology-oriented male shopper.”

The founders started with the idea that technology could create a unique product and personalized, curated experience into one. But they realized that scaling it up would be an issue. They decided to focus instead on creating a smaller business with a cult-like following. Here are some of the lessons they learned:

  1. Bring your customer into the building of the brand and product. “We felt that we had to be a democratic brand,” Song said. “Customer feedback into the product was important to us. We didn’t know anything about fashion, so customer insights were key. That also led to our customers caring about our brand on a deeper level.

  2. Stand for something. “We only make products for socially-savvy young males,” he said.

  3. Make everything personal. Whether it’s the personal touch on the box or a recommendation, make it look like a human is behind it, not a machine. “We are seeing a shift to value-driven retailers from big box e-commerce like Amazon,” Song said. Figure out how to make a personal connection, whether it’s a direct email to the consumer, great CRM, or messaging copy that feels inclusive.

  4. Be as transparent as possible. This protects the brand from criticism—after all, you can’t hide anything anyways these days. Transparency is about being humble. The new generation of customers connects with that.

  5. Don’t be about your products, be about your customers. Build and inspire communities.

  6. Understand the role of technology: Most experiences are marketing tactics tacked to the end of the funnel to add engagement. It takes much longer to make an emotional connection than to just send a bunch of product emails, but e-commerce over the next five years will morph from mass retailers to uniquely curated, value-driven brands.

  7. Mobile is much more than a channel. A store is a physical destination, but mobile is an extension of who you are. We are at the very beginning of what it can do, which is to bring customers back into the brand.

  8. Get all the teams in your organization to create a fully integrated experience. You have to be interested in all three key elements: product, data, and ideas.

Stores are not dead, Song said. “We love stores,” he said. “All of us have our favorite boutique, it is not about product but an experience. Rethinking the store is what is happening right now. Any store where you walk in and you don’t talk to someone and just grab an item because it is on sale… that will die. Product discovery is also an area where stores will win over e-commerce.”

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