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Wearing it Well: How Fashion Brands Can Design a Digital Strategy

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It’s New York Fashion Week when top models and leading designers take to the runway in Manhattan. New collections are on display. Fashion trends are shaped and defined by retail influencers and buyers ready to sell the latest looks.

For many traditional brands, taking to the catwalk in New York – or London, Paris or Milan, for that matter – is the penultimate step in a long journey that will end in stores and online. Top brands have made this journey for the past decade, but times are changing.

The State of Fashion 2019, a recent report published by McKinsey in collaboration with the Business of Fashion, characterizes 2018 in three words: changing, digital, and fast. The traditional recipe for success will become increasingly ineffective because both industry economics and strategy are on the move. Digitally native vertical brands are siphoning off market value by operating in niche positions at smaller margins. They are also faster to market and able to adjust assortments in a matter of weeks rather than months. The need for continued digital transformation has never been clearer or more pressing.

In LiveArea we’re bullish on the prospects for retail and fashion despite persistent challenges CXOs have defining the implications of “digital” on their businesses. We consult with brands and help formulate digital go-to-market strategies and lead with four clarifying principles – essential to understanding how to apply digital technology effectively and profitably.

Four Guiding Principles

What is digital? There is no single answer to this question. ‘Digital’ takes many forms and digital initiatives are only a subset of the overall strategy. For example, in fashion and apparel, digital may be a virtual try-on application or online closet – different from what a financial institution might implement. Before embarking on a transformation journey, the key to building and applying a digital strategy is understanding the underlying principles and areas where digital can impact your business. It’s critical to understand the following:

1. Digital is NOT a channel – Many organizations view ‘digital’ as something you add to an existing business. Not long-ago brick and mortar retailers could be forgiven if they confused digital transformation with the introduction of an eCommerce initiative. They wanted to maintain the old ways of doing business while bolting on a “digital” side to their business. This approach creates additional IT and marketing activities and leads to competing silos rather than a fluid, cohesive organization. Avoid this mindset

2. Digital is not more, it is different – Consider the overall structure of your business. Digital might have an impact on the levers that drive your overall business model. Look at how Netflix has changed the way entertainment is distributed or how Rent the Runway is transforming the way women shop for dress-up events. Digital within the context of fashion doesn’t mean brands will stop selling clothes but it may change the way those clothes are sold. This means you need to be “open to reexamining your entire way of doing business and understanding where the new frontiers of value are.”[1]

3. Digital is about customer experience – While digital is not merely a new channel strategy, it will have implications on the way you interact with customers and communicate your value proposition. Customer journey mapping, omnichannel strategy, and mobile-first design are smaller initiatives within the broader digital customer experience discussion.

Then there’s larger initiatives such as artificial intelligence, which has the ability to help brands and retailers with predictive forecasting, capacity planning and merchandising. This means that consumers can enjoy the benefits of better product availability and faster, more accurate deliveries. In addition to supply chain benefits, AI also can help create a smoother browsing experience and improve customer retention through personalization.

The highest hurdle executives will have selling their organizations is that there is no end-game. The playing field is always shifting, and customer expectations will follow emerging trends. The key is to develop an iterative process, so your customer touch points can evolve with those expectations.

4. Digital is about culture as much as capabilities – The most successful digital transformations in recent years are the ones that have changed not only internal capabilities (technical) but also how an organization works – and how customers interact with the brand. The hallmarks of a digitally mature organization are:

  • The ability to deliver quickly – the organization is right-sized for responsiveness. In other words, it can support the business with processes rather than being built to support the operations themselves.
  • Good enough – trying to build systems, capabilities, or customer experiences that are perfect for the existing business firmly plants your feet in the present. You’ll be out of date before the project is even finished. The preferred approach is to develop capabilities that allow meaningful iteration and improvement on a regular basis.
  • Value-based decision making – every business has internal stakeholders with a laundry list of projects they’d like to complete. Prioritization should be objectively based on the incremental value they bring to the company either through enhancing digital capabilities or customer experience.
  • Comfortable being uncomfortable – with speed as a goal and an understanding that the process is never finished. Remember, digitally mature organizations will be comfortable not having all the information and knowing the roadmap could change tomorrow. They can afford to make mistakes because they can correct course quickly.

Digital Roadmap

At its core digital transformation is about changing the underlying components that enable a business’s value proposition – whether it’s the business of fashion, electronics or automotive. A strong digital strategy or roadmap affects the entire company – how it’s organized, the way you sell, market, and service customers. It has the power to unlock significant growth.

When we’re asked to help clients develop digital roadmaps we typically take a two-pronged approach focusing on technology and organizational capabilities. These roadmaps need client specific inputs, but we use a version of this matrix to help structure our initial analysis.

Our process is to assess the current organizational structure and capabilities then prioritize what to evaluate based on:

  1. The current level of pain they are causing
  2. The potential positive impact a change could have on the overall digitization of the organization
  3. The level of digital maturity required to make the transition successful

Perhaps the biggest blocker to successful digital transformations is the ability to execute. Many consulting firms will offer frameworks and high-level strategic advice. Unfortunately, the outputs of these strategic engagements often lack the specificity needed for the business line leader to execute the necessary changes. Further, those leaders have to be focused on running their business and don’t have time to execute the changes needed. Successful transformations need specificity and an empowered leader who has demonstrated a propensity to deliver complex projects successfully.

Conclusion

Technology is blurring the line between physical and digital worlds — especially in fashion sales and manufacturing. Big data, the platform economy, artificial intelligence are just some of the technologies transforming the industry today. Do you have a digital strategy and a trusted partner to help your brand navigate the choppy waters of change?   You should.

To learn more about digital roadmaps and applying digital to your business, drop us a line.

[1] What ‘digital’ really means  – McKinsey – https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/what-digital-really-means

Zach Hanlon

I'm a big picture guy at heart with an engineer's eye toward practicality. I began my career in consulting then moved into application sales before transitioning to marketing and go-to-market strategy. Over the years I've focused on digital transformation, eCommerce, and customer experience within fashion, apparel, retail, and a touch of B2B. I love solving problems and I think helping people is more important than helping yourself.

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