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How to Take a Content-First Approach to Grow Your Fashion Brand

2016-09-21
We’ve all heard the adage, “we buy from those we know, like, and trust.” This piece of wisdom has been true for ages. But it’s becoming more relevant today than ever before.
What do I mean by that?
With the rise of social media and digital content, there’s been a transformation in the way companies build brands and reach audiences. It’s no longer about traditional mass media strategies and brand sponsorships. Even ‘branded content,’ which many companies thought was the new frontier, has not panned out in the way big brands had hoped.

Consider these stats:
Coca-cola transformed its corporate website into a digital lifestyle magazine, Coca-Cola Journey. Yet despite spending millions on this endeavor, it’s website doesn’t even rank in the top 10,000 sites in the US.
Red Bull spends nearly $2 billion on branded content videos, but only ranks #184 on YouTube’s top channel list. Meanwhile, Dude Perfect, a YouTube channel produced by college guys out of their dorm room, ranks #81 on the top channels list. And it has almost twice as many subscribers as Red Bull.
Big brands aren’t leading the charge with consumer preferences any longer. They’ve been unseated. Now it’s the niche players and individuals who are winning the content game and becoming the new taste-makers.
What Changed?
Cultural innovation has always originated from the fringes of society. And large brands served as the cultural gatekeepers: handpicking new trends and disseminating them to the masses.
But in today’s highly-connected world of social media, cultural innovators are no longer confined to the fringes. Rather they’re able to connect directly with early adopters, bypassing large, established brands completely.
Today’s consumer doesn’t want to befriend and buy from a corporate brand. They want to buy from real people. And they’re not enticed by the ‘marketing aura’ that brands construct around a product. Rather they’re enticed by the quality of the product itself and the interactive experience around it.
According to an article in FastCo magazine, the focus of marketing will shift from branded products to brandedplaces. New fashion retailers like Bandier embody this trend.
Rather than simply sell products (like a Macy’s), Bandier sells an overall experience and lifestyle. By creating a cultural destination both offline and online, it’s succeeded at tapping into passionate subcultures of consumers (fashion-focused, music lovers, etc.) in a way that larger activewear brands have not.
For instance, Bandier doesn’t just sell activewear, it sells a highly curated collection of pieces in an environment that merges fashion, fitness, and music. The founder of Bandier created the store after she couldn’t find activewear she liked. Rather than reinvent the wheel and create her own products, she opted to solve the problem by curating indie workout pieces and creating a retail destination that embodies the intersection of fitness and creative expression. Nike isn’t convincing the consumer to buy the latest sports bra. Bandier is.
Additionally, there’s been a resurgence in the idea of the ‘traditional shopkeeper,’ whereby real people and tones of voice are becoming the interface between consumers and products again. Just consider all of the fashion bloggers and new YouTube celebrities like Ingrid Nilsen and Michelle Phan. They’ve transformed their knack for curating style and creating useful content into highly profitable e-commerce businesses.
What This Means for You
As an independent fashion designer, this is excellent news for you. You are better positioned than ever before to carve out a niche for yourself and compete alongside big brands.
For instance, you can amass a fan base at little or no cost (YouTube, WordPress, and Instagram are all free!). And once you figure out how to tap into passionate niche subcultures and create content that resonates with them, they will spread it like wildfire. Thanks hashtags.
Plus, because social media makes it easy to have a back-and-forth exchange, you can connect with your potential customers in a very personal way. This allows you to learn new consumer insights that will help you develop an even better product line.  
How to Take Advantage
So how do you take advantage of this trend and position your startup fashion brand in this new era of digital content? You should start by identifying and defining your niche. Ask yourself these questions:
Who are your customers? Define what they care about and their demographics. And define who they are not.
What problem are you solving for them? Affordable fashion? Eco fashion? Inspiring them to be more confident?
How can you offer unique value? Are you trying to inspire, educate, or offer advice? What purpose do you serve? How can you do it better than others?
 
The idea is that your content strategy should serve a purpose. If you’re doing it right, your content strategy should help you achieve three things:
Provide differentiated value to your customer
Help you connect to your customer in an authentic way
Establish your credibility
If you only create content for the purpose of SEO or with the intention of selling, consumers will see right through that (remember the Coca-Cola example). Your content should be valuable in and of itself – that means it should provide unique value that consumers can’t easily find elsewhere.  
Here’s How I Did It
I’m the founder of a brand that empowers small-breasted women. My mission is to help women feel more confident and change how they view themselves.
When building my brand, I actually started with a content-first approach. This means I started by building my brand solely through content and focused on creating an online destination – even before selling my own products.
Define the Problem and Opportunity
I started by defining my customer and her problem. For instance, my customer was the female who felt marginalized by big brands. No brands understood the insecurities she faced growing up. She felt pressure from society to look a certain way, and was frustrated by how hard it was to find bras that fit correctly.
Next, I thought about how to solve that problem.
On the one hand, I knew I wanted to sell better-fitting bras in small sizes. On the other hand, I knew that in order to truly help small-breasted women change how they view themselves, I had to do more than offer a great product. I had to inspire and teach women how to shift their mindset and create a destination where they felt understood. So I decided to start blogging about body image.
Test and Learn
I started out small, with one single blog post on the publishing platform Medium.com. I wanted to make sure I was addressing a real problem that women cared about. The response I received was extremely positive. It validated that there was a legitimate need for content that helped women develop a positive body image about their breasts. And no one was serving this population.
As a next step, I created an Instagram account. I posted beautiful images of small-breasted women and uplifting quotes about body image. I made sure this tied back to the original problem I wanted to solve, which was to inspire women to see themselves differently. Women responded very positively to this as well.
After doing well with my blog post and Instagram, I decided it was worth the effort to expand my content strategy into something larger. And from there I invested the time and money into building my own website.
I highly recommend taking this test and learn approach. It helps you ensure that the content you’re producing resonates with your customer base. And in the process, you’ll learn insights that will help you refine your strategy, without having to invest too much time or money up front.
Transition to Content + Commerce
Now that I’ve validated the customer problem and received positive feedback, I’ve shifted my focus to commerce. In addition to providing content that educates and inspires, I will now offer value to my customers by selling products that satisfy their unique needs.
Because my audience already trusts me, it’s much easier for me to sell to them. They already trust my judgement because of my product reviews and other knowledge I’ve shared. Plus they feel like they know me. I’m familiar to them because I’ve been emailing with them, responding to comments, and answering their questions. And because I’ve supported them and helped them out, they want to support me.
Moral of the story: You want your audience to feel as if they’re buying from a trusted friend, rather than a stranger or an abstract brand.
Conclusion
The world has changed. Social media has made it incredibly easy for new brands to compete alongside established players. The barriers to growing a new brand are now lower than ever. And digital content is the key to building an online destination that attracts passionate consumers and helps you retain them over the long term.
A blog is no longer just for SEO. Instagram isn’t just for building a follower base. In today’s world, your content strategy should serve a purpose for your customer. And it should establish you as a trustworthy and credible source.
When you become someone consumers know, like, and trust, selling to them will come effortlessly. And you will not only find that selling is easier, but that retaining your customers over the long term will be easier, as well.
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