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"80% NASA, but 20% Disney too" - how digital transformation should happen

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood September 26, 2018
Data isn’t enough to succeed in online retail, says the Chief Customer Officer of $1 billion fashion retailer N Brown.

N Brown Group
The last few years have seen a rise in data-driven marketing, and advertising that has moved almost completely away from old-style press and media to cyberspace.

The pitch? The data scientist with the heavy metal t-shirt is going to be much more useful to you as a brand than the creatives with their ear-rings and tattoos.

But one UK organization that has very successfully digital transformed itself - with 77% of sales now online and a remarkable 97% of new customers recruited digitally - says that there will always remain a place for the human in any successful marketing strategy:

Data is fantastically important, but isn’t the answer to everything. You still also have to have a sense of the customer as a human being, as that’s the only way you will be able to create compelling, novel communications that will really cut through to them.

The warning comes from Ann Steer, Chief Customer Officer at Manchester-based N Brown Group, which markets a range of clothing to mostly both male and female consumers under the tagline ‘Fashion That Fits’, delivered via a range of brands including Jacamo, JD Williams and Simply Be. The firm recorded £922 million sales for its last financial year ending in March.

Steer believes that the strong results and market success of her organisation, which she joined in 2007 after building the online presence for High St retailer Littlewoods, is without question down to data and the smart exploitation thereof:

We have been told we have ‘data to die for’ - data that is deep and well-organised. We have 250 people in our e-commerce team now helping in all aspects of digital and online work, and SEO specialists, conversion experts and, absolutely, data scientists are what makes that team the success it is.

Note that that means most of the company works in digital, as total headcount is 300 overall. When Steer was recruited, the company’s entire digital team numbered a mere 15 people. But Steer also points out that knowing the customer has always been part of the N Brown story, back to when it started as a mail order company back in 1859, and that data is thus part of its DNA. That said, ‘knowing’ your customer has to mean a lot more than what even the smartest algorithm can tell you, she advises:

Our customers are people. That means they are human, and driven by what’s happening in their lives, their hopes and their dreams. We want to know our customer not just as ABC1s or Top Shop goers, but in depth - better than everyone else does and before anyone else does. She’s in my blood - I feel angry if I let her down and as proud as a Dad on his daughter’s Sports Day when I do something that makes her happy.

Steer says she encourages her team to do this by a variety of means, including technology tools like website eye-ball tracking, intensive UX panels and observations, continual dialogue and interaction with customers, continual testing of parts of the site, and so on.

That produces great, useful data that is utilised - but which the company isn’t prepared to rely on solely:

Someone told me that real digital transformation has to be a mix of arts and crafts - 80% NASA and the science, yes, but also 20% Disney - the creativity and fun is also vital for a brand like ours.

Connecting with customers to get that ‘Disney’ happens a variety of ways, mainly through communication, which takes multiple forms at N Brown: she has her own version of ‘rough research’ that goes beyond tech - where she makes them physically go out on to the streets of the Northern Quarter where her company is based to talk to actual humans, for instance.

It can be a bit intimidating at first to just stop strangers and try and talk to them about clothes and what they want from fashion - but it’s actually a really rewarding experience and it’s amazing the insights that you can get out of it.

"You’ll never sell clothes off a computer"

This approach also explains why ‘soft’ marketing is still valued as much at N Brown as ‘hard’, data approaches are, says Steer:

We always tried to use the most breathtaking imagery we could in the catalogue world to sell our clothes and the most surprising, thought-provoking copy to capture market attention. That’s never stopped being the case - there is always going to be a place for the kind of intuitive, playful compelling element that the best creative offers to touch and inspire the people we want to sell to.

This combination of dedication to data science and quantifiable metrics for customer engagement, but an emotional connection to what N Brown brand followers really want is what Steer says is the secret behind the group’s digital transformation from what was still really a catalogue company when she joined:

On my first day in the company I was walked around the departments to explain what it was I there to do, and I was told by one veteran, ‘Kid, you’ve got your work cut out of you if you want to try and sell clothes off a computer'  - and he really did use the word ‘kid’! But while we were still a very profitable catalogue business we knew the customer was changing and we were running out of road. We really had to change to where the customer wanted to be.

That transformation didn’t just involve changing customer outreach, important though that was, she stresses:

We had a lot of heavy lifting to do and had to run at a number of speeds in different parts of the business to get to where we are. We had to change the timeline for purchasing, change our supply chain and merchandising, plus invest in a new internal fashion design team. I also saw my role as being the main cheerleader for digital and translating what that really offered to the rest of the business, too.

In terms of her next steps, Steer sees mobile as being the next bridgehead to conquer, noting that almost 50% of new sales are taking place on that platform now - but that knowing her customer as more than a set of numbers will never not be critical to what N Brown does.


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