If you’ve been following our content series ‘Fashion’s New Rules: Customisation, Connection and Digitally-Enabled Production’, you’ll know that so far we’ve examined how digital technology is helping brands turn consumers into collaborators, and how these technologies can go further to help brands re-imagine iconic products for new markets and a digital future.
(If not, you can begin to recap here).
This week, we want to look ahead.
Fashion is seeing the start of a seismic shift where products are 'pulled' into the market, based on actual demand rather than 'pushed' based on best-guesses and forecasts.
We’ve talked about how we see fashion production moving from mass production to driven by demand, engaging customers in design collaborations and manufacturing only what is created. This marks a powerful shift for the industry.
But as platforms such as UnmadeOS begin to make this shift a reality, interesting questions are raised from the potential data generated. What can we learn about our customers from their interactions? Can this data help brands ‘read and react’ to what customers want in real time?
In this two-part interview, we spoke to Unmade co-founder and chief product officer Ben Alun-Jones to get his insights.
Q. Increasingly sophisticated consumer devices and an explosion in social media have created new challenges for fashion brands. What are the key challenges in your view?
Social media, digital communication and new technologies have created an always-on culture, where the expectation of the user is that everything should be relevant to them. You only choose to follow who you want to, and any advertising is heavily targeted or largely irrelevant in the eyes of the customer.
This is a battle for attention.
In practice, this means the speed and frequency of new content is now overwhelming, the competition intense and the biggest challenge is getting noticed at all. The second hurdle is to turn this initial engagement into a conversation and over time win the customer’s trust and respect.
From an industry more used to broadcast, the expectation of one-to-one communication means a shift from big single messages on a seasonal basis to a scalable way of communicating with your audience on their timescale.
There are two ways of operating: ‘Pushing’ new messages to your audience e.g. your latest collection, your latest collaboration, and ‘Pulling’ from the ongoing trends and attempting to maintain relevance e.g. an unexpected tie-dye trend or reacting to the fact that no-one wants to buy virgin plastic products anymore.
At these new speeds, the struggle is to maintain relevance and consistency. It’s hard enough with messaging, but if you extend this to products, a response time from a supply chain of 'next-season' or 'next year' sees your problems massively amplified.
If you missed a trend, how do you react? Smaller brands can commit to buying lower volumes and can turn production around quickly and flexibly. Larger brands are slow due to their legacy systems and processes born from the era of mass production and mass consumption.
Making your product have relevance to these new social speeds, with existing systems and processes is a major challenge.
Q. Social platforms are utilised heavily by so-called 'fast fashion' brands and online-only retailers. How are luxury brands responding to the pressure of the 'speed of social'?
There are many brands out there that are not responding to the new speed of social. They have really struggled in the past few years, falling behind the curve on trends and making too much of the wrong stuff.
A common strategy for larger brands to speed up is a new and dedicated team that has a mandate to deliver rapid response product. This is less about systems and more about bringing together the best product developers, the best designers, the best merchandisers and putting them into a team that has permission to innovate and get to market as quickly as possible. This has been successful, but is a sticking plaster on the problem, which ultimately is structural and technical.
The operating model of Fast fashion brands hinges on being able to get new product to market very quickly. The benefit being that the scale of forecasts and predictions that these brands need to make are much smaller. This gives them valuable in-market data on sell-through so they can adjust future stock commitments based on real demand, rather than being behind the curve on trends. This test and learn approach has delivered impressive results in terms of growth and total sales.
However, it is a mistake to think that this model only applies to Fast fashion. In the challenge for relevance and keeping pace with the speed of social, other segments of the market are beginning to behave in unexpected ways.
As L2’s Scott Galloway noted back in the summer of 2019, Louis Vuitton released 430 products in June 2019 alone. This is the world’s largest luxury brand, looking more like Zara or H&M in terms of its product calendar. But what’s behind this? Most of the new products are not core, iconic products, but products with simple assembly or digitised production, leading to lower price points and greater speed to market. This means the brand can drive trends, be part of the online conversation and engage with a younger audience who are mainly buying lower price point products. Getting one of the biggest ‘hypebeasts’ in Virgil Abloh to steer the ship, only accentuated the impact.
Q. Is this just brand storytelling?
No. In the first wave of branded social media, brands were telling stories around product. What we’re seeing now, is a shift where leading brands are able to tell stories through their product. Ultimately it is the product that customers engage with, not merely branded content, so moving engagement down to the level of the product is likely to be a permanent shift, not a one-off fad.
Rapha Custom is a great example of a brand that has understood the changing dynamics of customer engagement. By allowing any customer to create their own version of the iconic Rapha jersey, and extend that to a full team kit, every member of that customer’s team feels connected. They can then tell their own stories on social media, generating organic brand experiences for others. Reviewing the instagram hashtag for #raphacustom gives you a glimpse into the power of product storytelling.
Q. Customisation is emerging as a key differentiator in powerful customer experiences for brands keen to engage the new connected consumer. Is customisation and consequently ‘made to order’, the future of fashion production?
Brands need to stay as close as possible to their consumer and this means changing how they operate. I think lessons from other industries show us if you don't start now, you're going to be left behind.
If you want to look at the future of fashion and production requirements, you need to consider the younger consumer entering the marketplace. They are super connected, able to buy or subscribe to services at the click of a button, and if offers are no longer relevant or heavily customised to their tastes, then they are no longer interesting.
A key enabler of meet change at this pace, is Customisable Manufacturing. This is not the same thing as ‘customisation’ - meaning the end consumer’s ability to modify a product to meet their needs.
Customisable Manufacturing is a new way of operating manufacturing, design and development so that as many product options as possible are available through the same supply chain, the same factory. In fact, no MOQs (minimum order quantities) apply to what you make.
Customisable Manufacturing demands new ways of thinking about flexibility and agility within the manufacturing system. You will not know what's going to be made in that factory until the day before, and every product will be different in some small way.
Using this to address new customer demands requires the ability to customise manufacturing at the last possible moment - a made to order 'mindset' if you like, and this is key to exploring market opportunities between 1 and 1000 units. These are traditionally overlooked.
I think it's still quite a small audience - at the moment - that wants to customise product, but the fact is that this is a hyper-engaged audience & potential brand ambassador that can traditionally be hard to connect with. And it's a very fast growing audience segment.
Empowering this audience to tell these amazing stories about your product is clearly a winning strategy in cutting through the noise and engaging with your customer of the future, on their terms. Customisable Manufacturing is a key enabler to drive this. Taking you on the first step in a journey to being driven by demand.
Join us for the second part of this interview next week, where Ben shares more about using production data to get closer to customers, what brands are doing this well and how UnmadeOS is helping brands meet their new challenges.