What should a mono-brand think about as they go on the journey from wholesaler to fully-fledged online retailer?

What should its digital strategy look like?

For many businesses, the wholesale route allows the brand to build awareness via retail partners, such as department stores, but at the expense of margin and the ability to form a direct relationship with the end customer.

At some stage, the brand will decide the time is nigh to create a direct proposition. However, this presents a number of challenges in the digital marketing space that are often not understood or properly considered from the outset.

Having worked with a number of mono-brands over the years, here are a few things we’ve observed and helped them overcome:

1. You must give people a compelling reason to buy direct

By the time a typical mono-brand goes direct, they are likely to have a number of well-known, trusted stockists selling their wares online (normally with much deeper pockets).

This means that the mono-brand is, in effect, competing against themselves online, via those stockists. The customer is therefore presented with choice as to where they buy that brand.

Last year, we questioned our consumer panel on this very topic – 89% of respondents stated they favoured buying from multi-brand retailers over single-brand sites.

When pressed a little further, of those that preferred buying from single brand sites, 71% stated it was because the brand makes them feel more valued as a customer.

Added value is therefore the key to driving conversion on the brand site – the promise that if a customer buys direct, they are buying into more than just the product itself.

This is where the brand has an advantage. Getting to know the customer intimately, what it is they value and then delivering on this is something that a multi-brand retailer, such as John Lewis, cannot replicate, at scale, for each and every brand they stock. Some get the specialist treatment but even then the breadth of content is fairly limited.

For example, despite Levi’s being a ‘featured brand’ on the John Lewis website, content is limited to a brief overview of the brand, a few images and a men’s fit guide (strangely, in the women’s section with a link that didn’t work at the time of writing).

John Lewis Levi's category page

Ultimately, as THE brand, you need to be able to answer (and act upon) one, fundamental question;

‘Why would someone buy from our site as opposed to an established multi-brand retailer?’

If you can’t, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

2. Make it your mission to ‘own’ organic search results for brand terms

The remit of an ecommerce manager is to grow the direct channel, which of course yields a number of benefits compared to the wholesale model (control, acquiring data, building a relationship with the end customer and so on).

Search will be a key part of the strategy. Occupying as much of the search ‘real estate’ for brand terms, as possible, should be the aim.

To what extent you can do so will ultimately depend on how many retailers stock your products and how sophisticated their natural search strategies are. The more stockists you have, the more competitive the search results are likely to be for brand terms.

Utilising site links, schema mark-up, My Business pages, reviews, social media profiles and optimising rich-media assets, such as images and video, are just some of the means by which you can occupy a greater share of the search results for brand terms, at the expense of stockists, as highlighted by Sony below:

Sony Google search result

Please note, there is often a balancing act between aggressively growing the direct channel and keeping stockists on side. Stealing share from stockists is inevitable so needs to be carefully managed.

3. You will almost certainly have to pay for brand PPC traffic

Assuming stockists are present in paid search and bidding on your brand name, you will have to do likewise. There are a million and one articles debating the pros and cons of bidding on your own brand terms so I won’t repeat those arguments.

Instead, a slightly different take on the issue, born out of a recent client conversation. Despite the presence of some fairly small but aggressive stockists, the client in question was determined not to bid on their brand terms, due to two questionable assumptions.

Firstly, they felt that searchers would, by default, seek out their organic listing. Some no doubt will.

However, we demonstrated that other searchers were distracted by a compelling ad from one of their stockists and therefore didn’t even think about scrolling down to find the brands organic listing. Opportunity lost.

Secondly, they assumed that if somebody searched for their brand, then that searcher would go onto purchase one of their products (whether direct or via a stockist). However, with some qualitative insight, this was proven not always to be the case.

The presence of a multi-brand retailer meant that some were distracted by the greater choice on offer, going onto buy a different brand altogether. Again, opportunity lost.

By being present in the paid listings, ideally by being as aggressive as you can to own the number one position, you give yourself the greatest chance of getting the click.

This is especially important on mobile where it is common for only ads to appear ‘above the fold’.

Search results on mobile
Therefore, paid search is increasingly the only way in which you can guarantee a presence on the devices searchers are most likely to be using and where they are most likely to click. Don’t leave money on the table.

4. Getting the price right is more important than ever

We worked with a brand where you could consistently purchase many of their products from a well-known high street retailer for 30% less than the price on the brand site. But we were tasked with significantly growing direct revenue. Errr…

Consumers are savvier than ever. With the prominence of Google Shopping listings, price information is thrust upon eager searchers without them even having to click.

Nike Internationalist shopping results

Whilst some consumers will of course buy from the brand site and be loyal in doing so again in the future, others won’t give two hoots where they purchase. In fact, if I can buy your product at the same time as all the other stuff on my John Lewis ‘wish list’, all the better.

Whilst you cannot dictate the prices your stockists choose to sell at, you need to be aware of their pricing strategy and be agile enough to react should you choose to, particularly during sale periods.

It was put to me by a brand in the past that “our stockists can have those ‘sale only’ customers”. Fair enough but I’d always prefer to acquire any customer direct, sale only or not, and nurture the relationship.

This brings to light an interesting point regarding loyalty. It should not be measured only in monetary terms. We have discovered that some of our clients’ most loyal customers are not necessarily those that spend the most money.

Perhaps these customers can only afford to shop with the brand once or twice a year. However, they are the ones that shout the most about their purchase, something that is often not measured or harnessed.

You therefore need to look beyond financial data and models, such as RFM when it comes to understanding loyalty.

5. Make sure your direct and wholesale teams are talking to one another

I spoke to a premium menswear brand last year looking to grow their direct channel. ‘Super!’ I thought, we can help. However, as we dug a little deeper, we soon realised it was going to be a huge challenge.

We discovered that the wholesale team had some pretty aggressive targets of their own, meaning they were selling into an ever-increasing number of retailers. Worse still, many of these retailers were at the lower end of the market, damaging brand perception.

The direct team also had some rather juicy numbers to hit for the next financial year. But nobody internally had joined the dots, namely that the direct team would find themselves gradually hamstrung by increased competition in search as stockists optimised their sites and bid on brand terms.

This highlights how the wholesale and direct strategy have to be working in unison.

Growing both channels simultaneously is possible but requires careful planning, great communication and an understanding of how the two will play out online, especially in search.

Have you worked with or for a mono-brand? What challenges did you experience? Please feel free to share below.