Press is like crack and how fashion brands can stay off it

The fashion world looks at press as the holy grail. The common wisdom is that press is the best way to build a company and brand. The thinking is often along the lines of: If only we get press on this will the brand take off and we'll make a lot of money. In reality, valuing press as a golden key is highly problematic and short-sighted. This fallacy is one of the primary reasons fashion brands struggle becoming sustainable businesses, and are mostly trend-driven flashes in the pan.

First, a few quick definitions. A brand is something people want to buy into. A brand can be strong (strong awareness) and be a terrible business (worth nothing). Or a brand can be valuable (strong awareness) and be a sustainable business (worth something). Financial worth is the goal, yet it's very hard to achieve. The reason is because of the word "sustainability." Press, as a sales generating tactic, is often the antithesis of a sound sales strategy.

Press is a Drug

Press is like crack, and crack is not healthy. Sure, it might be great for a little while but it is definitely not sustainable. Press is a short term gain. It helps with awareness (and probably sales) for a few days and then your sales will go back to earlier levels. Your awareness might be higher, but your sales will quickly fall back to normal.

This happens for a few reasons. 1) The press hit will exists for a few days and then fall into the media company's purgatory of an archive. 2) A customer who buys something from you off of the press likely won't need anything for a while; even if that's a few weeks or months, this is still not sustainable. 3) You can only get press so often. Yes, there are some brands that you endlessly read about for a season or two, but it rarely lasts. A brand that lasts for a few seasons is not a business.

This graph is the result of a press-driven brand. Each bump is web traffic from press and all of the valleys (which are the majority of the points on the graph) are without press. It simply doesn’t work. 

This graph is the result of a press-driven brand. Each bump is web traffic from press and all of the valleys (which are the majority of the points on the graph) are without press. It simply doesn’t work. 

When the inevitable happens—your sales return to pre-press levels and don't return to press levels until you get more press—you end up wasting valuable time and resources trying to find more of this crack because you are now addicted to it. Then you'll have this vicious cycle comprised of getting some press, having sales rise, then having them fall and being let down while the business struggles, hoping the next press piece will be a game changer and revitalize your business. This probably will never happen.

The other problem with press is that if you're able to build your business to a nice size, you will eventually eclipse the audience of the press you're used to getting. If a press piece sends 5,000 people to your site, at a certain point you will need 10,000 people for the business to grow. This press is no longer converting the way you expected it to, and if you relied on press all of this time, you will be very lost when it stops working.

All of the problems described above come from a misunderstanding of the benefit of press. Press is good for awareness, not for building a sustainable business. Press should only be thought of as an awareness builder. The more people know about something, the more likely it is they will buy it. That's great but it doesn't lead to growing sales, let alone profitability. We are all aware of many things we will never buy.

Marketing and Math

Marketing and math are the foundation of a strong business. This means having a plan to find and convert customers, often known as customer acquisition. I consider this the only way to sustainably build a company, let alone a fashion brand, which is already conditioned to obsess over press. Customer acquisition often means spending money to find customers, and then ensuring that the math makes sense. This is called your Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC). The other important metric is Life Time Value (LTV), which is the lifetime value of your customer.

Let's say you sell jeans for $200 and it costs you $20 to find a customer who buys your jeans, and this person buys two pairs of jeans a year. That's pretty good, leaving $380 (2 pairs at $200 x 2 - $20 CAC) minus your cost of goods and other expenses. Here, you have a chance. But if it costs you $80 to find your customer and they only buy one pair a year, you are in big trouble.

If you start working on your CAC and LTV early, and also factor it into your retail pricing, you are on the road to having a good business. (These two numbers work as levers together, and should not be considered in isolation.)

Spending money on marketing alone is not a bad or good thing. It sounds expensive, but if the math works it works. For example. Jet.com, an Amazon competitor, was at last count spending $22 million a month on marketing. That seems crazy, but it costs Jet only $40 to acquire a customer that likely has a LTV in the hundreds of dollars. The math works. LTV, CAC and scale all work together to build this equation.

If you can run your business by forgetting that press exists, or only use press if you deeply understand what it can and cannot do, you are on the path to building a sustainable business. This could go a long way towards bringing financial sustainability to the fashion world. Press can definitely help on top of marketing, but it is not a replacement.