In their second guest article for WhichPLM, Manner Solutions explores the value of PLM and its impact on marketing and customer engagement. Michael S. Robinson shares his first-hand experiences as a Marketing and Communications professional where PLM knowledge helped influence marketing strategy, execution, and performance measurements. He also imparts his accounts of when the lack of PLM integration (systems and process) and style/product knowledge sharing impaired the go-to-market process and customer engagement. Manner Solutions provides clients with strategic business process efficiencies, database applications, and a specialized change management counsel for the apparel businesses.
When I think of marketing, it is a discipline to attract and retain customers (accounts) and consumers (you and me) through a variety of channels – Advertising, PR, Events, Social Media, Customer Service, etc. I cut my teeth on Wall Street working in communications for investment banks and advertising agencies. Midway through my career, I repositioned my marketing career and accepted an opportunity in 2005 that placed me with a luxury fashion brand. My role was to transform the advertising, marketing, and communications’ seasonal planning process. It was there that my team introduced a new cross-functional workflow and strategic planning and dynamic reporting system. We managed all seasonal campaigns – Spring, Summer, Fall, and Resort – and also implemented 360° marketing / communication campaigns for a business anniversary, sporting sponsorships and a variety of global brand and product campaigns.
Despite our success, one area that needed improvement was style/product intel. We had robust marketing data that could be sliced and diced, visual references, and aggregation tools. Dashboards could quickly speak to overlaps and gaps in brand contact, media spend, 360° views by campaigns and so much more, but the actual style data was a mess. We would get anecdotal details, like “The X-Bag” or “Look 12” – a good starting point. To successfully measure or respond to consumers’ inquiries about the products showcased, what we really needed was product detail. We were missing key product metadata (i.e. fabrication, silhouette, color), samples usage (i.e. SMS, TOPs and their wearables), status (live or dropped), delivery, account etc. Only when we had this metadata could we measure or correlate impact against key KPIs or quickly address customers’ and consumers’ questions like, “Can you tell me …is the item on the cover of Vogue an exclusive?” or “What’s the length of the dress?”.
Since my career transition to fashion and change management consulting, I have worked on several PLM and marketing operations projects. My perspective is based on helping businesses and teams view their product lifecycle management process in the context of the “4 Ps” (product, price, promotion, and place).
As you might imagine, operational effectiveness and fashion are in my blood. I have seen several companies run their businesses in silos, working with rudimentary applications (if they are lucky) and highly manual processes. I have seen an absurd amount of time lost when marketing is working to validate product/style data and imagery. Teams are risking costly mistakes, experiencing burnout, and building conflict between departments and teams. On the flip side, I have seen marketing teams work in dynamic and normalized system with hocks into PLM, and as a result, they have actionable information helping them work in an effective and efficient manner. To share wins and some misses, I will explore the following themes associated with PLM knowledge sharing with Marketing:
- Yours, Mine, and Ours
- Timing is Everything
- It’s all in the Details
- Sample, Sample, Samples
- Content is King
- History Repeats Itself
Yours, Mine, and Ours
A key report that drives knowledge sharing across all departments and stakeholders is the seasonal line sheet. It is a critical tool that relays style/product information such as fabrication, delivery, status (live versus drop), and color. When done effectively, it helps ALL teams translating data, information, and even visual assets into valuable knowledge to help drive strategy for Marketing. However, I’ve seen instances where the line sheet is owned by Design and Production and other teams, like Marketing and Sales, must politely ask to be put on the distribution and then manipulate the file (typically in Excel) so they can add data or other elements that pertain to their business needs. Unfortunately, they are usually working with outdated files due to the dynamic nature of the product assortment, and when they get new files they need to once again append and add their data. It’s a vicious cycle of chase, validate, and repeat.
During one particular PLM implementation and stakeholder discovery, teams were excited about the PLM application, and they knew the Design, Production, Tech, Sourcing, and Fields Office would have a dynamic and normalized environment to bring seasonal concepts to life. They wanted to leverage this data and create their own line sheets. We did an audit across the company to demonstrate how teams leveraged and manipulated the line sheets. There were versions for Merchandising, Marketing, Customer Services, Stores, and even HR, to help them manage international talent. Thus, the seasonal lines were not just Design or Production, but it was yours, mine, and ours that the teams depended on to manage their work. Unfortunately, it was not a surprise to learn that many of these teams were working with outdated reports.
The analysis created a sense of urgency and a need for the PLM implementation to also address ALL uses of the line sheet. The solution was to layer in a dynamic report builder. Users could work in a normalized environment to layer in their own data and create “their” version of the seasonal line sheet at their discretion. This universal interface was for “everyday use,” and it eventually pulled in data from other systems – ERP, Merchandising and Planning, Sample Usage, and Campaign Management. A simpler approach is having a style template push to an FTP site and have the team pick up the information from there. It may not be ideal, but teams can feel assured they are getting accurate style/product data from a reliable source.
Marketing and communications benefit from having actionable line sheets. They can plan around “live” looks – order samples, brief creative, confirm the depth and reach on buys and plan editorial, advertising, and seasonal content. I know from experience the power of having a current line sheet on a shoot and pull “dropped” product from the stylist. It’s frustrating having final seasonal assets with features of products that never made it to production or were not bought by accounts or internal teams. Ultimately, it’s not an effective asset.
Timing is Everything
With recent digital transformation, consumers are more informed and demanding than ever. If they see a collection one day, they expect to shop it the next. Gone are the days of fashion shows happening in February/September and then production having 6 months to produce the line. Brands are starting to offer “see now, buy now” assortments. You can be at a fashion show now and, eleven minutes later, shopping in the store. Here, timing is everything. All business teams need to be in sync and have the product details needed to communicate and engage customers and consumers in real time.
Sadly, this is still a challenging process as various calendars – product development, seasonal asset, content – are not aligned. The product development process is going down one path, and on another one parallel is marketing. Key milestones – inspiration, line review, market, and style outs – are not syncing, and product knowledge is not clearly communicated. Marketing and creative teams (art directors, agencies, and/or photographers) spin around looks that are hot one minute and then not, but the message is not shared across divisions, or it is but is hard to decipher.
It does not need to be this difficult. A dynamic line sheet is one way of keeping teams aware of product development, particularly when a style changes or drops. Another approach is aligning calendars or creating a company seasonal calendar. It becomes the master and includes all departments accountable for bringing a seasonal concept to life and into the hands of the customers and consumers. Here’s where a Calendar Manager could come in; they facilitate “the company calendar,” and they make sure all cross-functional teams meet at key milestone to ensure product categories and assortments are coming together. Key business leads (i.e., Marketing) are included in the dialogue at the right times to make an effective in-market impact.
It’s all in the Details
Over the years, I have worked with campaign management systems, especially in planning for seasonal campaigns around fashion collection, key products, seasonal themes, partnerships, and sports sponsorships. These tools help aggregate marketing tactics from various channels like PR, advertising, social, events, and email marketing. A myriad details is collected, such as customer and market segmentation and channel objectives, goals, and KPIs. However, a key breakdown has been product details. You might get anecdotal references, but not the key details, such as style # and colorway, which are critical if trying to measure impact against sales. One cannot measure “Look 1” or “the red dress.”
Further, I have worked with PR teams challenged with validating product information for line listings in publications. GQ calls and asks for details on the product, and teams are consumed with trying to track down the exact details and, in some cases, provide the wrong information. Or, teams realize the product being showcased is no longer in production. These discrepancies jeopardize a transaction and erode consumer confidence and trust. Who wants to waste time trying to track down an item listed at Bloomingdales, and then learn the product is not sold there?
On the flip side, I have worked with campaign systems that link to PLM data. One was a custom application that tracked all product samples. Samples would be tagged with a QR code and pull real-time style data from the PLM system. Users could see daily changes to the style, as the sample tracking tool was linked to the PLM’s style master. And, when samples were sent to a marketing photo shoot, the style information was dynamically associated with the request, so users could see if they were working with a live or dropped product. Once the final creative assets were produced, the style information was easily associated with the image; thus, when teams were building their marketing plans and actualizing their creative executions, the detailed style information was carried every step of the way. There also were style details for performance measurement and product knowledge. If a customer called about something they saw in a magazine – ad or PR – the customer service representative could confidently tell the customer about the product and where it could be purchased. These accurate product details made employees’ lives easier and customers happier.
Samples, Samples, Samples
Samples are a critical element in the development of creative assets and content for marketing. PR, advertising, social media, visual merchandising, and other consumer engagement teams rely on samples for photo shoots (branding and product), editorial credits (features and product placements), and displays (windows and floor set). The teams share limited numbers of samples (typically, two sets in the early business cycle) across all these needs for retail, wholesale, e-commerce, and licensing, and requests with long lead times must strategically negotiate for quick use so available samples can be quickly moved to another use case. As the seasonal cycle progresses, additional samples (top of production) are rotated into use, but the needs increase significantly as more requests come in for PR, social, e-commerce and whatever else comes up to communicate the seasonal narrative.
No matter how you look at it, samples are a must to communicate a brand’s seasonal story, and they are not cheap! They are an expensive line item on a company’s P&L and a pain to secure, manage, and reconcile. There is never enough to address the long-lead needs; as the volume of request increases, it usually becomes a tidal wave of product with little knowledge of style details or status (live or dropped), and when the season is done, usually the retention of samples is very low. I hate to say it, but this is due to shrinkage, lack of respect for use, and just poor management. Teams are managing multiple seasons (yesterday, today, and tomorrow) on any giving day and, if there is no way to track and retain style metadata, then it is simply chaos!
I have seen first-hand how PLM systems and integration within other work streams benefit sample tracking and usage. Most effective is when samples are treated as a company-wide use case, not a specific business need. There are sample tracking applications out there and they are effective for specific needs, such as PR; however, in using and managing samples, it is a company-wide demand that needs to be addressed. More importantly, style metadata needs to be part of the sample tracking solution. As mentioned above, style / product knowledge is critical in bringing seasonal campaigns to life, and this happens when PLM feeds a sample management system, so make sure your solutions can integrate into the PLM. Too many times, I see sample management tools track the “to” and “from,” but trying to link style details is a manual process, and teams get lost in the round of changes facilitated in Excel. Like the line sheet, think holistic with your sample management solutions. Find something that will address all the sample use cases and one that is dynamic with PLM.
Content is King
Digital has reinvented the way fashion and apparel brands (and most others) engage with and speak to their customers. Today’s customers want quick turnaround (See Now, Buy Now), information (product details), purpose (social responsibility) and value (quality at the best price). Traditional media is now supported with digital content (bloggers, affiliates, etc.), online marketing (banner, video, etc.), and social media (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.) being the major Marketing Channels.
Each year, more and more marketing spend shifts to digital tactics and platforms. These modern marketing mixes need assets like videos, animation, stories, testimonials, endorsements, and so much more. Style and product details and images are at the core of this content. Thus, Marketing needs real-time and dynamic style metadata to tell the seasonal narrative and speak to individual interest. If dropped styles are being showcased or inaccurate product specs are being shared, then what’s the point of investing in campaign and content management? Product development details need to sink and flow into marketing operations to validate campaign details and ensure creative narratives, product knowledge, and other details are accurate and resonate to its personalized message.
History Repeats Itself
An actionable archive is an asset to any company. A repository of a company’s styles and products, whether they be in digital or physical form, will often hold the key to a future season’s inspiration and knowledge for design and marketing. As we all know, both collections and campaigns repeat themselves. A particular collection may be presented on the runway in the ‘80s with the intent for distribution within luxury doors, only to be brought back years later with a new design twist or to be marketed towards a broader distribution. To bring styles and products back to the market, many different teams utilize the archive for inspiration and direction. These teams want to know things like: what did a particular style look like, what were the materials that were used, how was a look originally brought to the market, what do we know about sell-through, what were the marketing plans, and when and where was there any editorial coverage? All of this discovery and re-discovery is helpful to the development process and inspires and produces new collections.
But the real key for a successful archive is the data – gathering the product/style information and developing or determining the common language will make for more successful tagging of assets and a normalization of the system. This normalization helps all of these different teams locate particular styles or product information for future development. If the archive holds not only the actual product but also all the key information, then bringing that style back is all the much easier. Putting systems in place and operationalizing the product development and marketing processes while linking the two workflows with a common style number and color can make the passage of this information simple and painless instead of confusing and redundant.
Earlier, I touched on how sample tracking tools are useful and how there are those that are used for PR purposes, but having a tracking system for the archive is just another way in which a fully-integrated system can be beneficial to a company’s business processes. If an archived piece can be tracked both physically and digitally, then each business partner can locate the item and information with ease. Or better yet, from an archival perspective, having all of the correct data in place can help preserve an important heritage piece for the company by allowing the designer, product development team, or marketing department to use the data instead of having to pull the actual product from the repository.
Investing in systems that create single points of reference and that are open and dynamic so they can be integrated into a company’s business plans will create the complete ecosystem – one where individuals and teams can follow a style from ideation to the grave, whether that is a dropped style, an archived piece, or simply a style that was sent to sample sale.
By providing dynamic, normalized systems to help marketing teams be more efficient, deliberate, and organized in their planning, execution, and results tracking, we give them more time to be strategic, creative, and business-minded. This is not a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) database. Instead, these are systems and tools specifically designed to facilitate internal knowledge sharing of upstream assets and it’s source for style/product is the PLM. These systems can be simple in their goals, yet sophisticated in their output – a database of activities and assets where data can be sliced and diced to suit the user’s needs; a web-based calendar that can be updated in real time across multiple users with multiple output formats; and a dynamic briefing tool to capture and communicate creative needs in a standardized and semi-automated environment. Taking the busy-work and room for error out of the planning, execution, and results-tracking processes gives teams a competitive edge: more time.