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How to Grow a Brand Beyond a Buzz Moment

An “It” product or hot new brand can easily disappear from Instagram feeds within days, if not hours. Here’s how brands can turn an unexpected viral moment into long-term growth.
(L-R) Rocky Barnes in a Lele Sadoughi headband; Strathberry bag; Lucy Williams x Missoma jewellery | Sources: Instagram/@rocky_barnes, Courtesy, Courtesy
  • Tamison O'Connor

LONDON, United KingdomStrathberry was a niche Scottish accessories label no one had really heard of — that was, until Meghan Markle wore one of their designs back in December 2017.

Markle stepped out wearing her colour-blocked Strathberry tote during her first official public appearance after her engagement to Prince Harry. The impact of an unofficial royal endorsement for the brand founded by husband and wife duo Leeanne and Guy Hundleby in 2013 was instantaneous. The design was out of stock within minutes; within 24 hours it had a waiting list of 1,000 people. Overall, brand sales increased between 200 and 300 percent, with website traffic up tenfold compared with the day before. In the following months, Markle carried two additional designs, both producing a similar effect.

“Immediately it was such a change for us, to have this level of interest in the brand and the increased awareness,” said Hundleby. “It gave us a phenomenal opportunity to harness that interest and grow from there.”

Buzz moments like these can catapult a label into mainstream consumer conscience in an instant. For smaller companies like Strathberry, a viral moment of the kind Markle created can bring exposure far beyond what its advertising budget could afford. But with the lifecycle of a social media post a matter of mere hours, and the window to grab the attention of consumers ever-shortening, such moments are fleeting. An “It” product or hot new brand can disappear from Instagram feeds almost as fast as it was posted.

“[You’ve got to] be cautious, but at the same time, you’ve got to catch the wave of interest — and maintain it afterwards,” said Hundleby.

Before its buzz moment, Strathberry was a £3 million business. Sales have risen 400 percent over the past three years, hitting £12 million for its financial year ending April 2019.

Strathberry may be dwarfed by the size of some of its high-end luxury neighbours at its Mount Street location in London’s upmarket Mayfair neighbourhood, where it opened its flagship store last summer, but ambitious plans are afoot. The company, which also opened a store in nearby Burlington Arcade, is aiming for a third location later this year. Demand from the Chinese market — a challenging region to crack thanks to an oversaturation of brands and an opaque digital ecosystem — has led to a six-month pop-up at Shanghai’s Réel Mall.

So, how does a brand turn an unexpected viral moment into long-term growth?

Think Ahead

When a product or collection goes viral, it can be exciting — and overwhelming. But instead of getting caught up in the frenzy, start strategising for what’s next.

Sunglasses brand Le Specs saw its collaboration with Adam Selman blow up after celebrities like Gigi Hadid and Rihanna were spotted in its "Last Lolita" cat-eyed frames on Instagram. The company, relaunched by Australian company Sunshades in 2006, was already stocked at retailers like Colette in Paris and Selfridges in London. But the attention its Adam Selman collaboration attracted helped to "supercharge" the business, said Creative Director Hamish Tame.

Tame said he started thinking about how it could push the conversation around Le Specs forward pretty quickly. Soon, the brand branched into optometry, and this year, a Christian Cowan collaboration is expected to drop in March. Le Specs says it is on track to reach A$100 million (US$69 million) in sales in the next few years.

“I always think about: if we had to get to a meeting, what do we talk about?” said Tame. “No one wants to talk about the same stuff over and over again. How do you have something each time that still feels exciting?”

Market Yourself as a “Go-To” Brand

Becoming known for a product category will keep your customers coming back, said former J Crew jewellery designer Lele Sadoughi, who started her namesake costume jewellery brand in 2012 and debuted a line of headbands in 2018. Soon, her colourful, often embellished styles could be seen all over Instagram, adorning the heads of high-profile social media influencers like Rocky Barnes (1.8 million followers) and Danielle Bernstein (2.2 million followers).

“You want to be a destination,” said Sadoughi. “It’s really about owning a category and focusing on it. It’s not an afterthought.”

You want to be a destination. It's really about owning a category and focusing on it. It's not an afterthought.

Sadoughi does this by offering her fans a wide range of choice, with headbands available in hundreds of colourways and style combinations, from pearl-encrusted velvet bands to padded styles and her signature knot silhouette. She balances her broad product assortment with limited quantities of each style to avoid over exposure. In 2019, she sold over 150,000 headbands, while her overall business grew five-fold.

Don’t Chase Trends

Don’t get too hung up on the trends in the market, advises Marisa Hordern, founder of Missoma, which is known for its affordable demi-fine gold jewellery designed to be worn layered up.

“We don’t try and do everything,” she said, pointing to shells and pearls as examples of big jewellery trends the brand hasn’t acknowledged in its collections. “We don’t try to be on trend, what we try to do is what we do really well.”

Over the past three years, annual sales have risen 166 percent, according to The Sunday Times' Fast Track 100 list, which ranks Britain's fastest growing private companies. The brand said it expects sales to grow 60 to 70 percent this year, surpassing £18 million.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

When a product is hot, it’s tempting to try and sell as much as possible to capitalise on sales immediately. But product ubiquity can damage the longer-term image of a brand.

Le Specs’ Tame said that the popularity of the “Last Lolita” frame led to some difficult conversations with retailers in order to manage wholesale order expectations. “We had to back ourselves and be firm on what we did to not be in a crazy overstock position,” he said.

A label has to be careful that one buzz moment doesn’t define its brand. Strathberry, for example, was inundated with press requests across print, radio and TV following its Meghan Markle moment. But the Hundlebys were careful about who they worked with, turning down many outlets that approached them.

“When it became less about the brand and more about us, we weren’t so inclined to be interested in that,” Guy Hundleby said, adding that they also wanted to be respectful of their famous customer.

Invest in Infrastructure to Support Growth

When a business grows quickly, often companies look at increasing headcount. But in an e-commerce driven world, investment in technology is equally important. Ensuring your website is high speed across different countries or providing top-tier user security are important factors to get right.

“For us, as an online brand, [our website] isn’t just our showroom, it’s our point of sale,” said Missoma's Hordern. “We’re only as good as our customer journey. It needs to be engaging with the right content, but it also needs to showcase products in the right way.”

Financing infrastructure expansion can be expensive. But capitalising on a buzz moment can help generate the larger sums needed to facilitate the next stage of growth. Strathberry, for example, worked closely with their suppliers in Spain to meet tight production schedules and restock popular styles quickly, reinvesting the additional revenues back into the business.

Remember That Buzz Can Only Get You so Far

Success doesn’t happen by accident. Chances are that a brand seeing longer-term business benefits from a buzz moment has been working hard behind the scenes.

In 2015, Missoma quickly gained status as an "It" brand on Instagram with influencers like Lucy Williams as fans. Williams ended up collaborating with the brand on a line that year, a partnership that is still going today. Soon it was spotted on the likes of Kaia Gerber and Bella Hadid.

But the buzz around the brand coincided with a pivot in the business strategy: Missoma did away with most of its wholesale accounts to focus on direct digital sales; and lowered its price point so most pieces retailed under £150. “It looks like one moment, but actually it was the coming together of years of hard work,” Hordern said.

It looks like one moment, but actually it was the coming together of years of hard work.

Sadoughi agrees that the attention her headbands received on social media was just one of the many factors that set her business on its current upward growth trajectory.

When she started selling headbands, she introduced an entry-level price point of $40, much lower than her jewellery’s $100 plus starting price; took time to perfect the product, which had to be high-quality and comfortable; and began investing in marketing spend.

“I didn’t just come from nowhere and make a headband and it went viral,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for a while.”

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