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Why Editorial Brands Will Dominate Retail’s ‘Long Tale’

Brands and retailers must create their own deep and sticky ecosystems of content, argues Doug Stephens.
A still from Hodinkee's Talking Watches 2 with John Mayer. Hodinkee.
A still from Hodinkee's Talking Watches 2 with John Mayer. Hodinkee.

In 2008, New York native Ben Clymer was working in finance. When the financial crisis hit, he took a severance package and enrolled in Columbia Journalism School, where, in his spare time, he launched Hodinkee, a simple blog for wristwatch aficionados. The name Hodinkee, he would later reveal, was derived from the Czech word “hodinky,” meaning wristwatch.

Unlike most other industry sites at the time, Hodinkee was positioned not for the traditional watch snob but for a younger enthusiast, publishing narrative pieces celebrating the backstories of specific watches and brands that were accessible and entertaining, while also winning over hardcore horology buffs with reassuringly geeky levels of technical knowledge.

Hodinkee’s content spread like wildfire. By 2013, the company had become an editorial powerhouse in the wristwatch market, with The New York Times crowning Clymer the “High Priest of Horology.” By 2015, Hodinkee had become one of the most influential sources of information on watches in the world with increasingly star-studded content featuring the likes of singer songwriter John Mayer, golf icon Jack Nicklaus and racing legend Mario Andretti.

Content is the most important product a brand offers.

Along the way, Clymer recognised that Hodinkee’s dependence on advertising revenue not only impinged on its editorial freedom, but also obscured a bigger revenue opportunity: retail. Hodinkee soon expanded its modest online storefront to include both new and pre-owned timepieces. And today, the company sells an array of watches priced from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands, many of which sell out within minutes of being listed. Recently, Clymer and team raised just shy of $40 million in venture funding in a deal that valued Hodinkee at more than $100 million, installing a new CEO, Toby Bateman, formerly of Mr. Porter, another online retail brand with a similarly strong editorial approach.

Through its astonishing rise, Clymer holds fast to what he regards as the cornerstone of Hodinkee’s success: content. In a recent interview he said: “We will hire new editors, new photographers, new videographers. We want to produce the very best content. We have a track record of that. It might surprise some folks, but we believe the future is all about content.”

Retail’s Long Tale

While much has been written about the “long tail” of the retail industry, Hodinkee and brands like it constitute an emerging class of new-era retail powerhouses comprising what I call the long tale: retailers that create remarkable experiences through expertly researched, skillfully developed, and elegantly produced content. Content that informs, inspires and entertains. Content that ultimately shapes the consumer’s experience with a brand.

We tend to mystify the notion of experience in retail, but at a molecular level retail experiences are really nothing more than an amalgam of content — physical, digital, emotional, cognitive and sensory. When we visit a website, app or a physical store, everything we see, hear, feel, find and do there — all that content — coalesces to form an experience. The degree to which customers recall the experience and, moreover, relay that experience to others, is wholly dependent on the degree to which that content is thoughtfully created and skillfully produced. Ultimately, content is the only means through which your brand story can be conveyed.

The problem is that within many conventional retail organisations, the term “content” is conflated with advertising. To wit, I’ve even seen entire brand YouTube channels that contain nothing more than a company’s TV ads. And while it is true that fashion brands like Chanel and Burberry, for example, long ago began to think more like media companies, Hodinkee’s rise suggests that content can no longer be treated as a garnish that sits to the side of a brand’s core product offering, but rather that content itself is the most important product a brand offers. If the content is valued by the community, product sales come along for the ride.

The product is no longer the problem

For any want, there are now multiple product alternatives, easily accessible at our fingertips. This removes a major problem for consumers, while creating a new one for brands: how to acquire customers. And with digital advertising costs likely to soar once again as we emerge from the pandemic, it’s a problem that won’t get any less expensive. All but those brands with the deepest of war chests will be priced out of the game. Thus, for the majority of product brands to be sustainably successful, they have little alternative but to create their own deep and sticky ecosystems of content. As Ben Clymer put it, speaking to BoF last year, “We want Hodinkee to become really a complete universe for watch enthusiasts.”

The anti-Amazon strategy

By pointing to Hodinkee’s success, I’m not suggesting that every brand become an editorially driven business. There is and will continue to be an ever-expanding market for those companies that focus on convenience — effectively greasing the rails of commerce to provide us with selection, fast delivery and reliably comfortable pricing. Amazon reinforces this fact each day. In fact, if I want a pre-owned Rolex watch, there are almost 1000 to choose from on Amazon as I write this. Yet Amazon could have ten times that inventory and will still quite likely never become the destination for watch enthusiasts that Hodinkee is. Amazon will never be the author of engaging content in the category. It will never build a watch-loving community that waits with bated breath for the next limited-edition timepiece. Nor do they aspire to be. Amazon’s remarkably focused raison d’etre, right from the beginning, has been to eliminate the physical and temporal distance between want it, find it and got it. It has never set out to deliver a deep level of content or community. That’s simply not who they are.

And that leaves an opportunity for other retailers. But those looking to unlock that opportunity will have to completely rethink their business structure and priorities. Content creation must become a specialised function within the business. Those with editorial and production skills must be hired, steeped in the brand’s culture and allowed to create without the expectation that every click or footfall leads to a transaction. Content is not a marketing campaign, or ad buy. It’s a daily creative process of authoring, animating and expanding the brand story and, in doing so, cultivating a community of loyal and engaged fans. Perhaps Clymer himself puts it best when he says, “Not for one minute do we think watches really matter now, or ever. But we do know that people are looking for a place to escape and enjoy a hobby as a bit of reprieve.”

By fuelling their customer experiences with extraordinary content, both digital and physical, retailers across categories have the capacity to become that welcomed reprieve. And in doing so, reinvent their value both socially and commercially.

Doug Stephens is the founder of Retail Prophet and the author of three books on the future of retail, including the recently released ‘Resurrecting Retail: The Future of Business in a Post-Pandemic World.’

Editor’s note: This article was revised on 3 February, 2021. An earlier version of this article misstated that Hodinkee generates over $100 million in annual revenue. This is inaccurate. Hodinkee’s valuation at the time of its Series B investment round was over $100 million, not its revenue.

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