Behind the ASOS marketing machine

ASOS
ASOS

ASOS has its sights set on conquering the global fashion market on the back of impressive profits. Nicola Clark goes behind the scenes with Lindsay Nuttall to uncover the secrets of the online retailer's marketing strategy.

Fast fashion has become yet faster. In the (approximately) six minutes it will take you to read this article, the ASOS team will have received a detailed update on what its customers have just bought online.

In the 'always on' culture of ecommerce, ASOS' marketers can effectively assess what's hot and what's not in this interval; or at least, what is flying off the virtual shelves the fastest, and what is wallowing in the virtual returns bins. Within the company, this commitment to maximising customer insight is seen as a core pillar of 'restless innovation', the mantra that underpins the entire operation.

With this phenomenal volume and speed of customer data (which appears as a widget on employees' desktops), it is a wonder that anyone in the ASOS marketing department gets anything else done. While consumers are seemingly addicted to ASOS - the site attracts more than 13m unique users a month - the team is hooked on deciphering what those customers are doing, and how best to interact with them. It is apt, then, that the brand, launched in 2000 as As Seen On Screen, is introducing the strapline 'As Seen On The Streets'.

Edgy campaign

Lindsay Nuttall, global head of strategy and communications at ASOS, says: 'We don't dictate trends, we don't tell people how to wear the clothes. We aren't slavish about following shifting trends'. With this in mind, the online fashion company has turned to street dancers, skaters and a beat box choir, rather than the catwalk or celebrities, to front its latest campaign. The brand has come a long way since its early years, when its collections were based entirely on cheap imitations of looks favoured by celebrities such as Lauren Conrad and Lindsay Lohan.

The global Urban Tour campaign, the first work for the brand by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, represents a shift in strategy and a focus on men for the first time. The activity is ASOS' most edgy and wide-reaching to date. Encompassing London, New York, LA, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai, the investment also reflects the brand's determination to become a key player on the global fashion catwalk. The digital activity, which includes videos of the 'world's best dancers' in London and line skaters in Paris, are designed to be fully shoppable. In the London video, users will be able to click on any dancer, who will then break out from the group to perform. Consumers can also click through to purchase any item the dancers are wearing.

Multiple platforms

The content is effectively platform neutral. It is developed for viral videos and distribution on social channels, a strategy that reflects ASOS' belief that its consumers use a variety of platforms. 'We optimise our content for tablets and mobile, but we still have magazines,' explains Nuttall. 'For us, it's not a question of one or the other. These multiple platforms are helping us become boundless, immersive and interactive.'

Indeed, while publishers have waxed lyrical about how they can best meet the digital challenge, ASOS seems to have gone direct to its consumers for the answer.

It has enabled its users to upload looks they have created quickly, through a simple drag-and-drop option, and to share their content with the ASOS community. Such self-generating content is highly desirable in democratic fashion.

'This next generation coming through is incredibly positive, they don't have the geographical or career limitations of older generations,' says Nuttall. 'They are doing so many different things and sharing them with one another, and we love sharing the way people connect with each other.'

While ASOS doesn't have the high-street baggage of many of its rivals, it is not solely an innovative understanding of social media and the psychology of fashion blogs that is propelling the brand.

Marketing victory

Perhaps its greatest marketing victory has been its policy of free returns and free delivery, which has both differentiated ASOS and put pressure on its rivals. Its understanding that this investment is core to building the brand puts it ahead of its competitors, particularly those on the beleaguered British high street.

As one ecommerce director at a major high-street fashion retailer puts it: 'The board wouldn't sit around pondering how much the light bulbs in the store cost; it should be the same with returns. It needs a shift in thinking from retailers, but this is part and parcel of ecommerce.'

With other retailers still to make this change, ASOS is already one foot ahead, and with its international expansion plans, it aims to stay that way. If, as Nuttall says, shopping is the ultimate in entertainment, then ASOS is the market's leading entertainment player. The company's innovation is paying dividends. It reported a 52% (£339.7m) increase in revenue for the year to the end of March, with international sales up 142%.

So is there a recipe for success; an ASOS school of marketing that other brands can follow? Inevitably, there is no magic formula for doubling revenues year on year that Nuttall can share, but the effects of 'restless innovation' and a phenomenal flexibility is clear to see.

'It is a continuous process of experimentation. Consumers' aren't entertained by the same thing twice,' she says. If ASOS continues its expansion, nor will its customers face the tedium of wearing the same outfit twice.

NUTTALL ON DIGITAL TRENDS

Mobile - 'It is growing rapidly and within eight weeks from launch we became the biggest retailer in mcommerce. It is about identifying the different shopping windows, whether that's on the way home on the bus, on the way to work, or at night in front of Glee. It is a melting pot of different shopping opportunities.'

Social - 'We are running Facebook as a broadcast channel. For us, fashion is all about entertainment. You can't just use social media to focus on pushing through sales. You have to be sure you are pushing the right buttons'.

Tablets - 'I don't think it's a question of one or the other (magazines, mobile or tablets). These (modern platforms) are helping us become boundless and allow us to become more immersive and interactive. You can't get hung up on platforms. Our consumers are platform agnostic, seamlessly jumping from one to the other, and we have to be the same.'

IN THE SPOTLIGHT - Lindsay Nuttall, global head of strategy and communications, ASOS

In the fast-moving world of ecommerce, Nuttall is responsible for plotting a global brand and audience strategy. She must also strike a balance between maintaining the quirkiness of a quintessentially British brand and the need for localisation in various markets.

A seasoned marketer, Nuttall has worked at Channel 4, MySpace and the BBC, where she picked up the Marketing Society Young Marketer of the Year award in 2008. She has avoided falling victim to the 'Culkin curse' of achieving too much too soon, only to drift into obscurity.

Nuttall, who has nailed the monochrome look for our interview, shows no signs of being fazed by the brand's global expansion plans. 'I am only a year in and the company is in a very interesting stage of development. It is all about being in touch with consumer demand on the street,' she says.

To enable the brand to adapt to the changing marketplace, Nuttall's first task was to break down the silos in the marketing department to better integrate digital and CRM. Now her focus is firmly on the creative output.

Nuttall believes digital marketing is at the same stage of development as television advertising in its infancy, when brands were, in essence, still running radio ads because they didn't know what to do with the medium. 'With faster broadband speeds and mobile coming into play, there is much more that can be done,' she adds.

Then there is ASOS' global expansion plans; last year, it opened websites for the US, France and Germany, and five further country-specific sites will launch this year. When it comes to the big question of when ASOS will launch in China, Nuttall replies 'watch this space'.

In the midst of the 'restless innovation' at ASOS, how does Nuttall wind down? 'I turn off the BlackBerry to start with,' she says. Having just returned from a month off, to get married in Italy and honeymoon in the Seychelles, she is far from frazzled.

As a former TV marketer - she was head of marketing for BBC Two and a marketing manager for Channel 4 entertainment and E4 - Nuttall has kept her passion for the medium. 'I am really into Sky Atlantic at the moment. I loved How to Make it in America and Bored to Death.'

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