SWIMMING WITH SHARKS
Written on the 18 December 2014 by Karen Rickert
WHEN it comes to the successful consolidation of e-commerce and social media strategy, Black Milk Clothing is in a league of its own.
The online clothing retailer has amassed fans across the globe, with its unique line of leggings, dresses, swimwear, oversized shirts and gym gear.
Designs range from galaxy, animal and famous artwork prints to lucrative licensing deals with franchises such as Disney, Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
Starting out from his kitchen in Brisbane in 2009, James Lillis (pictured below) grew the business year on year to transform it into a nylon empire.
The clothes are manufactured and produced across three locations in the city, by an in-house team of almost 200 graphic designers, sewers, fabric cutters, sublimation printers, social media and customer service representatives.
The company sells between 1500 and 2000 items of clothing a day from its sprawling warehouse in Newstead, with a price point from $25 for hosiery to $110 for a jacket.
Lillis' right-hand man Cameron Parker (pictured left) has been with Black Milk since the beginning, completing a year of "work experience" before coming on board full time as marketing manager.
"We just do our own thing, we don't follow seasons and we don't do trends," Parker says.
"We listen to our customers and we do designs for our customers. We just run our own race really."
Black Milk initially gained traction bolstered by Lillis' blog Too Many Tights and has since expanded across 16 different social media platforms to connect with customers.
The result is a tightknit community of devotees, affectionately known as sharkies, after the website crashed during a sale feeding frenzy.
Among its one million Instagram followers, and more than 700,000 Facebook fans, is the star power of Katy Perry, Jessie J and Whoopi Goldberg who are customers.
Parker says focusing on psychographic appeal rather than a single target demographic has worked in the brand's favour.
"We release about 50 pieces every month and there's something for everyone that goes with their individual style," he says.
"Like Disney. Disney isn't for everyone, there are lots of people who love it and there are lots of people who wouldn't be caught dead wearing it.
"Then we've got Halloween which is darker, blood, zombies and skulls. That might not be for some people.
"That's part of the connection and genuine friendship we have with our customers - I wouldn't even say customers, they're more like friends."
The friendship is mutual, with fans creating numerous pages and groups with which to interact and Black Milk hosting annual meet-ups around the world, called SharkieCon.
Customers are encouraged to share selfies of themselves in their new attire, with each product having its own hashtag on social media. The photos are regularly reposted, leading to a mobilised army of brand ambassadors.
"If it weren't for Facebook, I probably wouldn't be sitting here."
Parker says the company hasn't needed to invest in traditional advertising or public relations as a result.
"If it weren't for Facebook, I probably wouldn't be sitting here," he says.
"When you're in a kitchen with no money, and any money you do have is invested in materials and upgrading the sewing machine, the last thing you think about is advertising.
"It forced us to be really smart about what opportunities and channels we used to promote and talk to customers about the brand."
In its infancy, the biggest challenge the company faced was meeting customer demand particularly with the intent of manufacturing domestically.
Parker says Brisbane is not traditionally regarded as a fashion city, so it was difficult to build a team of sewers with industry experience.
"In the early days, we asked the fashion community for advice in what we should do," he says.
"They all said you need to start sample making and manufacturing in Indonesia and if you're not going to go offshore you're not going to remain competitive.
"They said you want to start wholesaling to get distribution channels, but very quickly we thought that was a crazy idea. We're passionate and we want to make the clothes.
"Being online and open 24/7 and 365 days a year while talking to a community worldwide is way better than being stocked in a boutique in Queen Street Mall."
Black Milk's second-largest consumer market outside of Australia is North America, leading to the development of a dedicated US distribution centre in July.
In response to customer demand and to stimulate further growth, shoppers can purchase in US dollars with reduced shipping times and avoid paying customs and duties.
Parker says the company may commence manufacturing in Los Angeles to keep up with demand, while also looking at strategies to make purchasing easier in Europe next year.
"This year has been about consolidating more. We grew so fast that some of those internal systems haven't been developed as a company progressing more naturally would have.
"We were more like: 'Quick, sew, sew!'"
REAP WHAT YOU SEW
Parker says social media is about "romancing" the product and the people involved. Here are his top tips for mastering the messaging avenue:
CONTENT IS KING: "It's not about selling; it's about story-telling for us."
PERFECT PLATFORM: "Anywhere our customer is we want to be liking, commenting, engaging, reposting and reblogging whatever it is."
MIX IT UP: "There's always different content across each channel and there are different strategies."
COLLABORATE & LISTEN: "It's bringing the brand to life by profiling the team behind it, product development, going behind the scenes at photo-shoots and asking what customers think."