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All Mouth and No Trousers? Why My Brand’s Growth Got Stuck in a Spin Cycle

What does it take to be a successful British fashion designer in the cutthroat world of DTC? One founder spoke candidly to me about her journey from meteoric rise to plateauing sales and the surprising reason why.

Written by

Caroline McQueen ACIM

DTC Marketing Mistakes to Avoid

what's in store

Certain names and details in this story have been altered to protect privacy, though the core events remain true.

The air crackled with tension in the Westfield manager’s office, starkly contrasting the usual sleek modern vibe of Shepherd’s Bush’s shopping centre. Anna, a 35-year-old fashionista with a sharp mind (honed by her Milan business MBA), felt the weight of scrutiny settle on her shoulders. Despite a practised calm exterior, a flicker of worry danced across her heart-shaped face. Biting her bottom lip, she swiped a hand through the wild tangle of reddish-brown hair cascading down her shoulders. Her other hand, a white-knuckled grip around the shop keys, dug into her palm. The meeting wasn’t about a new collaboration or a sales target – it was about money and, for Anna, the lifeblood of her once-thriving sustainable fashion brand.

The door squeaked open, momentarily breaking the suffocating silence. The assistant manager, Chris, sauntered in, worlds apart from the urgency pounding in Anna’s chest. Unhurriedly, he unbuttoned his navy suit jacket before settling into the leather chair behind the glass desk. The fluorescent lights overhead cast a harsh glare on his face, but it couldn’t compete with the steely glint in his blue eyes. “No need for pleasantries,” he began, his voice clipped. “We’ve received an offer on your unit, and they’re willing to pay six months upfront.”

Chris’s casual demeanour and direct words hung heavy in the air. Anna’s carefully constructed composure crumbled in the face of his bluntness, and she felt a sob rise in her throat. Before she could stop it, the dam broke, and tears streamed down her cheeks.

Source: Unsplash

From Stellar Startup to Stalling Sales

Just weeks ago, Anna was basking in the afterglow of her clothing business’s most significant sales quarter. Launching her store six months before the pandemic might have seemed like a gamble, but Anna’s tireless efforts in building her online and offline brand had paid off handsomely. Her store raked in nearly £700,000 in annual sales, catapulting them into the top 20% of all Shopify stores in her niche. 

The brand’s growth was so explosive it seemed to rival the rise of Victoria Beckham’s fashion empire. Even prestigious department stores like Selfridges recognised their unique appeal, directing customers to Anna’s store when they couldn’t find the perfect piece. But that success story now felt like a distant memory, replaced by a gnawing sense of unease. The manager’s office beckoned, and she knew it wasn’t for a celebratory milestone.

The clicks that fueled her initial success were turning cold, leaving Anna with a sinking feeling – her reliance on ads for growth might be backfiring.

The Allure and the Trap: When Digital Ads Stopped Delivering

In 2019, Anna launched her ethical clothing brand with a digital marketing strategy as sharp as her sustainable fashion sense. A savvy blend of Facebook and Google Shopping ads drove traffic to her online store and Westfield location. Within months, her promotional efforts, cleverly tied to cultural trends, yielded an impressive audience of over 10,000 engaged Instagram followers.

This initial success fueled optimism. Anna’s top-line metrics were undeniably impressive – multi-six-figure sales conversions and high average order values were a recipe for investor interest. Enticed by the brand’s apparent growth potential, Anna aggressively scaled up ad spending. However, there was a hidden cost. While sales figures soared, profitability remained elusive. This disconnect between clicks and conversions would soon become a major concern.

The Perfect Storm: Rising Costs and Changing Forces

Then came 2020. The world was locked down, physical retail shut its doors, and the online space became a battlefield. Every competitor scrambled for the same digital real estate. As the cost of Facebook and Instagram advertising skyrocketed, a sense of unease began to gnaw at Anna.

Adding fuel to the fire, the tech world shifted dramatically with Apple’s iOS 14 update, empowering users to opt out of app and website tracking. Anna’s meticulously targeted ad campaigns, once a recipe for success, started to lose their effectiveness.

Despite the escalating ad spending, conversions stubbornly plateaued. The cost-per-acquisition (CPA) – the holy grail of any marketing campaign, signifying the cost of acquiring a single customer – began to climb. Profitability, once seemingly on the horizon, receded further into the distance. The initial clicks that fueled her initial success were becoming increasingly expensive and less effective.

Adrift at Sea: A Frustrating Freefall

As ad costs ballooned and conversions flatlined, a gnawing confusion ate Anna. She poured her energy into Google Shopping Ads, hoping to capture the attention of luxury apparel shoppers. Fortunately, her average order value remained a healthy £114 despite the changing market, thanks to her focus on high-quality pieces.

But then, disaster struck. One day, the seamless integration between her online store and Google’s robust ad network inexplicably fractured. Her ads remained live – a ghostly presence – but unseen by potential customers. Her primary traffic source had vanished overnight. Sales, once a source of pride, became a dwindling trickle. Within a month, online revenue plummeted from over £100,000 to a meagre £26,300.

The financial strain was crippling. Losing three-quarters of her store’s earning potential meant rent in the prime Westfield location and other overheads became insurmountable burdens. The once-confident fashion MBA was now facing a barrage of questions from Westfield management and investors – questions she had no answers to.

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Doubts and Missed Opportunities

Remember the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? The same goes for marketing your online store. There are many channels – social media, search engines, email marketing, influencer partnerships, and more. While it’s tempting to stick with what you know, focusing solely on one channel, like Anna did with paid ads, has its limitations.

Sure, in the beginning, Anna’s ad campaigns were a recipe for success, driving traffic and sales to her online store. But relying solely on paid advertising is like pouring money into a leaky bucket. There’s a limit to how much you can spend before the return on investment (ROI) dwindles.

Worse still, customers acquired solely through ads might not be the most loyal. Think about it – they came to her store for a good deal, not necessarily because they’re head-over-heels in love with the brand.

Clicks Don’t Equal Connection: A Frustrating Encounter

Anna prided herself on her brand’s online presence. Thousands saw her ads, and some converted into high-value customers. However, one interaction left a particularly bitter taste in Anna’s mouth, perfectly illustrating the limitations of her reliance on advertising.

A woman, who admittedly spent a significant amount in one go, thanks to a targeted ad campaign, tried to pull a fast one. She claimed her expensive new purchases arrived damaged, demanding a full refund (spoiler alert: they weren’t). 

Now, any retailer encounters the occasional bad apple. But what truly stung was the customer’s complete lack of connection to the brand. There was no attempt at a friendly resolution, no “hey, I’ve always loved your clothes, can we work something out?” It was a simple transaction, fueled by an ad, and when a hurdle arose, there was no loyalty to fall back on.

Unfortunately, when Anna denied the fraudulent refund request, the situation escalated. The customer, along with her partner, became verbally abusive towards Anna and her staff, forcing them to call security for assistance. Westfield security eventually intervened, but this incident left Anna shaken and questioning her marketing approach. 

Here was a customer acquired through an expensive ad campaign, yet completely disconnected from the brand’s values and mission. It was a glaring reminder that clicks don’t always translate to genuine connection or customer loyalty. 

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Throwing Money at a Sinking Ship: The Downward Spiral

Anna clung to the familiar, hoping a resurrected Google Shopping campaign could revive her brand. Once the technical issues were resolved, she believed reaching a wider audience of ideal customers was the key to solving her problems. By the end of 2021, her ads reached a staggering 3.2 million people, generating a significant buzz. Traffic to her online store soared, with 166,000 unique sessions and an impressive 11,000 items added to carts, reflecting a promising 6.6% lead conversion rate.

However, the initial excitement turned to ash. Despite the seemingly robust numbers, only 4,775 customers completed their purchases throughout the whole year – a mere 0.14% sales conversion rate. The apparent difference between website traffic and actual sales exposed a harsh truth – her audience wasn’t connecting with the brand. Anna was throwing money at an ad strategy that delivered clicks, not committed customers.

As 2023 dawned, the consequences became painfully clear. The brand’s top-line sales plummeted to a disheartening £498,000 annually, a far cry from the early success stories. The financial strain began to take its toll on the business and Anna’s team morale. The initial optimism had evaporated, replaced by a deepening sense of helplessness. The once-ambitious goal of surpassing £1 million in sales now seemed like a distant dream. The pressure to find a solution before it was too late intensified with each passing day.

A Tale of Two Brands: A Lesson from Marfa Stance

The direct-to-consumer (DTC) path isn’t without its challenges, but some London brands have thrived with this model. Take Marfa Stance, for example. Inspired by a trip to Texas, this innovative brand offers a range of chic, sustainable outerwear designed for versatility and adaptability across seasons. Established by Georgia Dant in 2019 with a DTC-first approach (a strategy currently accounting for 90% of their sales), Marfa Stance has seen impressive growth. Dant’s online store attracts an estimated 22,600 monthly visitors, translating to 7-figure annual sales. So, what’s their secret? It’s all about omnichannel marketing. 

A Masterclass in Omnichannel Marketing

Drawing on her experience at fashion powerhouses like Rag & Bone and Burberry, Georgia Dant embarked on building Marfa Stance. Her vision? A collection of timeless, “build-your-own” outerwear that transcended seasonal trends. Having witnessed firsthand the challenges of the traditional wholesale model, particularly how retailers could devalue brands with mid-season sales, Dant was determined to forge a different path. This led her to a DTC-first approach, laying the groundwork for an omnichannel marketing strategy to propel Marfa Stance’s success.

Marfa Stance understands the power of a well-rounded marketing strategy. They skillfully blend paid, owned, and earned media, securing coveted placements in publications like The Times’ Fashion Desk, Town & Country, Red Magazine, and coveted British Vogue. However, their approach goes beyond traditional advertising.

Eschewing the typical model scene, Marfa Stance champions a customer-centric philosophy. They cultivate a loyal community of “muses” – brand ambassadors who showcase the versatility of their garments through organic social media content. These real women, wearing the clothes in their unique styles, foster a sense of authenticity and connection with potential customers.

This focus on customer engagement extends beyond social media. Dant fosters an open dialogue with her loyal following. This constant feedback loop inspires new designs and ensures the brand stays true to its core values, further strengthening the customer connection. Marfa Stance has mastered the art of omnichannel marketing by combining targeted advertising with organic content creation and fostering a vibrant community.

Lessons Learned

Looking back, Anna acknowledges a pang of regret. “I always feel two steps behind the competition,” she reflects, recognising the limitations of her reliance solely on paid advertising. While digital ads can be a valuable tool in a performance marketing strategy, Anna now understands the importance of a more holistic approach. She missed out on fostering a loyal customer base through organic content creation, influencer partnerships, and strategically placed earned media placements. The financial impact of this tunnel vision was undeniable.

Despite hanging onto her retail location in Westfield, Anna also realises the importance of building a cost-effective physical retail presence that complements her online store and drives both new and repeat business. In the fast-paced world of DTC brands, adaptability is vital. Learning from mistakes and embracing omnichannel marketing strategies that nurture customer connection are the cornerstones of sustainable growth.

The Road to Sustainable Growth

Anna’s story serves as a cautionary tale for DTC brands. While digital advertising can play a role, overdependence creates limitations. Could your brand benefit from a more comprehensive omnichannel marketing strategy?

Imagine nurturing a community of loyal customers through engaging social media content, strategic influencer partnerships, and carefully targeted earned media placements. Envision a cost-effective physical presence that complements your online store and fosters customer connection.

At Impulsiv®, we specialise in helping brands navigate the ever-evolving marketing landscape. We understand the power of omnichannel strategies and can help you craft a plan that fosters brand loyalty and drives sustainable growth. 

Ready to take your consumer brand to the next level? Contact us today for a free consultation.

caroline-mcqueen-digital-strategist
Meet the author
Caroline McQueen ACIM
I help ambitious founders launch and scale unforgettable brands that effortlessly attract customers around the web and offline — without blowing the budget on social ads (Zuck that!) Off the clock, I enjoy Netflix marathons, French lessons, and exploring my local farmer’s market for culinary adventures.
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