Superstars and sheep: Inside The Woolmark Company

How did a group of Australian wool farmers become one of the most powerful marketing machines in global fashion? In this exclusive we meet with The Woolmark Company’s Global Manager for Digital Engagement, Aron Butcher, to discuss how the company’s digital strategy is contributing to its marketing power and global operations.

Aron Butcher

All fashion companies strive to create an emotional connection with their customers by communicating their brand story. Aron Butcher is approaching that challenge from both ends; guided by data collection and factual patterns – as well as his background in design.

Who

Aron Butcher

What

Global Manager for Digital Engagement, The Woolmark Company

Where

Sydney, Australia


Soccer superstar Alessandro Del Piero is kicking around with a ball of Merino wool. Sir Paul Smith poses for photos standing next to a dressed up sheep. His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales – yes, the future king of England – sets a Merino wool jacket on fire. No doubt this sounds like a great party, but what stays an after-work-drink originated mirage for most companies – The Woolmark Company makes real. From afar, it seems to be a trade organisation with a Rolodex of dreams.

FELLT paid The Woolmark Company’s global headquarters in Sydney – and Global Manager for Digital Engagement, Aron Butcher – a visit.

Daniel Kjellsson

How are your marketing efforts different from the fashion brands you are supporting?

Aron Butcher

All fashion companies strive to create an emotional connection with their customers by communicating their brand story. The Woolmark Company’s approach to marketing is exactly the same and our objective is to develop a luxury brand for Merino wool. If we do our job right then the fashion industry can command higher prices for their Merino wool clothing, which, in turn, benefits the woolgrowers of Australia who fund our company. It’s a very interesting dynamic.

For the general fashion company, technology is a hassle and an aspect of the business that is preferred to “just work”. How much tech talk is going on in the AWI corridors?

Actually, quite a lot. We are positioned as ‘the global authority on wool’ and technology will be the means for us to maintain that leadership position. Apart from the visual display of our digital assets and investing in design, user experience and content, we’ve made investments in our digital infrastructure to upgrade our systems. We are in the process of improving our foundations.

What does that mean?

The company’s future authority will come from collecting data from consumers and our trade customers and interpreting this information to guide our company’s actions. This will only happen if we have digital channels that are visually appealing backed by innovative technology. Our vision for the future is that every time someone purchases Merino wool they receive a digital communication from us saying “thank you”. This is a very large goal but something that can be achieved through the digital foundation we put in place today.

It is a “mothership” strategy but we are OK if some of the ships don’t make it home.

 

In regards to your digital strategy, is “strategy” just a term for continuous internal discussions or is there an actual official document lying in some drawer somewhere, stating specifics?

Haha, yes there is an actual document. It’s called the Digital Transformation Strategy. The strategic focuses in the document haven’t changed since it was written two years ago but we continuously update our development and performance targets. Digital moves quickly and this document needs to move with it. It can’t be static. It doesn’t sit in a draw; it’s more of a paperweight – on our desks as a constant reminder.

Can you give us an example of what’s in the strategy?

I can’t give away too much but the strategy focuses on using customer insight to guide the user experience of our digital channels and the development of our content, which fits into our global marketing programs and the delivery of the company’s services. Everything is tied together through a customer relationship program to keep people engaged with what we do.

Was there a similar strategy document in place when you arrived to AWI two years ago, or did you create this from the ground up?

When I arrived, I did an audit of the company’s management groups to gain an understanding of their digital performance. I also wanted to gain insight into their vision for the future. Some groups were performing well, while others had a perception mismatched to their performance. All management groups had big ideas of what they wanted in the future. I wrote the overall strategy but it was grounded in the insights I gained from the business. It was a group effort.

Everyone at the company is very passionate about the sustainability of the Australian wool industry and they know that digital will make the industry more successful.

 

How much support do you get from management and the board?

Everyone at the company is very passionate about the sustainability of the Australian wool industry and they know that digital will make the industry more successful. This is especially true of the company’s Executive Managers and its Board of Directors. It’s my job to work with our Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer and Chief Executive Officer to understand how they want to innovate the business and then translate that into our digital projects. I also work with the Board of Directors to help them understand how the market is changing and how the company is changing with it. For us to be successful, we must have adoption of digital from the top down.

If you were hired by an Australian fashion brand right now, what would your first actions be?

I would start with the marketing fundamentals. I’d start by researching the customer – who they are, what they need, what expectations they have of the brand. Then I’d find what digital channels those customers are using. The customer is everything, so as long as you understand where they are and what they want, you should be able to grow successfully by using digital media to engage that person.

What’s the most common mistake you see amongst the fashion brands and their digital activity?

I think that many organisations are collecting data or putting in new technologies like marketing automation but they don’t yet have the internal skills to fully maximize the potential of these investments. Digitizing old operations is as much about the change management process for the company as the technology. It’s a common mistake to not balance the two.

How do you work with data and analytics?

The use of analytics is a growth area for us and we will become more sophisticated in analytics as our digital presence expands. We use Salesforce, Radian6 and Exact Target to capture data from our websites, social media communities and email campaigns. These are also the primary tools we use for engaging with our customers. As we gain more data, the way we conduct research will change. Instead of going out to market to understand customer behaviour, we will interpret it from our databases. The amount of data we collect is a value proposition for the company, especially around the consumer of Merino wool products.

How do you think Australian brands rank globally in terms of digital marketing?

We’re probably not as sophisticated as some of the American or British brands because they are larger organisations with more marketing investment. In their markets, they also have access to more specialized talent. Most of our brands seem to be heading in the right direction. Bigger companies such as Country Road and David Jones are doing well.

What are you most excited about right now?

I’ve just finished a research project that gathered insights on our global customer experience. Documented in this research is feedback on the company’s operations and things we could expand or improve. These insights will be applied to a redevelopment project for our trade website, Woolmark.com. Key to the rebuild will be the development of some digitized services like a searchable textile archive, a sourcing directory and an online university. These should all help automate our customer service delivery. It’s a great strategic challenge and very exciting innovation process.

The Woolmark Company has got an office in most major markets. Do you use any collaboration software?

We use Salesforce Chatter as our internal social media community. There is a master community for the entire company and then smaller communities for projects and management groups. It’s a great way to minimize emails and creates collaboration. We are now exploring how we expand this tool to include people external to the business, like creating a community for the emerging designers that participated in the International Woolmark Prize.

Speaking of social media, what channels are you using and what are your key social metrics?

We have a presence on all the major social media channels. Facebook and Twitter have been our most successful. Our strategy is currently focused on impressions, reach and engagement for our content paired with audience growth. Quite simply, we have a publishing strategy that is geared to creating online conversation and building an audience. As our audience grows, this strategy will change and we will focus on converting engagement directly into product sales. The start to this change has been the launch of an ecommerce marketplace on our consumer website, Merino.com.

How are you investing in video content?

We have a big schedule for film content this year, ranging from visits to Australian farms to Italian textile mills. We’ve had a mixed strategy of using Vimeo as the video player for our websites and YouTube as a channel to gain larger viewership on certain videos. We also want to play more with short-format content that is used to advertise long-format content available on our websites. We want people to view a video, come through to our website for the full-story, and then to register to receive more.

Is that a “mothership” strategy – looking at all external platforms as tools to get people to click back to the main site?

Yes, to a certain degree. We are always happy when someone engages with our digital content as it contributes to the awareness of Merino wool but getting them to our website to register to receive more communications makes us even happier. We fulfill our company’s strategic objective when a communication is consumed but there is long-term value in the registration. It is a “mothership” strategy but we are OK if some of the ships don’t make it home.

Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) is a not-for-profit company that invests in R&D and marketing along the global supply chain for wool to enhance the profitability, international competitiveness, sustainability and demand for Australian wool. AWI is the owner of The Woolmark Company and the world-renowned Woolmark brand, which has been applied to more than five billion products since its creation in 1964.