Billion Dollar Bet: How Col Kennedy and Cotton On plan to take over the world

With almost 760 stores in home market Australia, 1300 stores globally and another 570 new stores to be opened over the next three years – the Cotton On Group is gunning for global glory. One like, follower and e-commerce sale at a time. A solid A$1.51 billion in forecasted revenue for the Group in 2015 is telling the same story, yet one piece is missing to make the Cotton On Group a true multi-platform power player: an international e-commerce success.

Col Kennedy

Col Kennedy is Global Head of Marketing and E-commerce for the Cotton On Group's eponymous house brand Cotton On. He claims that for any brand to communicate successfully, it needs to go to the centre of why they’re here – far from the financials – to find the story that’s actually important and worth something.


Col Kennedy


Movie, gaming and cricket nut. Global Head of Marketing at Cotton On


Melbourne, Australia

In this exclusive, FELLT Editor-at-Large Daniel Kjellsson sits down with Col Kennedy on his first anniversary as Global Head of Marketing and E-commerce for the Group’s Cotton On brand to discuss social media spend, “mothership” strategies and whether or not a fashion brand can truly make a difference in peoples’ lives.

Daniel Kjellsson

Col, it’s been 12 months since you first stepped into Cotton On. Has it been what you expected it to be?

Col Kennedy

Yeah, thanks man – these months have absolutely flown by. I’d say it has been as I expected purely because I had gotten to know Cotton On through existing contacts. Cotton On hasn’t got a really formal recruiting system, but there was a process in terms of meeting people and making sure there was a fit in compatibility. That’s really important to people here, it’s a very family-style business which is privately owned.

Tell me about your position.

I look after the marketing and e-commerce for Cotton On Adults, which is the main Cotton On brand. The marketing side of it is very much about working from a strategy point-of-view and collaborating with my partners in ladieswear and menswear and then the other functional leaders such as the head of each region of market.

You’ve had the term “marketing” in your title since the early 2000s when you came through the ranks at Sony, Disney and Target. It’s been quite an industry revolution since you first started. What have you observed along the way?

Back then, the Internet wasn’t even a credible source for my university projects. At the start of my career I was working on metal print plates! Now the Internet’s obviously changed literally everything – the speed of how we work, in terms of jumping from desktop to laptop to mobile, the pace is just so fast. Back in the day, the customer didn’t have any way of contacting you. Nowadays we’re busier than ever trying to interact with our customers and that’s continually expanding. We have an ambition to always answer every question (almost) immediately. Wherever that question is put forward.

In an imaginary Cotton On campaign involving buying the side of a public bus, TV, an ambassador activation, social media content and Facebook ads – are you as involved in all parts of the activity?

Yes, completely. Every journey is very different depending on the market. Look at South Africa – we’re a new brand and very much in an awareness building stage. Whereas if you look at our home-base in Australia we’re saturated in terms of awareness and the next stage is becoming one of the first considered brands to shop at when you enter the mall and establishing that customer loyalty. It depends on where your brand is at in its maturity cycle and tweaks have to happen according to that. I must be across all such details, since they are crucial in themselves. Each and every one of them.

From a marketing perspective I perceive Cotton On as a fairly cynical player, looking for every penny spent to track back to a sale. Somewhat uninterested in what is traditional “brand awareness” and “brand building”.

I don’t agree. I mean of course we’re professional, in the sense that marketing spend is supposed to come back in form of increased sales. But looking at digital activities, social and content ones in particular, it takes a massive amount of time to build something substantial. The online consumers must understand why you exist as a business, beyond just financial gains. We want to make a difference in people’s lives and the biggest focus is to do that ‘now’, in this moment. Meaning I think we allow for a considerable amount of time between making that difference and seeing some kind of return on it. This company has been set up to make a difference in people’s lives. To do that we need to grow, so sales are important to accomplish that. Talking about creating profitable digital marketing I always go back to standing true to your brand. When you’re proud of your product then everything will follow.

“Cotton On cannot become a pair of trunks amongst other trunks. Our long-term vision need to focus on the brand and the community instead of chasing one-off sales.”

Col Kennedy

That can be the world’s best advice yet also a complete cliché.

Of course, it’s what you make of it. The biggest thing for me is to have less focus on the “consumer” and more on the community as a whole. Today we have access to a truly two-way communication and a community can easily take part and be involved in your longterm business. However cynically you choose to look at things, such involvement is far more valuable than any one-off sale. When I was working at Sony, someone very smart realised that there was no reason to be satisfied with being just a box below the TV. The Playstation needed to become part of one’s life and the community needed to buy into the brand and ecosystem and start to interact with it. Using the same analogy, Cotton On cannot become a pair of trunks amongst other trunks. Our long-term vision need to focus on the brand and the community instead of chasing one-off sales.

Would it then be fair to say that you’re primarily looking at the large social media platforms as brand building tools?

That’s hard to quantify. It’s true that social media is a brand-builder at this moment in time but it’s difficult to measure the actual flow of that consumer journey, from seeing a social media post which leads into the store and into a purchase. We cannot confirm its full sales potential. We currently measure everything measurable and my personal key metric is interaction. Do people actually care about us and what we do? Is it building brand? Yes. But it might be our best sales tool too.

Going into those specifics – do you spend more money on brand-building and content than you do on CPC type of activations?

We normally do, yes, but that can vary from time-to-time. I see work such as CPC as getting hold of someone’s attention, while the other methods work to bring people into the community.

“A big number for me is frequent repeat purchases. They show that your brand is working and the customers are happy and coming back to you.”

Col Kennedy

You have over 2 million visitors each month to the website. Is it correct to call your strategy a “mothership”, one in which external activities have a sole focus to drive people back to the main site?

It’s a balance between driving people to you but also placing your content where people already are. Yes, we want them to access our website but we also want to go out and interact with them on platforms of their choosing. Whether it’s Instagram, Facebook or a new social app, we have to go and interact with the consumers in their space and encourage them to see ours. Optimising the site for mobile also played a significant role with increasing our readership. Consumers from the Asia market, for example, will use our site as more of a catalogue and then head into a brick and mortar store.

How do you measure the success of the website?

We look at all the classic numbers: total sales, unique visitors, cart size and so forth. But a big number for me is those frequent repeat purchases. They show that your brand is working and the customers are happy and coming back to you.

In regards to social channels, are you investing in everything and trying things out? Or have you isolated various key platforms that work for Cotton On?

This is an interesting one because it all depends on the market. For example, Instagram has not taken off in South Africa yet, while it’s enormous in Australia. Looking at China, they’ve got their own separate platforms, Indonesia is very much on Facebook and so forth. We look at performance data daily and often report every week. We also create what’s called “hindsight” reports – if we learn something then we need to share this across all brands. Our whole business mentality is about test, respond and learn.

Agencies such as Sydney Stockholm (publisher of FELLT) are turning bloggers and social media stars into media empires in their own right. Cotton On launched an impactful collaboration with Lara Bingle in 2013. What’s your take on building campaigns around personalities?

To just “buy a face” risks becoming counter-productive. But as long as that person is relevant to you and what you stand for as a brand and organisation, it can have a really powerful role to play in the marketing mix. Yet again, the fit cannot only be based on looks, for example. The personality you involve in your brand needs to actually live your values and you need to be able to confirm that.

Values and “reasons why” seem crucial to your storytelling. Yet if I’m just a guy selling white T-shirts, not caring about much more than selling white T-shirts with no grand backstory, what do I do?

Well, you always need to ask why. Why are you selling your product, what’s so great about this product and what motivates you to do this? We have to go to the centre of why we’re here – far from the financials – to find the story that’s actually important and worth something. You’ve really got to delve in and find it. It’s really hard, yet something you need to keep actively seeking and incorporating into everything you do. I keep repeating: if you know why you’re here and why your organisation exists then you will do well.