Most of the attendees at yesterday’s Business of Fashion Conference, part of Startup Fashion Week and held at Brightlane on King Street W., were emerging fashion entrepreneurs, equally filled with inspiration and questions.
When Jalisa Luces-Mendes discovered I worked in PR she introduced herself and her startup idea – an underwear company specifically for masculine-identified women and transgender men, providing undergarments for bodies and gender identities generally overlooked by the apparel industry.
This being her second startup business, she already has a lot about the brand figured out (including the sexy, androgynous name Toni Marlow) but was curious about marketing and publicity.
“What do I do?” her first question tumbled out. “Which PR avenues do I use? How do I execute a communications strategy? How do you position a new product, and refine its message?”
As a means to answer at least some of Jalisa’s questions, below are the PR lessons that I gleaned from the conference, useful for entrepreneurs and PR professionals alike.
Know your audience
The keynote speaker was Linda Lundström, Canadian designer best known for her iconic cozy yet chic coat, Laparka. Lundström started her business in a two-room apartment at Oakwood and St.Clair. “I know what it’s like to start small,” she said.
She went on to tell the assembly that she wasn’t going to speak about the creative process, because that’s something the group of designers and entrepreneurs already know about. Instead, she wanted to speak about the business sides of things, a component that sends many creative types running away screaming.
One lesson is to really know your audience. As much as Lundström benefited from media coverage over the years, she credits her company’s success equally to providing women a quality item that solved a real wardrobe, namely, how to stay warm and look good doing it.
Don’t be afraid to disrupt
Nothing is stable in business and the winds can change quickly. You’ve got to adapt to move forward. That’s what Linda Lundström realized in the late 1990s, right before she discovered the LEAN method of manufacturing.
Pioneered by Toyota, the LEAN method of manufacturing is about disrupting the conventional order of things by streamlining every process, to eliminate all waste of resources and time. It’s all about going back to the basics of what your customers need from you, and how best to deliver it them.
For Lundström’s company it meant going through everything with a fine tooth comb, from sewing machines to management structure, and seeing what could be cut out. Labour costs fell by 15 per cent and productivity increased, with the product turnaround dropping from five weeks to five days.
Lundström became such a proponent of LEAN that, after she sold her company in 2008, she began a consulting business to teach other companies about her back-to-basics approach to manufacturing.
I wondered what lessons LEAN could provide for PR, so I asked Linda at the coffee break.
“It’s all about, Who is the customer and what do they want?” she said. Every industry has things they do out of tradition or habit, even when they’ve ceased being useful. “For PR, your clients want to increase their business, but the best way to do that might not be with a glitzy event.”
“Or a press release,” I added, thinking of a recent article calling for the death of the press release.
“Exactly,” Linda agreed. “Press releases are bulk thinking, not LEAN.”
When the going gets tough, the PR gets creative
Lundström wasn’t the only speaker to question the use of press releases and traditional media to connect to consumers. Mario Lavorato of Daniel Christian Tang and Joseph Nogucci, explained that when it came to selling 3D printed jewelry partnering with online retailers like Amazon Local and eBay saw much more return on investment than getting in magazine editorials or brick and mortar stores. He called it the “online version of guerrilla marketing.”
Get the product in people’s hands, he explained, and, if it’s good, they’ll come back for more. Media coverage can help move things along, but when you’re just starting out, find the fastest route to your customers.
All of which is a bit scary for those of us in PR. What role is there for us if companies want to bypass traditional media? That’s where creativity comes in. Our role is to connect our clients with their audiences, wherever they might be.
For Jalisa Luces-Mendes and her underwear company it might mean reaching out to key figures in the LGBTQ community or taking samples to community events to give away as prizes. But it also might include (dare I say it?) press releases to specific writers to build a ground zero of public awareness.
As with Jalisa’s underwear, in PR there’s no ‘one size fits all.’
Startup Fashion week provides aspiring and new entrepreneurs in Fashion design, Fashion-Tech and Wearable-Tech an introduction to the skills they need to build a successful business. It continues until October 9.