Millican Bags: Balancing Brand and eCommerce

The events of 2020 impacted us all, and for brands that meant quickly adapting to the accelerated shift online. Jeffrey Bowman of Millican talked to us about how DTC channels helped them navigate the challenges, and the importance of Brand and eCommerce working hand in hand.
Matt Kendall

MK - Hi, Jeff. Tell me about how you became part of Millican.

JB - All this began for me about eight years ago when I decided to leave my job and move to Norway. I was seeing a cultural shift in the way that people approach the outdoors and marrying up lifestyle and creativity and I wanted to explore that more. 

During this time I put together this book called The Outsiders which was published by Gestalten, and when I got back to the UK Millican approached me to come up and have a chat. I joined them as Creative Director in 2014 to layer this spirit of The Outsiders into the business and to build the team around that.

MK - Apart from the brand founders, who else was in the team back then?

JB - The team was four people. Then Steph joined on the brand marketing side, and we built the team out on the operational side with finance and customer services. We had - and still have - a great team of independent suppliers such as a designer, a photographer, a filmmaker and a developer who all help as and when we need it. They're a bunch of friends now as much as suppliers, so it creates a good environment to work in.

The big change is that we now have a full eCommerce channel team. So we've people helping us with Facebook, Paid Social, PPC SEO, affiliates and email. So it's evolved a lot from those initial days!

MK - And how has your role changed as the team has adapted over the years?

JB - My role particularly has changed dramatically. Now that we've been more reliant on eCommerce given what 2020 threw at us, we can't have creative and commercial not speaking to each other. So I became Brand Director and I now deal with both our eCommerce and commercial objectives and how we build our brand.

MK - So from starting out in brand, you’re now dealing with eCommerce too?

JB - Previously, we were always around 70% wholesale 30% DTC. And perhaps as brand creatives we were in some sort of denial that we had to really drive eCommerce! But then COVID came and before we knew it, we had one channel - DTC. So we used all of our energy and focused on eCommerce in order to survive. 

My background in brand has helped that transition, as whilst I do understand the financial and numbers side, I really understand our market. I know we're a very high considered purchase with a long purchase cycle and that our customer journey has many touchpoints that work along that journey across channels in many different ways, like an eco-system.

It's taught me that as well as sharing nice brand ethos films and photography, we also have to start thinking more commercially in how creative supports commerce. 

MK - We all have to work towards the same goal, and help each other here?

JB -  You know, I recognised that firstly it's great to create awareness, but you have to be driving people into a funnel. And that funnel could take 30 to 60 days to turn into a sale, so what are people seeing on that journey AFTER they've seen that film and then how does that translate into a sale? 

Second, you need to tell them what your products actually do which is one thing we never did before! We assumed that it was all clear, but it wasn't, so we began creating more content about products as well as our brand.

And then the third thing is people do need a little bit of help - perhaps that's a little bit of a discount or reward. There's a fine balance between all three of these parts of the funnel. 

It's been the quickest learning curve I've ever gone through, but now we can have an almost overnight effect which is really good, unlike wholesale where you’re forecasting a whole season or two ahead.

MK - Hopefully 2021 will see some normality return. How do you see wholesale fitting in given your recent pivot to DTC?

JB - The wholesale thing is just as important as online in many ways and I've come to realise they're all touch points and every channel has two objectives. One is to create brand awareness and two is to create sales. All its done is level up both of our primary sales channels – wholesale and DTC – so that we understand even more where we can go forward in more normal times.

MK - Wholesale and physical retail still has a part to play then, rather than being exclusive of each other?

JB -  Yeah, exactly. And I think there are retailers who are already shifting the mindset very quickly and they already trade with that duality of having a physical store and online store, we're just playing catch up. We're very interested to see how they evolve their retail spaces, creating more of lifestyle experience rather than a store.

MK - So you mentioned the brand started with wholesale, but your move towards eCommerce wasn’t just driven by COVID?

JB - Our first eCommerce launch was on Magento, which was super clunky and there was this huge divide between eCommerce and brand content. They just couldn't mix. Then we moved to Shopify and it was pretty clear that this was going to be the future of how a lot of brands need to operate. 

Over the last three years, Shopify has got better and better at so that somebody like myself - who wasn't grounded in eCommerce to begin with - is able to understand and manage our store. If COVID had happened three years ago I think we would have struggled to understand it but it's been quite a journey to go on.

Millican Website - Built on Shopify

MK - You're in quite a dual role then - wearing both the creative and commercial hat?

JB -  Generally, there's been that massive development in brands understanding that it's easier to sell on brand values, so you have to marry up that commercial and brand experience. I think as we move forward we'll see a real switch to creatives truly driving the commercial side. And that might be controversial!

MK - What skills have you as a team had to learn to be able to manage this?

JB - We still have to dive in and do HTML occasionally, and I have had to understand a lot more about functionality and UX. Previously, we would always be quite biassed towards making it look the best it can instead of functioning in the way that you need it to to help conversion.

Balancing that tension between commercial and brand, and the technical aspects of it is tricky but gets easier over time. Finding the right people to help us has made all the difference so I’m glad to have a great designer and developer to help me.

MK - I’d like to touch on the idea of community with you, and what that means for Millican.

JB -  The top line is that because of our physical presence in the Lake District, we have that ability to go out the front door and go trail run or ride. We're on a farm, down the bottom of the lane in the middle of a field and our windows are full of mountains so we feel very connected to our environment and community. We're all Cumbrians (apart from one or two adopted Cumbrian who has been here over 20 years) so it is a real connection which means there's a real northern approach to how we run the brand.

MK -  So how do you go about finding who can represent your brand?

JB -  First and foremost, we find people that resonate with our brand ethos rather than by where they actually are. But I don't think you can ever build a tribe  - I think the tribe comes to you. We've been really lucky to meet people who believe in what we do and help spread the word. 

The second thing that underpins all of that is that we tell human stories and I think human stories resonate across the globe. Most of the films we make and stories we tell are people that I'm normally selfishly really interested in! 

We did one on wild swimming with a girl called Rachel who lives locally. We could have chosen some of the more famous influential wild swimmers out there but we chose somebody close to us, and that connected our brand to our community perfectly. 

MK - Moving from community to environment, how has Millican changed it sustainability practices over the years?

JB - 12 years ago when Millican started it was on the principle of creating a better alternative to the bag that's on your back. At the time in the outdoor industry, sustainability wasn't a prominent/visible thing really - it was all these super bright colours and super gnarly fabrics that caused a lot of harm on the planet. Whereas our first collection was organic canvas, totally unseen in that industry. And now our core collection is 100% recycled polyester and in future all of our collections will be 100% recycled polyester.

The brilliant transition in the industry means we've finally been caught up on that front. But we've kind of reached this weird plateau in the industry now where just building things from recycled materials isn't enough. Obviously Patagonia now supersedes its products because of the bigger mission they're on. For Millican, we're beginning to now talk about where we want customers' mindsets around consumption to go and the Core Collection has allowed us to do that. 

Where we're starting to look is what kind of total impact does our product actually have? Is it a negative, a neutral or positive impact on the planet? Arguably, we've kind of reached a neutral zone. And now we want to get to a net positive impact for the planet and we need to explore what that means. 

MK - And of course there's things like the growing B Corp movement and 1% for the Planet, more of an independent stamp to verify what you're doing as brand.

JB - Exactly, and I think consumers will start to understand what that means. I think the biggest challenge is to get people as consumers, to just acknowledge what they actually buy in general. And that has to come from some of the fast fashion brands as well!

MK - Finally, moving into some quickfire questions! If we can visit one place that inspires Millican, where would that be?

JB - The Borrowdale Valley in the Lake District.                                            

MK - If you could have one marketing channel to build community on which one would you choose?

JB - Instagram purely because of the balance between community and commercial. I don't think that's going to last much longer though!

MK - If you could only subscribe to one of the brands newsletter, which one would it be?

JB - The Do Lectures by Hiut Denim.

MK - One podcast we should listen to?

JB - Rich Roll.

MK - If anyone reading this should go check out one brand, who would that be?

JB - Hiut Denim

MK - If you were to start a new brand today that wasn't Millican what would be the first thing you would do?

JB - Make a very, very strategic plan balanced between eCommerce and Brand. And move back to Norway.

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