Turning a concept into a successful brand: Blake Mill

Blake Mill: Successful retail brand

Blake Mill is a brand that designs completely unique and high-quality men’s dress shirts. Whether it’s sporting an interesting collar and cuff lining, or a bold design, they have amazing shirts for every occasion.

Modern Retail had the pleasure of speaking with Ken Price, CEO of Blake Mill about how he and the team turned a concept into the ethical business it is today, as well as sharing his top tips for online retailers or brands that want to stand out from the crowd.

1. Introduce us to Blake Mill

“Myself and my business partner have a background in fintech. After building a couple of businesses together, we decided to sell shirts together in 2017 but just didn’t have a brand. In 2018, we went fully D2C, set up a Shopify site and things started taking off. We had a great product which is one of the key things, with Steve coming up with a lot of the design concepts and Ross taking care of all the digital wizardry… and that moved us through to where we are today. It’s been about creating really cool designs and so far, putting them onto men’s shirts.”

Blake Mill shirts - How to create a successful brand

2. What are the greatest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome these?

“The brand recognition was a tough one for us when we were selling to retailers, so going direct to consumer allowed us to connect directly and leverage paid social and Facebook, in particular, to get our brand in front of individuals.

“COVID was another challenge. We were on this huge growth trajectory and COVID shut that down as people weren’t buying shirts to wear to go out to social events or offices as much. By then, we had built a strong customer base and had a really good product offering and a great person in a great customer support facility. Our customers got us through COVID and once things reopened, we noticed our new customer base growing again.

“Now it’s about scaling up – we’ve learnt a number of lessons along the way but being clear on the brand is the challenge that we’ve been focused on over the course of the last 9 months.”

3. How does the design process work?

“This is the magic of Blake Mill and it’s what we’re about – the designs. Between Steve and Ross, they come up with these concepts and turn them into digital patterns which get printed onto the shirts. People gravitate towards the shirts because they’re completely unique and you won’t find them anywhere else. 50% of the designs we create completely on our own, as well as some mash-ups and licensing deals. But the originality of the design is key.

“We’re also now starting to tap into our customer base and into some independent artists who work with us, to create those designs and we’re really looking forward to creating a much more technology-driven community which will allow a broad range of people from around the world start contributing to the design process and ultimately potentially benefitting from that too, so design is core to us. We’re creative, collaborative and conscious of the world around us.”

4. Once you had the product, how did you grow your business?

“It was really Facebook that got us out in front of a lot of people, but that was back in 2018. Over the course of the last 9 months, we’re brought on a new Head of Marketing who has lit a fire under us and has built an influencer programme that has taken off and we have design collaborations being built with really interesting influencers.

“We have really hit the Instagram world hard. We’ve expanded into programmatic paid advertising and have a great customer base, so we do email marketing and we engage with those customers, getting them to vote on the designs they like the most. We have a lot of one-to-one activity with those customers through our support desk, which we get a lot of great feedback from, but also the interest through the interactiveness we’re growing with our emails and polls etc.”

Blake Mill shirts - How to create a successful brand

5. How useful has social media been as a tool?

“Social media has been pivotal for us from a D2C point of view. When it comes to retailers, we have a small number of retailers but because we’re building our brand, people are going into their favourite retailers and asking if they sell Blake Mill. So we’re starting to see retailers reach out to us and ask if they can carry the brand, which is the dynamic you want as a brand and we weren’t there when we started.

“In terms of social media, we’ve become a lot more sophisticated. Our head of marketing is a digital native and puts together the creative. Video is a key part of our asset base that grows awareness for us on social media and we’re starting to do a bit of work on TikTok. Our average demographic starts around 35 up, however we do have younger people, so TikTok is on our boundary, but certainly Instagram and Facebook have been fundamental for our D2C business and we’ll also be going back to Twitter, but it also has helped to drive interest from retailers.”

6. Talk to us about the importance of consistency

“This is really important. We’re putting a lot more effort into driving consistency and we’ve brought someone on part time to work out that tone of voice as we start to grow, so we can make sure everyone is on the same page. It’s absolutely vital to have that consistent message going out and making sure you have clarity internally of who you’re selling to and what they’re interested in.”

7. Talk us through your ethical approach

“This was pretty easy for us as we share a lot of values including treating people fairly, so we felt strongly that we wouldn’t work with suppliers that didn’t feel the same. Steve did an audit and went around personally touring around half a dozen factories, speaking to workers and management, viewing the facilities and making sure we were happy. We made sure they have all the ethos built into the business and we chose right to begin with, keeping a finger on the pulse of how the operation is going.

“The challenge is coming that as we start to expand our product range, we have to diversify our supplier base, so we have to be very diligent. We have a lead buyer joining and one of their mandates is to make sure as we expand, our suppliers meet a set of agreed criteria – because we want to assure our customers that they are buying a product that is made ethically and that sustainability plays a big role in terms of the raw materials.”

8. How have you found the process of making sure your products are as environmentally friendly as possible?

“Initially, manufacturers had things like plastic clips on shirts, so we had to get them to make some changes to their typical operations. So the clips are metal, if there is any cardboard, it is recyclable and while we do have plastic collar stays, they are not disposable. So while we do have some level of plastic, you can always do better.

“The difference now compared to five years ago is that manufacturers get it and they’ve made investments to keep up with what the market is demanding. Five years ago, people were not willing to pay for some of these environmental and sustainable benefits because so many manufacturers weren’t willing or able to do it. Now they are, it’s a lot more reasonable and possible to do it – but it’s been baked into our ethos from the get-go.”

9. What are your top three tips for retailers or brands looking to start an online store and stand out?

Here are Ken’s three pieces of information for any retailers or brands that are looking to make an impact:

1. Product is vital

“Product is absolutely key, so get that perfect. Our customers love our products and this is why our returns rate is so low.”

2. Know your market

“Knowing your market, engaging with them and listening to them is crucial. As we try to expand our products, we are now really looking to get much more in touch with our market and you can use all different parts of your business to do that.”

3. Have a focus

“Focus is the other key aspect. All of these things come as a result of making past mistakes of course, but we started geographically expanding several years back and set up a warehouse in the States, as well as selling heavily into Europe. At the time, we weren’t focusing enough on our core market. So we kind of retracted into the UK and got all moving parts working really well in the UK market. Then in 2023, we will be going back out into another geographical market, knowing all the pieces that have to fit together in order for that market to work.”

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