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Social Native
Marketing Mix Podcast with AJ Nicholas

AJ Nicholas shares her top tips for building a successful digitally native brand

September 18, 2019

Joining us on the Marketing Mix Podcast is AJ Nicholas, CMO at The Inside. AJ discusses her experience on the founding team at Rent the Runway, the importance of democratizing the design process for consumers in 2019 and the challenges and benefits of building a digitally native brand. Taking a deep dive into The Inside’s 3-layered content marketing strategy, AJ discusses her top tips for successfully marketing a startup brand, why growth hacking shouldn't be a priority, and how to implement sustainable methods into both marketing and manufacturing furniture.

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Jeff Ragovin: You were part of the founding team at Rent the Runway and led marketing at Charlotte Tilbury before joining The Inside. Could you tell us more about your career path so far?

AJ Nicholas: I was at Rent the Runway for 7 years as part of the founding team. Prior to that I was at Victoria's Secret, which as you can imagine is a huge corporation with lots of people in the marketing world. 

During my time working at Rent the Runway, I was the 7th employee there. By the time I left there was something like 1,500 employees. So I really saw the company through every stage of growth. During my first 5 years there, I ran brand marketing and then I got assigned to work on a really fun project. The outcome of that was Unlimited Subscription business, which is now a huge revenue driver for Rent the Runway. I helped to build that side of the business and became the Deputy General Manager of Unlimited in its first couple years of launch and was responsible for helping to figure out what the concept for the business was. 

Rent the Runway was my first taste at being an entrepreneur and Jen Hyman, the CEO, really advocates for everyone there to be their own entrepreneur. That was eventually a reason why I joined The Inside because I wanted to go back to working at an early stage brand. 

Jeff Ragovin: Can you tell us more about The Inside?

AJ Nicholas: The Inside is a digitally native home furnishing company. We launched out of beta in July 2018. The concept from the company came about when Christiane, our Co-Founder and CEO, was talking to a group of engineers from Wayfair where she was working at the time. It hit her that the experience of picking a fabric and designing and sending to the manufacturer for creation (that typically takes anywhere between 4-6 months) should exist for every customer, and it should also be digitized and democratized for them. 

What we do is, essentially, customer furniture online. We have 100 different patterns, prints and fabrics that you choose from to create your piece and simply check out afterwards. As a result, we have created a ton of disruption in the supply chain. Once your order is placed, we make everything on-demand and it’s shipped to the customer within 3-4 weeks, all at a real world price point. 

We digitally print all of our upholstery and then we create the pieces on demand. That allows us to hold no inventory, create our furniture in the time frame we do and offer the customer a reasonable price because we don’t have any warehouses and we ship directly from the manufacturer. The other thing that it allows is a sustainable business model. We don’t use any water in our digital printing. The textile industry is notorious for having a ton of water waste and creating pollution, so we don’t contribute to that within the textile industry, and then we don’t have any waste either as we’re not holding any inventory. We aren't having the same negative impact that traditional furniture or fashion brands have when there is a ton of inventory going to waste. 

Jeff Ragovin: Affordability is super important, especially for a younger demographic. Are you targeting a younger audience? 

AJ Nicholas: Our customers are really everyone. We’re seeing younger customers who are decorating everything from their dorm at college or their first apartment, to older customers as well. We are certainly seeing a little bit of a sweet spot with millennials who are used to purchasing online, even categories like sofas, which are more highly considered.  

Jeff Ragovin: How does working on the home furnishing side differ from  your experience in the fashion and beauty space? 

AJ Nicholas: I’ve never really thought about my career based on the industry. I’ve always thought about it based more on the project and the size or stage of the business versus industry. I think there are a lot of analogies to when I was working on Rent the Runway in the early days and then Unlimited in the early days because we are in that first year of business still at The Inside. 

Jeff Ragovin: What are some of the challenges and benefits you face as a digitally native brand?

AJ Nicholas: Any digitally native brand that’s new to getting out of the gate has to focus on brand awareness. Start-ups tend to make a lot of mistakes in thinking that the way to initially shape the brand messaging is to focus on the functional benefits of the product rather than the emotional. A lot of the early stage marketers look for growth marketers who can hack paid spend on Facebook, Instagram and Google, and that growth curve eventually plateaus. What we’re really focused on here, which is very similar to the approach at Rent the Runway and Charlotte Tilbury, is building the brand first. 

We are focused on brand building and growth through organic channels including PR, social and word of mouth. The benefit of being a digitally native brand is owning the data and knowing the customer and seeing in the early stages where that growth is coming from because if you're at a larger corporation, like I was at Victoria's Secret where early on in my career, it’s really hard to see what was and what wasn't working as the company was operating at such huge scale and the majority of sales were made offline in retail stores. We can see online what’s working and what’s not and what leverage we have to move the business forward. 

Jeff Ragovin: Are there certain channels that are more effective than others in reaching consumers? 

AJ Nicholas: We are spending a lot of time on our content strategy and how that manifests itself in terms of different media channels. Our content strategy consists of 3 layers. The first is category launches, so rather than putting up every furniture category on the website at once, we’ve released strategically and spaced them out so that it serves like a flywheel of content, which has proven to work really well. In May, we launched an outdoor collection. At the beginning of August we launched our sofas. So we’ll continue having this stream of steady product newness. 

The second layer of our content marketing strategy is collaboration. Collaborations have proved really meaningfully in terms of content and product and those partners have served as marketing megaphones on their own.

The third layer is through what I’m calling free sponsored content. Christiane, our Founder and CEO, has been in this industry for decades. Her previous company she launched and sold to Wayfair, so we are using her as a contributor with media publications where she contributes content for them. 

Another thing which I haven't really touched upon is we 3D render all of our images. We are pushing those images out to media partners so they don’t have to do their own photoshoots and so that’s another piece of this content strategy. 

Jeff Ragovin: Any e-commerce trends that are significantly impacting digitally native brands? 

AJ Nicholas: I think all e-commerce brands have to think more fully now in terms of what is your experience on desktop, what is your experience on mobile and what is your experience in an app or show room? For most of those channels it is a question of when. Most companies that launch in 2019 will be digitally first because it is easier to get a business up and running in the form of a website than it is in the form of a brick and mortar store, particularly in terms of the capital involved. Then it becomes a question of when do you expand to have a storefront and a showroom. 

Jeff Ragovin: Do you have any plans to sell offline or open a brick and mortar location? 

AJ Nicholas: Right now we are just digital, but it is certainly something we’re thinking about over the coming years. I think when you're a digitally native company and you have your e-commerce and tech platform built first, it's easier to create a showroom experience that embraces that technology and is a modern day retail experience versus having to work in the reverse.

Jeff Ragovin: Thank you for joining the Marketing Mix Podcast.

Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes