How One Direct-to-Consumer Culinary Wear Brand Whipped Up a Winning Email Marketing Strategy

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The coronavirus pandemic brought a whole host of unforeseeable challenges that direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands never anticipated they’d have to overcome. While many quickly adapted and found ways to survive, and in many cases thrive, despite difficult circumstances, the work isn’t done. 

Coming soon is the main event of the year—Cyber Weekend. While 2020 is predicted to be the largest on record for the ecommerce industry, most brands will need to take a fresh look at how they’d normally prepare for the make-or-break holiday shopping season and adjust amid the unknown of a global pandemic. 

I recently spoke with Jonathan Levine, chief marketing officer for Hedley & Bennett, a premium maker of quality kitchen wear for professional chefs and home cooks. Jonathan shared how the brand’s business has changed as a result of the coronavirus, how they’re preparing for a unique upcoming holiday season, and what’s ahead for the brand as they continue to grow. 

 

Katie Tierney: Tell me a little bit about Hedley & Bennett. What do you sell and who do you sell it to?

Jonathan Levine: We’re a culinary workwear brand, so we primarily make apparel and accessories for the culinary world, as well as consumers who are into cooking and food. 

Our primary products are aprons, though, for the professional world, we also make chef coats and work shirts. Then for everyone, we make accessories like knife bags, socks, and tote bags. 

We also do a number of collaborations each year with other brands—one of the biggest being our co-branded shoe with Vans. It’s slip-resistant, water-resistant, and it has a comfortable insole, so it has the functionality someone would need for a kitchen, but also really cool colors and fun designs for anyone to wear.

 

Katie: What proportion of your business is direct-to-consumer (DTC)?

Jonathan: That’s shifted dramatically in the coronavirus world. We used to be pretty well-split between what we call our business-to-business (B2B) consumer and our DTC consumer. With B2B, we sell to places like restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, resorts, hotels, and other hospitality venues. 

Today, we’re definitely more of a heavily DTC-dominated business. We’re seeing the B2B business slowly coming back as areas around the country reopen, and while both B2B and DTC are very core to our business, over time, a greater proportion of our business will be DTC. 

 

Katie: Beyond shifting your mix of customers, how else has the pandemic impacted your business?

Jonathan: Pre-coronavirus, our results were strong and we were really starting to grow the business. But it was drastically impacted immediately with stay-at-home orders. As restaurants, hotels, and places like that shut down, our B2B business pretty much went away overnight. 

After the initial panic, we saw DTC consumers continue to buy, especially since everyone started talking about making banana bread and other things at home and cooking a lot more. We saw a lot of gifting and other people buying our core product online. 

With the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies that was happening a couple of weeks into the start of stay-at-home orders, we realized we had fabric available and sewers we could bring back to work in order to become an essential business. 

We were able to shift very quickly and be one of the first brands that pivoted to get into the mask business, which has been a tremendous boost for us. It’s brought a ton of more eyeballs to the business and people have bought our core product in addition to our masks. 

It actually helped us make a new product that ended up being somewhat essential. As a lot of restaurants and other businesses started to reopen, they came back to us for regular supplies and masks. Our B2B business went from almost zero overnight to being a healthy business again. Plus, the mask model we launched was a one-for-one model, so we’ve been able to donate over 250,000 masks to frontline workers.

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Katie: How important is customer retention to your business? 

Jonathan: Customer retention has always been important. We’ve always had about a 25-30 percent customer retention rate because we have a very passionate audience. But pre-COVID, we were still in an early growth mode so customer acquisition was equally important. 

For us, in order to retain customers, we had to develop new products. The comment is always, “How many aprons does someone need?” Our average consumer has more than one, but we had to focus on developing a broader assortment of products in order to increase retention. 

Being a small brand, existing customers are the people who are out there being ambassadors for the brand and the influencers who talk about and post about the products—and all of that has helped drive acquisition.

"Existing customers are the people who are out there being ambassadors for the brand and the influencers who talk about and post about the products—and all of that has helped drive acquisition."

Jonathan Levine, CMO, Hedley & Bennett

 

Katie: How has email marketing been helpful to you in general and, in particular, this year?

Jonathan: Email’s always been one of our core marketing channels. It’s a great way to communicate with customers about all of our new products. 

During the pandemic, we’ve used email as a way to share the many things that we’ve been doing—everything from getting masks out there to our donations to the collaborations we’ve done with masks to taking a stand against racial injustice and in support of Black Lives Matter. Email is definitely a platform we use to communicate in a variety of ways.

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Because we’ve had such a large influx of customers recently, we’re still learning. In just two months, we acquired more customers than we had previously acquired in a year. We’ve been learning how to convert a “mask customer” to an apron consumer or vice versa, and we’re learning more about who’s buying what. 

We actually just concluded a two-month consumer research study where we dug into our current audience and our pre-COVID audience so we can be prepared for a more segmented and targeted email marketing strategy going into the second half of the year.

 

Katie: What kinds of things are you currently doing with email marketing that are working well? 

Jonathan: We’re trying to do as much as we can. Right now, we’re in the midst of redoing some of our flows. When things first shut down and we were launching masks, we really leveraged the use of flows during that time to overly communicate with consumers. We kept changing the content in one of the flow and we were constantly seeing orders. 

One thing that was surprising was that when we used email purely as a communication tool rather than as a selling tool, we actually sold more. We sent emails about our donation efforts or where to support restaurants, for example, and people would still click through and repurchase more masks or even aprons.  

That’s the other benefit of things like flow emails. Sometimes, a lot of them are transactional in nature, but you can use others to get a message out based on certain behaviors that happen and they essentially remind people that they may want to come back and buy something.

Even just setting them up, at the very least, is helpful because they’re such a useful tool. You don’t have to do a lot of work once you have your flows running and the value is remarkable. The more flows you can set up, the more revenue there is to find.

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Katie: Earlier, you talked about going into the second half of the year. Speaking of that, how important is the holiday shopping season and Cyber Weekend, specifically, to your business? What are you expecting to see this year? 

Jonathan: The holidays are extremely important both for our B2B and DTC businesses, but for DTC specifically, this timeframe has historically driven about 25 percent of our business. We have a very giftable product so, during that time of year, people like to give it to their friends and family. 

Our expectation is that it’s probably going to be an even bigger portion of our business this year because we’ve grown. 

Prior to this year, we’ve always had steady growth into Q4 and then a spike during the holidays. This year, we had a spike earlier in the year because of COVID and we acquired all these customers, so we think Cyber Weekend and the holidays could be even bigger this year.  

We’ll be nurturing and remarketing to all of the new customers we gained earlier this year, plus we’ll be working to acquire new customers throughout the rest of the year and the holiday timeframe.

"We’ll be nurturing and remarketing to all of the new customers we gained earlier this year, plus we’ll be working to acquire new customers throughout the rest of the year and the holiday timeframe."

Jonathan Levine, CMO, Hedley & Bennett

 

Katie: What do you think will be one of the biggest challenges brands will face as they head into the holiday season this year? 

Jonathan: I think one of the biggest challenges for the holiday season this year is going to be what goes on in the world and with the economy, and how people are spending. 

Relatively speaking, people spent pretty strongly this year so will they still be spending into the holidays or not? I think they will be, but I think that’s going to be the biggest key. 

We sit in a unique place—at the very least, our product is very giftable. I think people will still be gift-giving, and our product is good for people who may be stuck at home. We have a decent amount of fresh products coming out between Q4 and even into next year, so we’re trying to get a bunch of stuff out in time for that just to have the supply there.

 

Katie: Have you started planning your holiday marketing strategy yet? 

Jonathan: We’re ahead of ourselves this year in terms of having a product and financial plan, as in what we want to do. But from a marketing and email perspective, we probably won’t be fully planned until late Q3, early Q4. 

We’ll start marketing in October again because it’s the second year in a row when Cyber Weekend will happen at the very end of November. 

 

Katie: With so many people likely to do much of their holiday shopping online this year, do you anticipate seeing any potential issues with your supply chain or shipping vendors?

Jonathan: No, I think we’re pretty good at this point on supply. We’ve opened up our supply chain and we use a mix of domestic and international vendors. 

We’ll see what happens with the shipping vendors. We’re growing our third-party logistics (3PL) services to have a bigger ecosystem, so things like pickups shouldn’t be disrupted. 

But I think delivery will be tough. Even last year, it was getting tougher. You lose a week if you’re buying during Cyber Weekend, so I think people are going to have to probably order a bit earlier.

 

Katie: How do you get consumers to understand that they might need to shop earlier this year to receive products in time for the holidays? Do you have to start your marketing earlier or do you have to think more strategically about the types of messages that you convey in your marketing?

Jonathan: During the holidays, there’s such a flood of emails and other marketing messages so people won’t really pay attention until they need to. 

There are different types of consumers who buy at different times. There are people who won’t buy at all until Black Friday. Then, there are others who want to get their gifts so they buy when they’re thinking about it. Everyone has their own mindset.

In terms of communicating, I think brands will need to use their marketing messages to create a sense of urgency and show consumers why they should buy earlier—it’s going to take brands longer to pack up orders and for consumers to receive them.

"Brands will need to use their marketing messages to create a sense of urgency and show consumers why they should buy earlier—it's going to take brands longer to pack up orders and for consumers to receive them."

Jonathan Levine, CMO, Hedley & Bennett

 

Katie: My last question has nothing to do with holidays, but I’m curious to hear your take on growing an ecommerce brand. As you’re moving into your next phase of growth, what will be your biggest marketing priorities? What are you looking towards to help you grow?

Jonathan: Right now, we use all of the core marketing channels like email marketing, paid social, paid advertising, and SEO, though we’re trying to explore in more areas. 

We’re playing a lot with affiliate marketing. That’s been great for us and it’s going to be a big driver in the holiday time period. And we’re just starting to do some things around paid influencer marketing and using influencer content for our digital ads. To be able to leverage others’ content, especially right now when we’re starting to create more content, will be useful so that’s something we’re in the midst of launching and testing.

Learn more about why Cyber Weekend 2020 is projected to be the biggest ecommerce event on record. 

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