From One-Time Buy to Brand Loyalist: 5 Ways to Build Lasting Customer Relationships

Business of Fashion webinar

Ecommerce has exploded in 2020, as more consumers turn to online shopping amid the pandemic.

Google research indicates searches for “fashion online shopping” have increased 600% year over year, and 30% of consumers have purchased from new brands. But the question for companies that have seen rapid customer growth is whether they can convert these overflowing online shopping carts into lasting customer relationships. 

To better answer this question, The Business of Fashion, in partnership with Shopify Plus, held a recent webinar, How Brands Can Use Ecommerce to Create Lasting Customer Relationships. The conversation, which featured ecommerce experts and executives from top brands, highlighted how the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation within the fashion industry, how brands can connect with consumers in ways they never have before, and how they can take advantage of this finite opportunity to build long-term customer loyalty. Here are five strategies brands can adopt to achieve this. 

Embrace authentic storytelling 

Brands are using storytelling to innovate the path to purchase and foster deeper connections with customers. 

Shimona Mehta, Head of EMEA at Shopify Plus, says “What we’ve found is that consumers are really looking to engage with brands and purchase from brands that they connect with, whether it's in [their] values or a story of some kind.”

This shift to storytelling means “talking about your brand with authenticity—who you are and what you're about—in a way that hopefully connects with your core customers from a values perspective,” she says.

Mehta adds that brands can’t just tell a story for story’s sake, they need to engage customers with a consistent narrative through the path to purchase, such as educating them about your products and sustainability practices, giving customers information about where you source your products, or using user-generated content to create a sense of community around your brand.

Or as Robin Mellery-Pratt, The Business of Fashion’s Director of Content Strategy, put it: Brands must move beyond aspirational transactions. 

“We’re not prompting immediate desires. This a long-term relationship and dialogue between brand and consumer.”

Meet the moment

Some companies, like beauty brand Ilia, are making timely storytelling investments to grow its customer base. 

Lynda Berkowitz, Ilia’s CEO, says the pandemic and recent social unrest in the U.S. forced the brand to take a hard look at itself and ask how it could do better. 

“The first thing we did was bring in people from outside that knew nothing about us as a brand and that could give us that objectivity,” Berkowitz says. “As we were looking in the mirror, we did find some things that we could do better.”

This led the company to launch its first brand campaign called “Between Us,” and to examine its shade extensions and offer a wider range of colors for different skin tones. The “Between Us” campaign uses real people—not models—and focuses on the importance of human connections and relationships at a time when people must remain physically distant from those they love for their own health and safety. 

“For us, it was the perfect opportunity to visually talk about what's between us right now, whether it's space or race or distance. It's just an amazing time to be able to communicate our own stories,” Berkowitz says.

The expanded shade extensions, which will launch in 2021, showcase the brand’s efforts to be more inclusive—a move that isn’t just authentic to Ilia’s ethos but also could help the company grow its customer base. 

Leverage your community for user-generated content

Mehta says several brands are turning to user-generated content (UGC) to tell their story and strengthen their customer relationships.

The workout apparel brand Gymshark is a good example of this. This year, the company hired out-of-work personal trainers to create Instagram workouts.

“It's inspiring a community of health-focused individuals who love Gymshark, but it's also providing some work for those personal trainers who without this are maybe at home without any form of income,” Mehta says. 

Gymshark also invited its Instagram followers to post a “sweaty selfie” to raise donations for health care workers during the pandemic. For each posted photo, the U.K-based company made a donation to the National Health Service. 

Ilia has used UGC in a different way. Its highest converting piece of UGC, which has turned into a paid ad, involved a 58-year-old woman with grey hair who goes by the Instagram handle @whitehairwisdom.

“Our business that month changed, not just in how we converted, but in what we learned. Nobody's talking to that woman. Nobody's talking to anybody in their fifties,” Berkowitz says, adding that Ilia received so many positive comments from women in this demographic. 

“We learned such a valuable lesson that who you think your customer is, isn't always who your customer is.”

Use customer feedback to inform your strategy

With the proliferation of social media platforms, customers are now more vocal than ever about their likes and dislikes. This creates a valuable feedback loop and a new culture of accountability for brands. 

While this comes with certain pitfalls, it also gives brands an invaluable opportunity to intimately understand their customers’ needs and use their feedback to improve their products and services. However, in the era of cancel culture, it can be challenging to sort through all this feedback and apply it in real ways that transform your business, according to Berkowitz. She says it’s important to slow down and talk to your customers, followers, and community to gather a diverse range of perspectives. 

Mehta has a valuable tip for brands trying to navigate this.

“Not all feedback is meant to be actioned, but it should definitely be taken seriously. You have to listen to it and see which feedback actually appeals to your values, and maybe is an indicator that you're falling short on a brand promise or story.”

Use technology to bridge the gap between in-store and online 

Technological innovations are making it easier for brands to distinguish their content online and pull consumers into the conversion journey. Mehta says augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) gives brands the opportunity “to recreate that in-person ability to touch, feel, and connect.” However, these applications may not work well for every brand.

“We don't want to use technology for technology’s sake. That's not what consumers are looking for. You don't need AR and VR for every last thing, but [just] where it makes sense,” she says. 

Mehta says these technologies are great for products like furniture or shoes but may not be as effective for jewelry, where video might better showcase the product. 

“The possibilities of technology, whether it's AR, VR, video, or 3D, is the ability to think about what are those most important engagements that you've created with those products in-store and how can you now leverage that to recreate some of that connection to the product in a digital way?” she says.

As consumers continue to shop online and brands continue to acquire more customers, using all the tools in their toolkit—whether it’s AR or VR, UGC, or Instagram—will be critical to converting one-time or infrequent customers into true brand loyalists. But whatever approach brands adopt, they should remember the end game of all these efforts is to better serve their customers.

“It’s not about getting more followers or likes,” Berkowitz says, “it’s about building that long-term relationship and commitment.” 

About the author

Satta Sarmah-Hightower

Satta Sarmah Hightower is a journalist-turned-content marketer and has been a full-time freelancer since 2014.

Through her content marketing consultancy, Talented Tenth Media, Satta collaborates with agencies, content studios, and brands in diverse industries and has produced and managed content for several clients.

Check out Satta Sarmah-Hightower’s work