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Brian McBride: how SMEs can generate digital growth and compete on a global scale

What can small businesses learn from the success of such giants as ASOS and Amazon?

What can small businesses learn from the success of such giants as ASOS and Amazon? In our exclusive interview, we sat down with Brian McBride to discuss how SMEs can generate digital growth and compete on a global scale.

Brian, who was listed in The Motivational Speakers Agency’s ‘Top Leadership Speakers to Drive Business Growth’, is highly regarded for his market-leading business strategies. As the former Chairman of ASOS and Managing Director at Amazon, Brian’s knowledge is influenced by decades of corporate experience.

In our latest article, discover Brian McBride’s incomparable insight into digital dominance and business growth.  

What is the secret to capturing and maintaining audience attention in the digital era?

“I always start with the great mantra that I learned from Jeff Bezos. Jeff always said, ‘start with the customer and work backwards’. And I think that should be at the center of everything.

“If your business is business to consumer, it’s ultimately all about selling a product or service to the customer. So, you’ve got to start with them and work back. Ask yourself, what do they need, how do they need it and where are they going to be?

“ASOS and Amazon are two very different companies, but ASOS knew its demographic very well. It knew that its target audience were mostly young, female, 20-somethings. It knew what social media sites they were on and what sort of things they liked to post. So, possessing a really detailed knowledge of your customer is the starting point, and that’s always been the advantage that the online players have had over High Street stores.

“The High Street stores have done a pretty decent job, but they never really knew the customer. If you were a Topshop or Debenhams on Oxford Street, you naturally got a lot of foot fall and once people walk into your store you then get a chance to sell them something. But you weren’t really driving them coming into your store – unless you had a great window display. Whereas an ASOS or an Amazon can stimulate views. They know what stuff you like and what you don’t like.

“So that’s the main piece, know your audience, know where they’re going to be and know how they want to be communicated with. An 80-year-old person isn’t going to want to be communicated with via TikTok. They will probably respond to an email, more likely to a flyer coming through the door.

“It’s all about knowing your demographic, knowing your audience and reaching to them in a way that they will respond.”

COVID-19 has moved business digitisation forward years in a matter of months, what should a brand do to ensure they are using digital as part of their marketing mix in the most effective way?

“If you’re a B2C company, so you’re selling directly to consumers, and you’re not using digital today, I think you may not be around in the next couple of years. You’re likely to be toast because digital has to be part of your mix in everything that you are doing.

“That doesn’t mean that you have to throw out all of the other things that you’re doing, but you need to look at your marketing mix, look at the balance between online spend and offline spend.

“When I think about marketing, I realise you do still have to spend some money offline, but I see that as being much more brand building. It’s about creating an image for your company, but if you actually want to create a call to action, so if you want customers to do something or buy something, you have to understand digital marketing, because that’s what it’s all about.

“It’s about that ad or that piece of social media popping up at a certain point to try and generate a fairly immediate response from the customer. I mean, digital marketing from a business’s point of view is about measuring return on spend and measuring how quickly it takes the customer to respond to it.

“Whereas if you’re Pepsi or Coke or Shell and you’re spending 50 million on a campaign, you’re going to measure the impact of that campaign over a year perhaps. So, it’s about understanding the need for both traditional and digital, but definitely more toward digital because that’s where customers are.

“People used to say social media and mobile phones were for younger people. Well, they were saying that 10 years ago. An example of how this is changing is my 90-year-old father-in-law. He uses WhatsApp to communicate with his grandkids and his great grandkids, he’s getting his groceries online. So, everyone of all ages and all demographics are using online much more as part of their everyday mix in life.

“So, you have to recognise that as a company and give it to people where they want it.”

What would be your top three tips about marketing the opportunity of e-commerce?

“if you’re selling something and you don’t have an e-commerce offering, whether it’s through your own website or whether it’s through using eBay and other marketplaces, again, I think you’re going to be existentially threatened.

“So, I say to people, ‘you’ve got to evolve very, very quickly or you’re going to die’. We’ve seen years of change happen in a matter of months and that shift is permanent. It’s about starting with the customer and working backwards, because customers want to buy a certain amount of stuff online.

“In this area I think back to Charles Darwin who wrote The Origin of the Species in 1859 and it’s a pretty dull, dry book, but out of it came the theory of evolution. All you really need to remember is that Charles Darwin said, ‘it’s not the strongest or fastest of the species that survive, it’s the most adaptable’. So, it’s those who are observing what’s going on in the environment around them and changing to take account of that.

“This move to online has been happening for 15 years and yet there’s lots of companies waking up today saying, ‘oh, this COVID thing has come along and my customers are now buying more stuff online’. Well, COVID-19 has accelerated these trends, but it hasn’t created them. These trends have been going on for 10 years and too many companies have been asleep at the wheel.

“If you haven’t actually picked up the imperative of doing e-commerce, doing digital business, it might just be too late for you.”

What is the secret to Amazon and ASOS’s exponential business growth?

“Amazon and ASOS know their customer and realised one size does not fit all.

“ASOS knows its customer very intimately. It knows that the typical profile of an ASOS customer is probably a working 24-year-old female looking forward to pay-day so she can buy a sparkly top to go and party on the weekend. ASOS know the customers date of birth, their hair color, size and shape, so they know exactly what works for the customer and what doesn’t.

“ASOS create a very trusting, special place for the customer and make their shopping experience much better by customising it for them. There’s no point giving somebody 500 choices when you could actually narrow it down to 36 really relevant ones. If somebody has never bought white jeans in their life, why keep chucking them pictures of models in white jeans? They’re just not going to buy it. So ASOS get to know their customer very well and serve up exactly what they want.

“The Amazon approach is quite different. Amazon knows very little about you. Think about what you’ve told Amazon. They have never asked for your date of birth, so they don’t know your age. They don’t know whether you’re male or female or if you’re Chinese or British. They don’t know anything about you, they only know your email address, delivery addresses, credit card number and your purchase history.

“Using that information and their phenomenal algorithm, they know that people who bought this product here will also buy that product over there. They know associations that you could never guess just by logic, and they’ve got it through the accumulation and management of twenty years of data.

“So, two very different approaches. One is heavily personalised and the other is just using masses of data. But in their own way, they both know an awful lot about what customers do and what customers want, and that has been the cornerstone of success for both of them.

“People go online for three things. They want a terrific range, great availability and a great price. Customers want to click on a product, and it be available now for delivery tomorrow. It’s got to be a great price because you wouldn’t shop online if it was more expensive than the store, so that’s what they have done.

“Both ASOS and Amazon have got the great understanding of the customer and then a great availability, price and selection.”

What are the next big disruptive trends?

“This move to online is going to continue and will probably even accelerate. That’s not a new thing, but people should be aware of the fact this isn’t just going to go away.

“There are some megatrends that have been around for a while like the move away from fossil fuel. Electric vehicles saw a huge amount of technology improvement going on in terms of battery and storage. But I don’t think that’s going to have a big splash in 2021, that’s a slower burner that will probably impact us over the next four or five years.

“I think social media is going to have a bit of a revolution because people are getting fed up with the power of the big companies and the way they are using our data. People are mostly fed up with the lack of privacy so will think twice about how much they share with Facebook and Twitter, and even their mobile phone providers. So, I predict we’ll see an explosion of different companies and people using social media in a different way.

“I think there’s a massive shift going on in content today regarding how people are consuming. People now consume TV and movie content through platforms like Netflix and Amazon and even Disney plus, which has come from nowhere over the past year.

“So, whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to have a subscription to at least one of these players, and that’s how people will consume great drama and great movies. This means the national players will have to rethink their focus and concentrate more on local activity.

“You’re going to see changes in the music business because people aren’t going to go and stand with 10000 other people watching a concert, you’re going to see much more of the big global media companies taking on the streaming and the management of digital music content.

“So those are the areas where I see big changes happening over the next year or two.”

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