Why Frank Oak Isn’t Afraid to Constantly Reinvent Itself

Ethan Song, CEO and co-founder of Montreal-based fashion retailer Frank Oak, believes that there are essentially two types of entrepreneurs: 1) – those that build a business based on their passions, and 2) – those who are entrepreneurs because they simply cannot imagine themselves doing anything else.

Song, along with Frank Oak co-founder Hicham Ratnani, fall most decisively into the latter category. The pair met as teenagers, and almost immediately went into business together, forming an outfit that designed websites for local schools. Following college, they got together once again, both working as consultants for Deloitte, all the while thinking and talking and dreaming and scheming about how they could form their very own startup.

In true entrepreneurial spirit (if we take type 2 above as our definition), even though the two friends didn’t really have a clear idea of what it was they wanted to sell, they nonetheless realised how they would sell it. The rise of internet was transforming retail, and if they were going to build a brand from scratch, then they would have to do it in terms germane to those imposed by the fast-approaching digital age of retail.

Solving a Pain Point for Men

Talking to Profit Guide, Ratnani recalls how the office uniform was quickly becoming outdated in the new economy. Men wanted to sport more fashionable attire at work, and Ratnani and Song believed that there was money to be made in helping them do just that. “Our friends, they didn’t really know where to buy stuff,” Ratnani says. “We realized there was a real pain point for men.”

And so in 2010, the pair launched Modasuite – an online company that offered fully-customisable menswear. They got some investment that first year, and sealed some pretty good deals. But, they quickly realised that their website wasn’t built with as much customer convenience in mind to realise the sort of sales that they had envisioned. Users of the Modasuite site had to answer 16 questions in order to receive personalised items – and that was just too much.

“We realized that the future was in fewer steps, more simplicity,” says Song. “We saw that as a bigger trend than mass customization.”

(Hicham Ratnani and Ethan Song. Image source: forbes.com)

Acting on this epiphany, two years later they shuttered Modasuite and launched Frank & Oak with a renewed focus on making the process of buying fashionable men’s clothes online as simple, straightforward and pleasurable as possible. They saw Frank & Oak as much as a tech startup as they did a fashion brand. As such, it was the digital experience that became their top priority – bricks-and-mortar was a secondary concern.

A Strategy of Constant Reinvention

Fast forward to the spring of last year, and a new transformation is underway. Beginning with a refresh to its logo and branding – “Frank & Oak” is now “Frank Oak” – the retailer moved swiftly onto improving the customer experience, which now includes a two-hour home delivery in selected areas (Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver).

The initiative reinforces one of Frank Oak’s core brand promises – to be “the most useful brand in the category”. Song says that they want to make stylish clothing and accessories as accessible as anything the likes of food apps or Uber can deliver. “It is a big trend,” said Song of the easy delivery movement. “People will want much simpler interfaces […] they want everything in their lives in two hours.”

On top of the two-hour shipping, Frank Oak has also launched a new app, redesigned its website, and opened up a number of new bricks-and-mortar locations. It’s an omnichannel evolution for sure. The app in particular helps the retailer deliver on another brand promise – to provide fashion guidance for customers.

It introduces two new signature features – the two-hour delivery service, and guided shopping provided by a brand stylist. New levels of personalisation are now also included in the app, which allows the brand to feature and recommend products for users based on their previous purchases, location and profile.

“After a breakneck year of opening 13 brick and mortar locations, launching new lines and entering the international arena, we took a step back and thought about the experience we want to deliver,” said Song. “The cornerstone of our company is the experience of being guided and advised.”

The Evolution of How People Want to Buy

The stores themselves aren’t just concerned with increasing sales per square foot either – rather, they are true retail experiences that include in-store barber shops, cafes, and whiskey tasting sessions, all designed to promote the unique Frank Oak aesthetic. “I think they’re the future of retail,” says Tamara Szames, fashion industry expert at market research consultancy NPD Group. “What they’ve identified is the evolution of how people want to buy.”

And that’s not the only thing that’s evolving. Last fall, Frank Oak launched its first womenswear line. Despite the potential this move has for doubling its market, it nonetheless risks confusing a brand that has carved out a distinctive identity as having a focus on young men. But, Song believes it’s a risk worth taking. His ambitions to become a global lifestyle brand for entrepreneurial millennials makes excluding half the world’s population an absurd proposition.

“You can’t be afraid to reinvent yourself,” says Song. “If you see a big opportunity in the market and say, ‘You know what, it could be a good opportunity, but I need to do what I do now,’ there’s a high chance that in four or five years, you’re going to regret it.”

Meet Charlotte

Branching out into womenswear has been a calculated move, however. Song and Ratnani made the decision in early 2015, but took things slowly and considerately. They hired a market research firm to poll 4,000 people in Frank Oak’s target demographic about their social values and attitudes to try and figure out what a brand built for men would look like for women. They then used the data build a profile of the prototypical Frank Oak female customer.

“Her name is Charlotte,” says Eric Alper, the company’s CMO. “Charlotte works in a creative space, in film production, in PR or maybe in architecture. Charlotte is cultured. She’s not necessarily super risk-taking, but she likes pieces with character and a story behind them.”

The launch was successful – Frank Oak Women had more than 100,000 customers in its first two months. And Song is already mining the data to discover exactly what it is that Charlotte actually wants to buy, and use the retailer’s established methods of fast-fashion to ensure they have more of those items on offer for her. “I think a company’s ability to put product out fast – with lower risk and lower quantities – and to have real data from real experiences is very important,” says Song. “I believe less in pre-launch research.”

Pioneering Change

Song and Ratnani have built a brand that’s as much about what it sells as it is about embracing and even pioneering change. They believe that the next phase of digital retail will incorporate artificial intelligence and machine learning to further personalise the customer experience. Already the company uses chatbots to offer customers fashion tips, and in a mock store at the head office there’s a smart touchscreen mirror that would let people buy an item right from the dressing room.

“Software is going to transform every type of experience,” says Song. “There’s still a big space for physical shopping streets and malls. But I do believe the experience is going to be transformed.”

This desire to keep on the cutting edge of digital and in-store experiences is what’s keeping Frank Oak’s 2.5 million members coming back for more and more. Growing at a rate of 80% year-over-year now that it has expanded into 40 international markets, the retailer’s most recent transformation is no doubt only a foreshadowing of more to come in the future. The last word goes to Eric Alper.

“Every change we’re making is considered and only in the service of making the experience better. Our brand transformation is not merely a visual change: it’s about owning our purpose. The new visual identity has deep meaning behind it. It represents our role in helping our customers reach the next stage in their journey.”

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About John Waldron: John Waldron is a technology and business writer for markITwrite digital content agency, based in Cornwall, UK. He writes regularly across all aspects of marketing and tech, including SEO, social media, FinTech, IoT, apps and software development.

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