Commentary

J.McLaughlin's Social Party Is In Full Swing

J.McLaughlin, which has grown to 109 shops selling “classic American sportswear” in tony locales primarily in the Northeast, was admittedly late to both the Web and social media.

“The basic fact is that our demographic is more mature,” says co-founder and creative director Kevin McLaughlin, “so they were not the first ones to the party on digital sales.” But they are having a soirée there now. J.McLaughlin has been experiencing double-digit sales growth on its site for several years after more measured results following its launch in 2009, and he sees digital as “the most important growth vehicle for the foreseeable future.”  

McLaughlin credits public relations and social media director Anna Meacham, who was “lured” to the company two years ago after having previously worked on the account for an outside PR agency, with taking a hyperactive role in increasing brand awareness and driving people to the site.

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Prior to her arrival, he says, the company did not have someone “dedicated to watching social every day, who is on brand and intimately understands the brand.” It has also moved marketing dollars from traditional paid advertising to the digital side and now not only has a “fully responsive” site but also a very interactive presence on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Google Plus and LinkedIn, as well as a blog and revamped look book.

“We have a strong, extremely loyal following on social,” Meacham says. “We don’t spend the same amount of money that other brands do in our space, but we’re able to find new, interesting people to showcase the clothes, to showcase our stores across the country and to tell the story behind the brand.”

The social media team also is quick to respond to comments and questions, she says. “There wasn’t a lot of conversation before, but we’re able to do that now.”

The Customer Experience
The “customer experience,” however, has been a driving force in the success of the business since Kevin and his brother Jay personally built and opened their first store in the middle of an Ivy League enclave on Third Avenue between 74th and 75th Streets in 1977. At the time, the “Annie Hall look” was upending fashion and they were located just two doors away from a popular restaurant that attracted its target “prep” clientele.

The store itself was “very clubby” from the get-go, Kevin recalls. “You could just tell that people came for the experience. It was a wild thing. In the early days, on a Saturday, literally we had someone at the door because the store was so crowded.”

“A bouncer!” Meacham exclaims.

Not that he and Jay took even the browsers, hangers-on or just plain curious for granted.

“The motto of the company is very simple,” he says. “It’s make a customer, not a sale. That drives all decision processes.”

Meacham has striven to bring that same sensibility and consistency to its digital efforts, even as it engages with a wide variety of influencers who respond to RFPs and work in kind or are paid.

“We have a strong point of view here. When you know yourself and where you fit in the marketplace and the wheel of fashion, it affects everything you do,” McLaughlin says. “There’s a lot of thought put into what the brand stands for.”

“That hits the nail on the head,” Meacham says. “The tricky part with social media is to never push the envelope too far. You always want to be true to yourself, especially when you’re working with people who are not in-house.”

The influencers supply their own photos. They’re not at the level of a magazine spread, nor do they need to be.

“I really believe that social has expanded the boundaries of acceptable photography,” McLaughlin says. “As the moment is communicated, the technical side of photography has diminished.” And he has no problem with that. Meacham cites her own “off-the-cuff” smartphone shots taken in Watch Hill, R.I., last weekend as a case in point. 

“Because our social media team is so lean” — 10 people in all — “we are able to do things quickly and everything isn’t so contrived,” she says. “And I think that’s what’s so great about it.”

Instagram Is The Medium Of Choice
I ask if they have a favorite among their social media options.

“By far it’s Instagram,” Meacham shoots back. The company’s Facebook posts align more with its six-day-a-week email strategy of keeping customers up to date on new arrivals. Instagram is better for telling stories and, with adept hashtagging, goes viral in “fascinating” ways.

“I am on our Instagram all the time,” Meacham says. “I refuse to relinquish it.”

“It seems to hit an emotional chord where people connect with what’s happening in their lives,” McLaughlin says. “Just little vignettes. It has a very nice personality.”

And if a post or photograph — or even a social media strategy — is a bit off-kilter, just carry on. After maintaining earlier in our conversation that “sales come naturally when you do things right,” McLaughlin wraps it all up by saying, “I always say, sometimes you have to get it a little wrong to get it right.” 

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