The Nexus of Content, Commerce, and Community with Brian Sugar

November 1, 2021
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min read

Commerce veteran Brian Sugar has seen it all, ranging from his stint as the VP of ecommerce at J. Crew, to founding PopSugar and Group Nine Media, and now as the founder and general partner at Sugar Capital. Our team spoke with Brian to uncover trends across the commerce ecosystem, the power of digital brain trusts, and the evolving future of brand-led media.

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The Nexus of Content, Commerce, and Community with Brian Sugar

Brian Sugar is a commerce veteran. He served as the VP of eCommerce at J.Crew back in the day and is now the President of Group Nine Media. Brian co-founded PopSugar with his wife Lisa, a global media company, which merged with Group Nine in 2019. 

He’s also the founder of Sugar Capital, an early-stage venture fund with investments that include in-demand DTC brands like Brightland, House of Wise, and Judy, and eCom infrastructure tools like EcoCart, Builder, and Coop. Our team dove deep with Brian to uncover trends he’s tracking across the commerce ecosystem, data analytics tools, and the future of brand-led media. 

Macro Shifts: What To Watch

The commerce ecosystem as we know is rapidly evolving. Brian quickly points out a handful of examples related to this rapid evolution: website speed increases, headless store development, no-code website tools, and new forms of performance marketing tactics, to name just a few.

In phase one of DTC, most companies focused their marketing efforts on mail order catalogs leveraging an old-school marketing model focused on recency. Phase two was marked by the emergence of digitally native vertical brands like Allbirds and Casper. 

These brands saw themselves as tech companies and spent too much capital on performance marketing. DNVBs essentially just applied the recency model to Facebook and Google, which didn’t work out well. Now we’re in phase three, where most founders are adverse to spending money and time on performance marketing. Rather, this era is all about understanding how to use the internet to acquire repeat customers in an organic, sustainable way. 

“From my vantage point, I’m tracking three game-changing shifts across the commerce ecosystem. Speed, virality, and heavy performance marketing.” 

The Brain Trust: Data Analytics

Data scientists and analytics hires are quickly forming the brain trust inside eCommerce brands. While Brian notes that for some decisions, going with your gut is better than data, the primary marketing decisions are now being driven by quantitative feedback through analytics tools.

The key to a successful brain trust, to borrow from Brian, is the team’s ability to identify, track, and quantity every piece of marketing that goes out, including both organic and performance creative. First, Brian recommends starting with the outcome in mind and attempting to predict what numbers you think you’re going to hit. Then, you’ll be able to look back at the results via your analytics dashboard to understand what drove conversions and what missed the mark. 

“If you don’t start with clear, data-driven expectations while running a new growth test, there’s just no way to know what worked and what didn’t.”

The Power of Content Flywheels

Brands have quickly adjusted to the reality that free distribution platforms can be successfully growth hacked, and if you can break through the noise, a massive arbitrate opportunity awaits. 

However, to break through in emerging social channels like TikTok, your team needs to create exceptional content and build up the capabilities to ship game-changing creative at a consistent cadence. That process needs to constantly evolve and change with the native platform itself.

During Brian’s early days at J. Crew copywriters would write short stories and pass them on to editors who would then run photo shoots based on the storylines. In turn, the designers and copywriters would take the final cut creative and turn them into page layouts and headlines. 

From the mid-20 century up until now, content flywheels have proved time and time again to be incredibly powerful growth levers, if executed correctly.

“If you create and ship high-quality, organic content that your audience truly resonates with, your product will sell. It’s really that simple.”

Parting Advice: Do Something Different

Every brand needs to innovate, which requires experimentation and a willingness to fail and try again. Brian points out that the biggest problem is that not enough folks try in the first place. 

Instead, teams will copy other brands’ work, and it just comes off as inauthentic. In his own words: don’t be afraid to do something different. That’s where the real innovation lies.

“To be blunt, I don’t ultimately know how big the eCom space is going to get. But, I’ll definitely be making some pretty large bets. That’s for sure.

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