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. He cofounded PopSugar with his wife Lisa (acquired by Group Nine Media in 2019), and now Brian is the president of Group Nine (acquired by Vox in 2021).
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 ecommerce infrastructure tools like EcoCart, Builder.io, and co-op commerce. Our team with chatted Brian about the 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 is rapidly evolving.
To illustrate this acceleration, Brian points to a handful of trends, including headless commerce, no-code website tools, and new performance marketing tactics.
If we look at how the DTC space has evolved over time, in the early days, most companies focused their marketing efforts on mail order catalogs, leveraging an old-school marketing model.
Phase two of DTC was marked by the emergence of digitally native, vertical brands (DNVBs) like Allbirds, Warby Parker, and Casper. These brands saw themselves as tech companies and spent too much capital on performance marketing. DNVBs applied the recency model (from phase one) to Facebook and Google, which didn’t work out that well.
Now we’re in phase three, where most founders are averse to spending money and time on performance marketing.
This DTC era is all about leveraging 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 behind ecommerce brands.
While gut-based decision making can be helpful at times, today's primary marketing decisions need to be driven by quantitative feedback through analytics tools.
According to Brian, the key to a successful brain trust is a team's ability to identify, track, and quantify every piece of marketing, including both organic and paid creative.
First, Brian recommends thinking through goals and KPIs. Then, after the campaign is over, he suggests looking back at the results via an analytics dashboard—understanding what drove conversions and what creative missed the mark.
“If you don’t start with clear, data-driven expectations while running a new growth test, there’s no way to know what worked and what didn’t.”
The Power of Content Flywheels
Brands now realize that free distribution platforms are excellent growth hacking tools. If they can break through the noise, a massive arbitrage opportunity awaits.
However, breaking through emerging channels such as TikTok isn't easy. It calls for exceptional content and teams who can ship game-changing creative at a consistent cadence. And, that process needs to evolve and change with the native platform as well.
During Brian's early days at J. Crew, copywriters would write short stories and pass them on to editors, who would then create photo shoots based on those storylines. Then, designers and copywriters would turn those pieces of creative into page layouts and headlines. It was truly collaborative.
From the mid-twentieth century until now, content flywheels have to be incredibly powerful growth levers, time and time again—when 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 in today's landscape needs to innovate. That requires experimentation and a willingness to fail and try again.
Brian says, "The biggest problem is that not enough folks try in the first place."
Instead, teams will copy other brands' work. That just comes off as inauthentic.
Brian explains, "Don't be afraid to do something different. That's where the real innovation happens."
“To be blunt, I don’t know how big the ecommerce space is going to get. But, I’ll definitely be making some pretty large bets. That’s for sure.
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