Before taking the stage at PSFK's upcoming Future of Retail Conference on January 16, LIVELY CEO and founder Michelle Cordeiro Grant explains how the women's apparel company is marshaling the power of community to build a brand that is consumer-centric, data-driven and focused on maintaining a dialogue with its audience

As researchers, we sense great groundswell when it comes to the retail industry—in fact, one executive at a Minneapolis-based retail company suggested to us that we’re possibly witnessing the ‘rebirth of retail.' 

One of the aspects that is driving the rebirth of retail is the rise of new companies that are coming into the space and shaking things up. Whether we call them DTC, Direct to Consumer brands or digitally native brands, it's an exciting time to be in this landscape. 

To understand the changes in retail and DTC brands in particular, PSFK will interview Michelle Cordeiro Grant, founder and CEO of LIVELY, a community-focused womenswear brand specializing in intimate, active and swim apparel, at the upcoming Future of Retail 2019 Conference, January 16. Before taking the stage, PSFK founder Piers Fawkes caught up with Grant to find out more about her brand and its focus on maintaining responsiveness to its consumers.

Piers Fawkes: LIVELY has been around for about two years. Could you explain the brand and what you're focusing on selling?

Michelle: LIVELY is a community, first and foremost. We are a brand and an experience focused on inspiring women to live life passionately, purposefully and confidently. We start our conversation with bras and undies specifically, a category that I felt was for women and should be created by women to really channel that conversation.

Then we quickly grew into swimwear, active and some adjacent products like fragrance and so forth that continue with the ethos and the conversation that we drive.

One of the big drivers behind the new brands we see cropping up is this idea of ‘purpose.' What is your perspective on this?

I grew up in retail. I worked for top companies like Federated, VF Corporation, and spent the tenure of my career with Victoria's Secret. I learned so much from Lex Wexner about the power of brand, the power of cohesive brands, and most importantly, how to create a company that could drive brand power by also being very successful in operating income

For me I was just very impressed with the business model that Victoria's Secret created. However, after several years I was no longer a customer, and I was no longer relating to the marketing and the message of what the company stood for.

I realized that with a 13 billion-dollar business in the United States alone, perhaps I could start my own conversation, my own community, and take that business model and leverage relevancy in marketing and where I felt the market was going in terms of how you speak to consumers and more importantly, how you bridge the gap between brand, company and community.

It was 2012 when I made that decision in my career. Mobile was still single digits in terms of the percent of revenue that was being driven by corporations, and social media was a conversation that was just starting to be welcomed into our Monday night meetings.

For me it just felt like the best time, both personally and professionally, to start to unlock what the future of community and retail is.

What’s driving you to tap the power of community in retail?

In the '90s, I loved the idea of Ralph Lauren and what that logo represented. The power of how you felt when you put a product on and you saw a word and that brand impression and so forth, but I felt that through the recession and the early 2000s that brands were really diluting in terms of equity.

For me, I was like, “There is this power in terms of what brands can have on impacting human emotion and we need to bring that back. That's our job as retailers, is to really inspire and impact human psyche.”

For me, as a woman, working for major corporations, I felt that there was an opportunity for more women not to just participate in their careers but to lead and lead in whatever it is in your life that you love to do. For me, that was going to brunch with women every Saturday. I was the only one at the table that loved what I did. Everyone else was like, “Oh, my job, my family, this, that.”

Make the choice to live your life doing what you love. For me, that's my passion, is to create a community and a conversation that inspires women to value the idea of uniqueness, not to aspire to be what an image of a marketing channel is telling you to feel like, but to really channel the idea of your most powerful tool—individuality.

Once you realize that, the world shifts on its head. Once you realize that uniqueness is your greatest strength and you start to lean into that, all of a sudden, you start to look around and you're leaning into other people for support and networking and so forth. You start to live your life doing what you love.

That's where our movement and our idea came from.

Could you explain how your brand connects with community?

In August 2015, I started to work on ‘Brand X.' It didn't have a name. I knew I wanted to launch in April of 2016. What I would do is, I would create focus groups. I would say, “Here's images of what I feel this brand should look like.”

12 women in the fitness community, 12 women that are recent moms, 12 women in business, all different facets of women, how do you feel when I put this image on the table? Write down one word, put it on a post-it, go.

We would create trend lines in terms of where were people feeling confident in emotion and things that related to what our core values were. Next step, we would go towards copy, same thing.

What word do you like to relate to the word underwear? Is it panty? Is it undies? Is it underwear? Is it thongs? What gives you the ickies and what makes you feel like, “This is something that I actually want to talk about.” Over five different focus groups, the word undie was the one that they chose.

We went on and on like this for six months. Once we did that, we then went to social media and we started to post those images. We posted that copy. Instantly, we started to get direct messages from the women that we wanted to be in our audience.

First woman was Taylor Tippy from Chicago. She had a hundred thousand followers and she was a flight attendant. “I used to put post-it notes on the inside of your seat and it would say, ‘Your day is about to get better.'” We're like, “You are what we believe is a representative of our brand Lively. How do we find a hundred more like you?”

Hired a bunch of interns and started to hit Instagram and said, “Who else is living their feed like Taylor? I don't care if you have a hundred followers, I don't care if you have a hundred thousand followers. Do you live Lively?”

We purposefully ignored New York and San Francisco because we said, “As a digitally native brand, you're just going to get those two states. They' probably will be 70% of your sales but we've done our jobs if it's 40%.” We went for the middle. We had 75 women in the middle of the country, ready to share and show Lively.

It sounds like you had built this community before you had products.

Michelle: 100%.

How long did it take between that time where you were talking to the community and you started selling?

We started focus grouping around September. We started building our community with social media in February. We sold our first product on April 1.

Some of the criticism about DTC brands is that they're bi-coastal— that they're aiming at niche markets and can't grow beyond New York and L.A. Has that concerned you?

Yeah. If we live in Manhattan, we have a different point of view in terms of how we see and live our lives. But I'm a girl from Pennsylvania and I wanted to make sure that that people that I grew up with could relate to my brand, that they could be accessible. Not just the product and the marketing but affordability, too.

That's why I went after supply chain. There was one rule that we have and we maintain to this day. It's that we will never market LIVELY for price. You have to decide, one, that you are inspired by your brand, two, you want to come to our home page, and three, click into a product page before you'll find out that a Lively Bra is $35 dollars.

Because of that and because of those values around accessibility, you have to think about in Middle America: They want a certain price because they want to be a part of something. It should feel luxurious, just like Net-a-Porter, but they should be able to go after it whether it's 50,000 dollars in household income or 500,000.

They also have a different size range than what we see in New York City. We launched with 22 sizes, 32A to 38DD, which is a lot of bras [laughs] in one color when you're a new company. It's thinking through all these different facets of what a consumer in the middle of the country needs versus the coastal.

Adding that on later is much harder to add into your business model to say that you're going to change your price point or you're going to add sizes and so forth.

How has the business grown over the last two years?

We launched in April of 2016, and because we strategically went after the middle of the country, we had two tools when we launched. We had our ambassadors. We leveraged Harry's code for a refer-a-friend campaign, which, thank you, Harry's, was very successful for us.

We garnered 133,000 emails in 2 days just by messaging those images and those words that we learned from our focus groups. In 45 days of launching, we shipped to every state in the country. Now, we ship to every state in the country on a weekly basis.

Our first year, we launched and then we expected to do this and come back up. With supply chain and read and react, we were able to continue to take orders then grew by 300% than 150%.

Could you explain your product strategy ?

On the product side, it's really easy for us. Our customers tell us what to create. Some of our best launches have been based on consumers saying, “Hey, I love the idea of a bralette but I'm a size DD or a 32 DDD.” We were like, “We create a bralette like that. We're going to call it the Busty Bralette.” It sold out in 24 hours, and so forth. Because we are filling a need for something that they don't see existing.

Same thing happened with swimwear—we started to see our customers wearing our bralettes at the beach and wearing our leisurely bras at yoga. They're like, “Can you just make it for us?” Actually, we can.

We started to just spend time listening to them and creating, saying, “You love this bralette and lingerie. How does that feel in swimwear?” It was very much a mirror image. What we realized, and I learned this at Victoria's Secret, is that as soon as you get a customer in one of these very vulnerable categories, it's very easy to have that trust and that loyalty and build around. For me, it's all about products that are high margin, easy to ship and female-centric.

We hear about Casper being the sleep brand and Away being the travel brand—that set them up to broaden their product lines. Where do you see your brand expanding?

There's one tag line we've had on our home page basically for two years. That's “Today, bras and undies. Tomorrow, the world.” We wanted to create a brand where today, we could sell bras and tomorrow, we can sell concert tickets. We don't know. That's the fun of it, is that we want to be on this journey with our community. It's very open.

Could you speak about how your marketing has changed? Did you hire an agency?

We leveraged Harry's code. It was pivotal time for us. In March of 2016, a month before we were launching the brand, we said, “We need to be able to launch to somebody, not just the women we garnered on Instagram.” We took their code and created a refer-a-friend campaign.

Everyone that gives an email address to gets a point towards their first purchase. Nobody knew how much the product was. They just knew that there was this brand launching that was inspired by wild hearts and boss brains. We sent it to 250 people. We got 100,000 emails in 48 hours and our servers crashed.

Instantly, we turned on customer service. Those first people that joined us for that one reason of image and copy were brand lovers. We needed to take every single word that they shared with us as marketing. We took all of their comments. “#needthis, where have you been? I think I could sleep in this bra. What does wild hearts, boss brains mean to you?” So forth.

We created our marketing off of them and started to bring them into the conversation until this day. The thing that was different two years ago in 2016, which doesn't seem like a long time but does, if you think about how much the world has changed, we photographed a lot of these early consumers because we wanted to use them as our marketing.

We wanted to say, “We're not going to use actual models. We're going to use customers as our models.” What we saw was that worked on Instagram but it did not work on our website. The conversion rates were not there when we showed our community girls on our product pages and so forth.

We haven't given up on that, so we continue to work with them and use that user-generated content and channel that felt native for that type of imagery.

Now, two years later, the world's ready for that. They're on our home page, they're on our product pages, we show eight different body types and so forth. I'm telling you, two years ago, the world wasn't working that way. What's interesting is how marketing is evolving so quickly.

You think about Instagram, we didn't even have InstaStories, we didn't have tagging within the feed. Now, those channels are double digits in terms of revenue for us.

To answer your question, it's just constantly being a step ahead and just being the customer, spending time with them. We've had over a hundred events with our customers since we've launched our brand. We're constantly like, “What are you looking at? Why did you buy that? Where did you find that?”

Could you describe the structure of your marketing organization?

We're very scrappy. When we launched the company, there were four of us. We had our creative director, graphic designer, a director of brand marketing who was in-charge of everything social and so forth, and a person that was hired to eventually do paid when we're ready to paid but they were hired to do customer service first because if you don't understand what your customer is saying, how can you create an ad or an asset that reflects that?

It's just those four to begin with. Then we started to build out on brand right away. PR and community and events, that's where the muscle of our company still lives. We're still very small. We keep it tight and nimble so that we force ourselves to be really in it with our customer. We're at about 20 employees, all female.

Brands are tapping into the ambassador strategy. How are you making sure that the ambassadors you engage talk about your brand in a consistent way?

It took us two years to figure it out, to be honest. That first year, we had 75 ambassadors. We were very focused on making sure that it was a consistent voice that they had. We would give them assets and we would give them copy to use to share. Because we're not paying them—they're just sharing our product.

What we realize then is that all of that manual DM-ing, and emailing and shipping was only allowing us to get to about a thousand ambassadors because of manpower. We created technology processes and workflows where we went from a thousand ambassadors in January to now 50,000 ambassadors about. 

If you take your own user-generated content, we use a platform that we love called Pixlee where we can scrape all that user-generated content and decide what to push out.

What motivates the ambassadors to do this work?

That's the key part: You have to be able to share that you're not just asking to help them to help you but you're helping them. Understanding what makes these women excited and energized and supportive of something is really important. That's where the events came into play.

That's where we were able to say, “It's not just about a code you're putting on your Link In Bio. It's about being able to, one, come to these events, two, now start to host them, three, take over our Instagram, four, be positioned on our email newsletter, five, we'll actually do a blog post for you, six, start telling us what to create. We'll put your name on it.”

The theory was that the wave of DTC companies was going to destroy IRL retail. Instead, we're seeing new experimentation with brick-and-mortar spaces and with partnerships. How has this played out for your brand?

I personally am really excited about retail right now. Things are happening so quickly that it's showing great opportunity. We didn't think that we were going to be ready for stores for quite some time nor did we think that we were going to be ready to partner with other retailers.

What we did know is that we had this community within the middle of the country, and so we needed to go and interact with them. We started going to Dallas and having events with them, which felt like, “Where do you hang out? This trendy bakery. Cool, we'll do an even there. We love SoulCycle. Great, we'll take over SoulCycle.”

As we were hanging out with them in these cities, we realize they don't want us to leave. We started to do rev shares on leases. We would say to the landlord, “Let us come into your space. We'll bring a lot of traffic and help you get your next long-term customer.”

We did that for two weeks. We thought we were going to get brand impressions. Not only did we get brand impressions, we also created ROI on that space. We started to see trend lines where in the city of Dallas, our online customer transactions would increase by 175% and in Dallas 80%. 

Then we realized that every time those two to three-week events came time to close, we weren't ready to leave. We opened our first retail store in SoHo, 224 Mulberry Street, for anyone who's looking for a bra or a Lively experience. We call it a Lively Experience Store.

It's 2700 square feet, which is really vast for a company of our size. If you come into the space, you'll realize that only a third of the space is actually with racks and product and so forth. The bulk of the space is for our community to come together.

Last night, we had a book reading, which had about a hundred different women in there. This Sunday, we're hosting a philanthropy event. We've had hip-hop classes, calligraphy. All the things that our customers love to do that have nothing to do with lingerie, that's the rule.

The second rule is, what is it that she will do that will leave a euphoric impression where she just can't help herself but use word of mouth to tell someone? I hung out with Lively last night, and this is what happened. Next question is, what's Lively?

How does this experience in Manhattan inform the Dallas market?

 What we do is we basically start to create trend lines again on what events drove the most impression. Is it a DIY? Is it something where she's actually shopping and it's a fitting room experience and so forth. Then we test that out in other markets and say, “Does that hold true?”

What we actually see is that customization by market is key. We started to have ambassadors within each community decide how we share and shout our brand. Nashville was more music-centric. Dallas is more mother-daughter family-oriented. New York is much faster and more so about what's the latest and greatest.

Could you explain why are you partnering with established retailers?

One of our initial rules was no wholesale. We just felt that we wanted to control the experience, not just from how they learned about the product but how the product was shipped, the customer service behind it, and the whole experience.

Nordstrom actually approached us about three months after we launched and said, “Hey, we really want to carry your brand, along with other retailers.” We're just like, “No, our baby is not ready to leave the nest. We can't do that.”

They were the one partner that spent two years constantly coming back and spending the time to understand what it is that we wanted. Why no? What does brand experience mean to you?

Then they ended up sitting down with us. They said, “We'll design a space for you. Where do you want to be?” We want to be by the escalators. We don't want to be in the bra department. We want our own shop and shop. We want food and entertainment while consumers are there.

We just launched with Nordstrom in 11 doors for three months from September until December. Then we had the same conversation with Madewell because we saw that our customers had a very significant overlap with these brands, brands that span across the country, of course.

For them, we're doing a digital beta and we're learning about what our experience feels like with them. Again, now we're able to still ship the product and control the customer service and so forth. We're able to share with these partners what matters to us and they're able to reciprocate and respect and support it.

What would you recommend to someone looking to build their own brand?

Be very human about it. Look at your emails and ask, ‘What would you normally say? What would you say to your friend? How would you describe your company to your sister or your mom?’

And don't QA anything on a desktop. Look at everything on your phone. Everything should be looked at on a mobile environment. That tone and voice should be there. Eventually, it's going to be not even emailing people, it would be DM-ing.

What would you say are the first steps to take in brand building?

First and foremost, you have to decide what your core values are. For me, first and foremost, it was conversation and ethos. I made the decision that if I was going to lean into the idea of a community, and really what that is is marketing, then a supply chain had to be not just taken care of, it had to be beyond taken care of.

I made sure that my first supplier was my investor, so that I had a factory around my brand that was launching where I had zero clue how many units I was going to sell but I knew that I needed a size range that could accommodate a conversation that was truly accessible.

If it was a product that had to be accessible in price, accessible in size and accessible in marketing, I needed to take all of my manpower and put that towards community, voice, tone and brand. 

How important would customer service be for a brand as a marketing function?



For more from Michelle and similar inspiring retail pioneers, come see her speak at PSFK's Future of Retail 2019 Conference, tickets available now.

Lead image: LIVELY via Facebook