Using social media to build a cult clothing label

Six years ago, James Lillis founded the clothing label Black Milk, using the power of social media to grow a cult following. Now Queensland’s largest clothing manufacturer, with sales of more than 1000 garments a day, it’s now working on cracking the American market.

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Building a fashion label with thousands of fans around the globe in just six years, out of the rag trade capital that is … Brisbane?

Harnessing the power of social media has enabled Black Milk founder James Lillis to amass a passionate online following of young women who’ll pay premium prices for high-end casual wear, including his signature flashy leggings.

His blog Too Many Tights was integral to the success of the business in its earliest days when Lillis was a one-man band with a second-hand sewing machine who went online to get customer feedback on his homemade creations.

“I was interested in how business was changing, as a result of social media’s ability to connect people who hadn’t been able to talk in the past,” Lillis says. “I liked the idea of tribalism, forming a tribe. It’s not just connecting people with a company; it’s connecting people with each other. That’s quite powerful.

“So I tried to position myself as the leggings guru – if you wanted to know anything about how tights fit on a woman’s legs, I was the expert, and a blog was the best way to do this.”

Fast forward six years and Lillis is at the helm of the largest clothing label that manufacturers in Queensland, with sales of more than 1000 garments a day.

The power of social media

Its staff of 120 includes three full-time social media professionals who post on Facebook and Instagram at least three times a day, run the Twitter account and respond to customers’ posts. A Facebook following of more than 690,000 and more than a million Instagram followers keeps them busy from 7am until 10pm, six days a week and the business prides itself on a response time of under 10 minutes during these hours.

The high-octane social strategy has not been without its hiccups. In 2014 Black Milk attempted to commemorate May 4 – known as Star Wars Day by the movie’s fans – by posting two photos on Facebook of women, under the heading: ‘When I Attempt to be a Geeky Goddess’. One picture was labeled ‘expectation’; the other ‘reality’. An internet furore ensued; with some fans accusing the label of ‘hating’ and ‘body shaming’.

It was unintended offence from which Black Milk has learnt some lessons – keep a weather eye on the zeitgeist and respond rapidly to concerns – but also evidence of the brand’s extraordinary success in engaging with its market, Lillis says.

“Companies that don’t connect their customers with each other can avoid a lot of these firestorms,” he says. “If customers aren’t as invested in the brand, there’s not a lot of emotion; people don’t care in the same way. There’s not the culture of drama that comes with having tens of thousands of young women on the internet, constantly talking to each other.

“That’s quite unique to Black Milk – it’s one of our biggest strengths, but it can be a double-edged sword.”

Achieving social success

Black Milk Marketing Director, Matt Janes, shares some secrets of social success.

Don’t sell, engage

Think posting some pictures of your latest products and pricing on Facebook will see demand for your wares spike? Think again.

“You’re in the customer’s social space and they don’t particularly want to be sold to – it’s lazy marketing just to be a sales channel,” Janes says. “We interact with our customers online, but we don’t treat the platform like a catalogue.”

Be authentic

Want to chat with under-25s about clothes on Twitter? Best if you’re one of them yourself, not a 40-something bloke who’s clueless about fashion.

“The girls who work online at Black Milk are Sharkies – our term for the die-hard fans who circle James like sharks, waiting for new lines to be released,” Janes says. “You engage with customers more effectively if the staff doing social understand and are passionate about the product.”

Style AND substance

‘Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle’, as the marketing axiom has it. Fine for one-off sales but if you want to build a community of hard-core fans, whether online or in real life, then the steak better be pretty good too.

“If you don’t have an amazing product, it doesn’t matter how big or amazing your social media business is, people aren’t going to buy in,” Janes says.

“People are fans of the brand first and foremost, and where they congregate is on social.”

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