Why Editorial Brands will Rule Retail’s “Long Tale”

Ben Clymer, a native New Yorker, was working as a finance professional in 2008. He took a severance payment and enrolled at Columbia Journalism School. In his spare time, Hodinkee was launched. It is a blog dedicated to wristwatch enthusiasts. He would reveal that the name Hodinkee was derived from “hodinky”, a Czech word meaning wristwatch.

Hodinkee, unlike other industry websites at the time was not positioned for the traditional watch snob, but for the younger enthusiast. Hodinkee published narrative pieces celebrating specific brands and watches that were easy to understand and entertaining. It also won over hardcore horology enthusiasts with its reassuringly geeky technical knowledge.

Hodinkee’s content spread like wildfire. In 2013, Hodinkee was a major editorial force in the wristwatch industry, with The New York Times naming Clymer the “High Priest Of Horology.” By 2015 Hodinkee had grown to be one of the most important sources of information about watches worldwide with star-studded content that featured the likes John Mayer, Jack Nicklaus, and Mario Andretti.

A brand’s most valuable product is its content.

Clymer realized that Hodinkee’s dependence upon advertising revenue was not only impinging on its editorial freedom but also obscured an even bigger revenue opportunity: retail. Hodinkee quickly expanded its online store to offer both pre-owned and new timepieces. Today, the company sells a wide range of watches, ranging in price from several hundred dollars to tens or thousands. Many of these watches sell out within minutes of their listing. Clymer and his team recently raised just shy 40 million in venture financing in a deal that valued Hodinkee to more than $100million. Toby Bateman was previously of Mr. Porter, an online retailer with a similar editorial approach.

Clymer has maintained his belief in content, despite its remarkable rise. Clymer stated in a recent interview that he would hire new editors, photographers, and videographers. We strive to produce the best content. This is what we have proven to be able to do. We believe content is the future.

Retail’s Long Tale

Although much has been written about “long tail” retail, Hodinkee, brands similar, are a new breed of retail powerhouses. They make up what I call the long story: retail outlets that create extraordinary experiences through carefully researched, expertly developed and elegantly produced content. Content that informs. The content that shapes the consumer‘s relationship with a brand.

Although we tend to misunderstand the concept of retail experience, at the molecular level, retail experiences are nothing more than a combination of physical, digital and emotional content. Everything we do, see, hear, feel and experience when we go to a website or app, creates an experience. How well the content is created and produced is a major factor in how customers remember the experience. Your brand’s story cannot be told without content.

Problem is, in many traditional retail organizations, “content” is often confused with advertising. One example is brand YouTube channels that are essentially just TV ads. While it is true that Burberry and Chanel are fashion brands, it is also true that they began to think more like media businesses. However, Hodinkee’s rise shows that content is no longer a garnish to a brand’s core products offering. Instead, content is the most important product that a brand offers. Product sales will follow if the content is appreciated by the community.

The problem is solved

There are many product options available for every need. This eliminates a major problem that consumers have, and creates a new problem for brands: how to attract customers. It’s an expensive problem, and digital advertising costs are likely to rise once more as we recover from the pandemic. Priced out of the market will all brands, except those with deep pockets. To be sustainable, most product brands will have to create their own content ecosystems. As Ben Clymer put it, speaking to BoF last year, “We want Hodinkee to become really a complete universe for watch enthusiasts.”

The anti Amazon strategy

Hodinkee’s success is not a recommendation that every brand should become editorially driven. Companies that are focused on convenience will find a growing market. They can provide us with a wide range of products, quick delivery, and reliable pricing. Amazon is proving this every day. Amazon has almost 1000 options for me to choose from if I need a Rolex watch that is pre-owned. Amazon could still have ten times as many inventory, but it will not be the destination for watch lovers like Hodinkee. Amazon will not be the creator of engaging content for the category. It will not build a watch-loving society that waits impatiently for the next limited edition timepiece. They don’t even want to be. Amazon’s remarkablely focused raison d’etre has been to remove the physical and emotional distance between those who want it, and those who find it. Amazon has never sought to provide a high level of content and community. They are not capable of delivering that level of content or community.

This opens up the possibility for other retailers. However, those who want to seize this opportunity must rethink their business structures and priorities. The creation of content must be a specialist function within the company. People with production and editorial skills should be hired. They must be familiar with the brand’s culture. Content is not a marketing campaign or an ad buy. It is a creative process that involves daily creation, animation, and expansion of the brand story, and cultivating loyal and engaged fans. Clymer may have put it best when he said, “Not for a minute do we believe watches really matter now or ever.” We do know that people seek out a way to escape the daily grind and find a hobby or a little respite.

Retailers across all categories can provide a welcome reprieve by providing exceptional content to their customers. This will allow them to reinvent their commercial and social value.