Digital Disruptor Brands Insider Secrets: Chris Morton, Lyst

“The question we asked ourselves back in 2010 was what does a category leader look like?”

Welcome to the third instalment of Brands2Life’s Appetite for Disruption interview series, where we chat to key figures behind some of the UK’s defining tech challenger brands and uncover the insider secrets of harnessing the power of digital to reinvent a category.

This time we talk to Chris Morton, CEO and Co-Founder of Lyst. Established in 2010 from a small shed in Shoreditch, Lyst began when Chris and Co-Founder, Seb Trepca, set out to create a new way for people to find the fashion they always wanted. Lyst is now the world’s largest global fashion search platform, bringing together eight million products from 17,000 of the world’s leading brands and retailers, and is used by over 150 million fashion lovers a year.

Chris talks about spotting an opportunity for a category leader in online fashion shopping; establishing Lyst as the authority on online fashion shopping trends; the ways Lyst is tackling diversity, inclusion and sustainability and shares his words of wisdom for other digital disruptor brands.

Chris, tell us why you felt online fashion was ripe for disruption.

What interested us about the online fashion space, particularly at the higher end, was that unlike most other consumer internet markets, there wasn’t a category leader. When we started the business, just 1% of sales were online. And even pre-pandemic this figure had only reached 10%, compared to travel at 88%.

The question we asked ourselves back in 2010 was what does a category leader look like? Firstly, it would have the most comprehensive assortment. Secondly, we would be a data and technology-driven company to enable us to manage large volumes of data on our assortment, inventory or customers. In fact, today two thirds of Lyst are still engineers, data scientists, and product people.

One of the digital disruptors we admired back then – and still admire today – is Spotify. Before they came along there was iTunes which was essentially a spreadsheet-style music library. Spotify created a new paradigm by enabling you to both search and discover music in a really personalised way from a vast catalogue. And we’ve brought something similar to online fashion retail by allowing users to search for a something specific from 12,000 retailers, but also be inspired via a personalised homepage view of what’s new or items they might like. It’s fashion as a form of entertainment.

You’ve experienced phenomenal growth. What marketing strategies have you found to be most effective in driving this?

Initially, we really doubled down on acquisition through performance marketing, focusing on a combination of paid search and organic search. We spotted there was an opportunity with SEO, given the industry was still quite nascent, so that’s mostly where we focused our energies in the early days. As we got bigger, we began to care more about top of funnel awareness too. It’s an interesting paradox because normally fashion brands have a much bigger brand than a business, but our business is much bigger than our brand. We’re a highly quantitative and econometric bunch, so we try to balance the creativity and intuition needed to build brand awareness with measurement. But equally, we try not to be so obsessed with metrics that we throttle the life out of our comms.

Tell us how you’ve built the Lyst brand.

As with any brand there’s functional and emotional elements. Functionally, we have focused on delivering the most up-to-date, comprehensive, competitively priced assortment out there. When it comes to emotional resonance, we’ve focused on creating a brand that feels fresh and alive. Around 80,000 new items come onto Lyst every single day so we’re constantly reflecting what’s new and what’s trending.

We’ve capitalised on these two attributes to establish Lyst as the authority on online fashion shopping behaviour and assert our position as the category leader. We’ve created The Lyst Index which is a quarterly ranking of the hottest brands and products. It’s now a respected barometer referenced by CEOs of the world’s biggest luxury fashion brands and covered by fashion media. In January we also launched #TheLYST50, a weekly chart of the fastest-selling pieces which is more customer-focused. These kinds of activities are really helping to increase our brand awareness.

It sounds like this data-driven comms approach is really delivering for you.

Definitely, issuing weekly and quarterly data is generating hundreds of media articles and in influential titles too like the Sunday Times Style and the Financial Times Life and Arts section. For example, we’ll reveal that searches for off-the-shoulder tops are up 400% and journalists will use this stat as a hook for a trends piece.  Now we’ve established a reputation for data, journalists are actually coming to us to help them substantiate a trend they’re writing about.

Diversity and inclusion has always been something that’s been important to you and your business. Can you tell us about the work Lyst has been doing in this area?

The first thing is making sure that everyone in the company understands why it’s important. We have an internal diversity and inclusion committee that formed organically which has the remit to drive internal education. We see this as fertilising the soil so that any initiatives you layer on top are understood and well-received.

Over a third of new hires last quarter were from ethnic minority backgrounds, which is important for not only for the business and our broader contribution, but also in terms of helping to understand the 50 million people from around the world who used the platform in the past five months. Given how varied our customer base is, we try to have an equally varied group working on our platform. I’m pretty pleased with what we’ve achieved so far on the diversity and inclusion front but there’s a lot more to do.

Sustainability is another hot topic in fashion right now. How are you tackling this?

Sustainability is not only important to customers, it’s also incredibly important to our team. As an industry fashion needs to improve, and while as a search platform, we don’t undertake manufacturing or shipping, we are still part of the eco-system. We’re already contributing to the discussion around sustainability with our Conscious Fashion Report, which analyses our data to reveal how much the shifts in the industry are actually affecting customer behaviour. Plus, there’s a variety of customer-based initiatives we’re working on which you’ll see more of this year.

Chris’s words of wisdom for digital disruptors

1. Strike the right balance between unwavering optimism and realism. You need absolute faith you’ll succeed, but you also need to keep it real.

2. Resilience is vital to deal with the inevitable setbacks you’ll face along the way.

3. Adaptability is your superpower and even as we’ve got bigger, it’s something I’ve fiercely protected.

Brands2Life has helped more digital brands go from early-stage market disruptors to brand leaders than any other UK comms agency. Our work with disruptor alumni like Just Eat, Match.com, LinkedIn, Groupon and Moonpig and our campaigns for the new generation of category innovators like Bought By Many and Rover.com has given us a deep understanding of the challenges brands face as they scale and transition from start-ups to part of the fabric of our daily lives.

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