We speak with Mark Brigham, Marketing Director at Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports. A sporting goods brand in the UK with “mountains” of experience. Ellis Brigham started in 1933 at a small shop in Manchester and has since grown to more than twenty-four stores countrywide, and has been family-owned ever since.
Angela Ruth: Thank you for joining us Mark, it's awesome to hear from you and get to chat.
Mark Brigham: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me.
It looks like Ellis Brigham has been a part of your family for quite a while, since 1933. I watched the Heritage video on your website. I’m interested to hear your perspective on how that has affected your life and would love to get to know you better.
Thanks for watching the video! The business was established back in 1933 by my grandfather, who lived above his small shop in Manchester. As the years went on, he set up a business building cycling and running shoes, boots, and army surplus. He invented these claw like boot spikes that he called the “Brigham Plate” to allow for easier climbing up mountains, and proudly wore a sign above his shop that said “Alpine Boot Maker”. Going into the 1940’s, he had a wonderful reputation with the outdoor community in North England, and things really went from there. His sons eventually took over the business, and expanded it.
Since then, we’ve been expanding across the UK to over twenty shops. We’ve seen a lot of increases in new shops, especially in the early 2000s, though obviously, we haven’t been able to open new shops recently, due to Covid-19. This last year has seen an astonishing increase in outdoors’ activity. These last twelve months have been a massive explosion in demand for outdoor gear from people being locked down and really needing to get out and explore.
It’s been an interesting period, these last twelve months. Our shops have had to open and close and open and close due to lockdowns across the country. In terms of our marketing, we had plans to produce around five magazines last spring, and as lockdowns and Covid-19 hit, we still set out, determined to deliver them to customers. We got a lot of interesting responses from customers wondering why we’re putting out catalogs when nobody can go anywhere, but most seemed to very much appreciate them. Probably dreaming of exactly where they’d go, what they’d do, and what gear they needed to make it happen once restrictions were lifted.
In terms of my upbringing, I used to get to work in the shop on Saturdays, so of course, retail has always been a major part of my life. The family business meant that growing up (and now) I’ve been lucky to always have the latest outdoor gear to use. When I was very young around 2/3, I used to think my dad worked in a sweet shop, because he would bring home sweets at the end of the day. I was rather disappointed when I found out that wasn’t what we sell, but I supposed it’s good because I might’ve eaten all the sweets before we had the chance to sell them.
Oh no! I imagine that was a disappointment, I would probably eat a family sweets shop out of house and home too. You mentioned that your online presence is booming but there haven’t been many stores opened up in the past few years. Would you say that’s been mostly because of 2020 lockdowns or it just hasn’t been in the cards?
We try to have a purpose for each store we open and serve an existing customer base. Keeping in mind the best location and what would be the best for our customers. We’ve pinpointed some areas that we'd love to open up new stores in the future, but the environment isn’t quite right at the moment. Who knows in twelve months? Fingers crossed that by the end of 2021, things will return to normal. We keep hearing people say, are you ever going to expand overseas, and that's probably one step too far for us but we take each location opening very seriously. Currently we have twenty-four locations, all but four are in cities, and the additional three are very near mountains.
The Heritage video on your website said that many of your grandfather’s customers were coming in from Alpine regions after WWII, and he developed a claw to go on the bottom of shoes?
My grandfather, along with an engineering friend of his, came up with a unique pattern of crampons to go on the bottom of climbers’ shoes. My dad and uncle really went on to develop the business and are absolutely innovators in their own way, and very entrepreneurial. They’ve certainly pushed Ellis Brigham forward with their drive and energy.
What do you do at Ellis Brigham? I'm the marketing director. So I'm responsible for, well, a growing list! If it doesn’t fit into any other category at the company, it tends to fall in marketing. So it’s a diverse and wonderful thing. I have a small and brilliant team that works with me and they are happy to turn their hand to most things and get stuck in. Within the team we’ve just appointed a new digital marketing manager, a role that has grown in importance in the last twelve months. We have a copywriter, a creative designer and a creative director. The creative director is responsible for a lot of the magazines that are on Issuu. We’ve produced magazines since the 1940s - back then they were sales led material, and have more recently pushed towards greater marketing led editorial content rather than a catalog with products. We’ve made it our focus to produce a good mix of more helpful and inspiring content alongside showcasing the new products.
Would you say that rapid growth in digital has changed your role or Ellis Brigham as a whole?
Well, I mean interestingly, we'd already identified our website as the next opportunity back in 2019. We were performing around 12-13% of overall turnover coming through online, and we wanted to increase that. So suddenly turnover has gone up by 1000% in the last twelve months which is pretty good! We were pretty focussed on building a better user experience on the website, and luckily that came at a good time. The magazines and catalog side of things still have their place, but they were already being talked about in terms of how we could improve what we're doing, and last spring was a big step forward in that. We’ve always used Issuu for the digital side of our catalog, but last Spring really pushed us forward to link up all of the content and products, adding video, and creating an overall much better user experience. Much more online-friendly content.
This past winter, we put together our first purely digital magazines. Before we would of course have digital content, but they would also be printed, these were the first two magazines that were entirely digital. Previously, we were doing mammoth sized magazines, with around 250-260 pages in each. As you can imagine, linking up all of the products in those wouldn’t really be feasible, or at least a massive undertaking.
Have you gone completely digital so you're no longer printing magazines?
We're still printing some, like this Summer we will be printing a couple, but we’ve moved into a much more focussed magazine and catalog. Catalogs are broken up into bite size pieces, so we’re looking at 50-100 page catalogs instead of 250+ page catalogues. The larger would land on your doorstep, and that would be it for the season. Now it’s more of a drip feed over a longer period of time, which is performing very well. We’re working through all of the different ways that we can present some of the content online and it's quite interesting to see. We're really just scratching the surface of what we can do on Issuu.
Do you recall what originally brought you to Issuu?
We started on Issuu back in 2010. There was a need to digitize the magazines to get that extra level of value, especially in reaching a customer base that aren’t physically receiving the magazines. So it felt like a natural fit. Since then we have tried a few other online hosting sites, but we keep coming back to Issuu because it's more straightforward than a lot of the others. The user experience and the simplicity is what keeps us coming back.
What comes to mind when you think of an easy user experience? Is there a particular feature that is useful to your business?
The way you can extract articles is very useful. Publishing and having information and assets automatically pulled into articles makes it even more valuable than just digital publishing. In terms of a simple user facing interface...When you try to link up a product, or add video, I appreciate that it isn’t complicated. You click to add a link, and it’s done. Same with adding video. We plan on using the Stories feature quite a bit more, and reporting is a particular feature we’ve only really properly looked at in the last twelve months. Issuu analytics gives us really great insights into what’s performing, and paying more attention to those insights can help us craft content around what customers want to see as well.
Do you have a favorite magazine you’ve done?
That's a good question. I really liked what we did last Spring/Summer with the series of the five magazines, the Live, Breathe ones. Each one had its own specific segment, perhaps more catalog than magazine, but that series had a nice blend of big, double page spreads in them and more editorial than ever before. That series definitely ranks up there in my favorites and probably some of the best that we’ve produced thus far, particularly on our outdoor side. For skiing, we’re obviously getting better each year. We had the White Book 34, and the Little Black Book, which were a bit different from what we normally would do, very stylized, and targeting a very specific type of customer. Really I’m proud of each one for different reasons. Our team produces them, each bringing something amazing to the table, and so it’s difficult to have a favorite when I really enjoy them all.
We haven’t specifically hit on one way of doing it yet, we're still holding onto some of the catalog elements and bringing that more into a magazine format with editorial content. When you go down that road, you feel the need to really commit to one or the other, but luckily as a digital catalogue we can have a heavy focus on editorial in a magazine and still create a catalogue separately if we’re looking to do both separately. This last year has been a large push away from print, and we’ve been working through creating catalogues as digital first, and print second, which is obviously a large change. We’ve been rethinking how our publications are used, what customers need, and going from there.
Anything you’re looking forward to in this next year as things start opening back up?
Outdoors has seen a major boom in the last year, going out walking, climbing, camping, and really finding ways to be outside the four walls of home. Ellis Brigham has propelled forward and Issuu has helped us with that digital front. With demand from last year, we’re looking to add paddle boards into our inventory as well, so we’re pretty excited about where things will go as we move through 2021 and into 2022.
Thank you for joining us today Mark!
Absolutely, thank you so much for having me.
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