Getting under the cloak of Woolmark's digital and innovation efforts

Global head of digital and innovation talks to CMO about how AI is informing fashion tech development, retail's evolution, plus the impact of voice and connected devices on fashion and customer engagement


AI-powered research, voice-based care instructions, ‘adjacent possible’ marketing principles, augmented reality on farms and eco-storytelling in immersive retail stores – they’re all in a day’s work for the innovation and digital team at The Woolmark Company.

Global head of digital and innovation, Damian Madden, recently caught up with CMO to share ways he’s fostering innovation, from the technologies being tapped into, to the cultural and mindset shifts required as the marketing body for Australia’s woolgrowers works to change how people perceive wool.

Madden will speak about artificial intelligence (AI) and the role of innovation in Woolmark’s unique form of “ingredient marketing” at the ADMA Global Forum in Sydney later this month.

“There is a large traditional and steady growth portion to our market that will always be there in terms of fashion, such as jumpers and suits. But what we want to drive is more growth and opportunity for wool and we find we achieve that through innovation,” Madden told CMO.  

“That’s about finding ways to innovate in terms of the fibre, through new wools or new ways to produce wool, right back to the farm level. This could be helping farmers manage the farms, animals or shearers, through to processing, such as new ways to create and spin wool. Then it’s about new forms of marketing; working with brands in interesting ways to create new uses for wool.”

Efforts are also increasingly tying into new ways consumers shop in mixed digital and physical retail environments, as well as how they engage with brands and garment care via connected devices and the home.

Fashion tech and AI

To help, Woolmark has been investing in AI research to better understand the position and needs consumers have around emerging fashion tech. Madden described fashion tech as the gamut of smart textiles, smart farming, home automation, the care piece around goods, AI reporting and even virtual reality.

“A key thing is reshaping and rethinking how we look at fashion tech. It’s not about machines getting smarter, it’s about making us smarter,” he said. “We use a lot of AI research and find it really valuable because it gives us insights we couldn’t get from focus groups. It identifies customers, products, opportunities and allows us to test how we’re marketing, how we’re presenting and using what terms.”  

One initiative has been tapping insight around the purchase funnel. What’s clear, according to Madden, is the traditional marketing funnel and linear approach to customer insight and engagement no longer works as customers split their journey between funnels.

“If I’m a fashion brand, I’ll do all this awareness campaign work to bring people in to find out about a new collection I’ve got. However, when those people get to the point where they want an item, they’ll go to an online retailer and complete this part of the purchase in their funnel. Once they have the product at home, they come back into my [fashion brand] funnel in terms of care and use,” he said. “Often as Woolmark, we miss the inbetween information. What we’re doing is using AI to fill that gap and get insight into what that customer journey looks like.”

Woolmark is also looking to AI research to understand if colour is the top key consideration, versus price point, size, or the way products are presented in-store. “When we’re talking about wool, we can see what people are aware of before they even know what they want,” Madden continued.

“We know ‘merino’ has a much stronger emotional affect than wool. So if we talk about merino denim, instead of merino wool, the change in customer perception is dramatic. And we can feed that straight back into our partners.”

Related: CMO interview: Marketing the wool off a sheep’s back

As an example, Madden pointed to AI insights informing Woolmark’s partnership with a US activewear brand by identifying opportunities where wool could fill clothing gaps in specific sports and meet the needs of participants better. Another example is research into the US outdoor hunting sector. In this instance, Woolmark found a groundswell of hunters talking about the benefits of wool as a natural fibre.

“We try and find opportunities to then innovate in those spaces so it amplifies the technology they’re after. That opens up new wools and markets for us,” Madden said.  

A big area of fashion Woolmark is focused on is sneakers. “People are much more willing to innovate and experiment with innovation in their sneakers as consumers, and that’s the place to play in,” Madden said.

It’s these insights that triggered Woolmark’s work with Adidas and saw it developing different knitting techniques and fibres to create new sneaker types.

Omni-channel retailing

Outside of working with fashion brands, retail is another important customer base for Woolmark and a big area of innovation. Madden said his group and partners are working to bring customers into the start of the innovation and product development process to create a continuous loop.

“This is a big change in fashion, which is traditionally led by a creative. AI looks to the market to a degree, but it’s also about reorienting around what a customer wants in the product then infusing products with that insight,” he said.

When it comes to omni-channel retailing, there are a number of AI-informed and tech-driven projects in the works, too. These largely focus on education of consumers on the story behind wool and post-purchase care.

“If I get into a completely connected environment – that new retail store of the future – how am I going to tell someone this wool-based garment is better than the other one? That’s our challenge and a lot of our projects are driving back to that,” Madden said.

Several projects, for instance, focus on evolving technology in the tag itself. “It’s our opportunity to talk to you. But also in that retail environment, how do I connect up with you?” Madden asked. “Are there learnings we can apply from the online world, such as customised experiences based on previous buying patterns, in a physical environment? Can I change tags, prices and retail displays based on the person in front of them?” 

Another area Woolmark is investigating in the activewear space is interactive retail design.

“If I stand in front of a screen in a store, and everyone is giving off data. What data could then influence the display I’m seeing? Is it my fitbit, phone, my connected jacket? If I know you do X or Y, then I can show you what you should be wearing. And that’s when I can also tell the wool story,” Madden said.

With next-generation consumers applying what they do online to the physical store environment, Madden claimed retail is on the cusp of further transformation.

“These consumers are more interested in the information behind those visual designs and products. But while online you can scan and see data presented, it’s not the same in the physical retail environment,” he said.  

“What we also know is marketing today is about bonding, not branding. This comes back to that retail piece too. Customers aren’t stepping into that brand’s world anymore. It’s more around wanting a piece because it says something about who I am.”

What’s more, the next generation of consumers want to hear the eco story – a key selling point for wool.

“We did a comparison of fibres through the AI software of 10 different fibres and the natural fibres came out 1-5 in terms of decision factors people buy with. That next generation of buyers are already seeking out those natural fibres,” Madden said.

“We need to double down on the education piece of what you do when you’ve got it, but also beforehand, why it’s beneficial, the story behind it, and what benefits it supplies to the activity you’re trying to do.”

Up next: What it takes to change business perceptions around innovation

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