How sewing machine makers are building a US$44bn industry with tribes

By Jim James,
Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

When running a business, it’s always important to think about the overall customer journey as consumers look to solve a need, find solutions, shortlist the solutions, and then zero in on actually making a purchase. But after that, how can companies stay engaged with customers and help them settle in with the purchase for customers can continue on in such a valued part of the purchasing process?

The customer journey to finding the perfect sewing machine

One example of a customer journey is buying a sewing machine, as many people are turning to sewing during lockdown. The first step is to do research online. This begs the question what kind of content brands should have online in order for them to be indexed by search engines. There are the large number of banner ads for different sewing machine companies, plus websites showing sewing machine content that are ad-based. There are a number of specialist titles in this particular niche. There is sewmag.co.uk which has its own app. There is The Spruce, Best Reviews, Sewing Machine Expert, to name a few, and there are many websites claiming to know the "Top 10," "Top five," "Best of 2020" sewing machines along with customers reviews. There are also learning sites like Udemy which have their own courses on everything from macramé to sewing to home stitching, and so on. This could guide you as to what sewing machines are being used by the teachers and which ones they recommend. Some companies have their own websites as well, such as Singer and Janome, and there are about 15 main sewing machine brands, largely from Asia, and these are mainly coming from Japan, South Korea, and China. 

After checking out review sites and shortlisting some options, the next step would be going to YouTube and seeing which ones are the influencer favorites. Going on Youtube introduces one to the "influencer community," who are not on search engines for long-form text found on review websites that are living off content with advertising. There are a number of influencers giving their take on sewing machine brands, and this is also an opportunity to see the machines in action. Some people complain slightly of machines jamming; some complain of the lighting fixtures, and so on, so it gives you an idea of how the machine is going to fit into your hime lifestyle. On Abby’s Den channel, there’s a video made in 2018 called Inserting the Front Loading Bobbin Case, of which 324,000 viewed that short video made in someone’s kitchen. There’s also an Australian-Asian teen who calls herself Black Diamond, and she has 64,000 subscribers. What’s amazing is that in her 26-minute video, Learn How to Sew, she had no microphone, no lighting, it was just a simple setup but she managed to get 2.6 million views. 

From there, one can make a list of two to three brands and move on the next level of detail, which was the online brochures. Different websites and different products will do good or bad, depending on factors such as its comprehensibility based on the language it was in, the effort needed to find the brochure, if it was well-annotated or not, and if the graphics were of high quality or poor quality. The next step would be choosing from the available options, because during COVID, sewing machine sales skyrocketed. It has projected growth of around $3.9 billion and is projected to grow by $17 billion more. By 2025, sewing machines are due to be a $44 billion industry, with 15 major brands dominating the business. It goes to show that COVID has actually been good for some businesses, and there are some that may have come as a surprise. 

Going back to this idea of scale and this purchasing process consumers go through, in this case, for a consumer product, it starts with search, it moves off to reviews, then it goes into videos of influencers, then it comes to shortlisting the merchant, and then it comes to the product specification. What you will find in venues and platforms like YouTube are people like Black Diamond, as she calls herself, who are influencers or people who bought the product or were gifted it, are using it, and are xperiencing massive amplification on their content, much more than the brand themselves could do. Some of the brand videos, in fact, are getting 5,000-10,000 views, and it’ll be down to credibility, because, ironically enough, the amateurish approach and the lack of high-production values or sophisticated scenery means that it’s much more in keeping with the lifestyle and the environment of the people that are going to be buying it and using it. There’s an authenticity in the influencer work that makes it well more powerful than a well-polished advert, and that’s why when engaging influencers who are from the community that you’re selling to is really a key part of the public relations activity. 

Why Japanese brand Janome is leading the market

 Janome is one of the leading brands in making sewing machines. They hail from Japan, and they have sold 2 million sewing machines in the UK and over 60 million worldwide. For those that thought sewing was an idle hobby, Sean Seki, the president of Janome in North America, says they have "a mission to produce machines which inspire creativity and innovation, yet are made to provide you with reliability and durability that you deserve." He goes on to saying, "The better your tools, the more inventive, artistic, and pleasurable your selling experience will be." They have understood the importance of the sewing machine not as a machine but as part of the home lifestyle, which is really important for people managing public relations and selling services and products. It’s not about the product. It’s about how it integrates into the life and the experience. 

Janome sewing machines that are white-labelled by John Lewis Partnership are proving to be a promising option, because the details, specifications, and warranty coverage were all clearly explained. With great reviews, this reassures customers that this product is being used at length by many other people including influencers. Their downloadable brochures also expound on the more technical detail, things like the forward and reverse, the number of stitches (of which this one has 14, by the way), the ability to do pockets, and so on. Also, the John Lewis website and app are simple to use and it takes you to the shopping basket in a very nice way.

This speaks to how companies like Janome are not selling products. They are building what is known as the Seth Godin concept of building tribes, and apparently, there’s a whole tribe of men and women involved in sewing of various kinds of various levels, plus the industrial selling which makes up part of that $40 billion. It’s this idea of, "What tribe are we part of, and can we either lead a tribe or can we be part of an existing tribe?"

Get sponsored

One way of joining into a tribal group is sponsorship or product placement, in the same way that KitchenAid has done on the Great British Bake Off or Amazon. Channel 4 purchased the rights to the Great British Bake Off, which is an institution in many households. It’s on its ninth series and has now got an estimated £5 million worth of sponsorship from Amazon, as Amazon wanted to showcase their Echo speaker and the capabilities of their Alexa voice service. Prior to Amazon, Dr. Oetker and Tate and Lyle had been sponsors, and the two of them paid around £4 million a pair to sponsor this. In exchange, the Great British Bake Off became a top-rated show and they were able to expand their audience to include young bakers in the age 18-25 category. The people of Tate of Lyle said that the early results from their sponsorship by promoting their golden syrup was that they were having sales year-on-year against the same period of twofold in web traffic by people looking for recipes and tips. Basically, the sponsorship of the Great British Bake Off by Tate and Lyle doubled the interest in their products for baking. Such is the power of product placement and sponsorship.

In the SPEAK|pr program which talks about Storification, Personalisation, Engagement, Amplification, and Knowing, Engagement focuses on creating great content. In some cases, as we’ve seen with sewing machines, the tribe makes the content for you, the tribe is motivated by love for the product and a passion for  the tribe, but also, it’s a means to get sponsorship when members of the tribe get rewarded for helping to amplify the content they make. There are also opportunities to sponsor by product placement, by cash , or both. It doesn’t have to be huge, like the Great British Bake Off, but it could be a local event, a school event, a local running team, a sports team, or anything that helps to get the brand into the community and to be seen as part of the tribe.

Public relations is about content and influencers, but also, public relations is about creating information throughout the journey of the consumer as they pass down the path from wanting to find out, becoming knowledgeable, becoming interested, and then taking decisions to make a purchase. As brands build their digital footprint and path out in the ethernet on multiple platforms, think about the story of the people buying the product and help them create a narrative that is consistent and compelling. The internet and public relations work together to hel entrepreneurs guide, lead, and fulfil the information requirements that customers, partners, or staff have along their entire journey.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo by Jose Pedro Ortiz on Unsplash

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