The plus size community has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Never before have we seen such a celebration of plus size fashion. However, what do you do when you have passion and drive but lack the business knowledge to make your business grow?
Meet Antoinette Cheek and Audra Oden, owners of Suite2a. Together they embody the knowledge and experience to work with up-and-coming companies to reach the next level. If you are an up-and-coming company looking for guidance and direction, we are so very proud to introduce you to these two fabulous ladies. I also had an opportunity to talk to them in an exclusive interview to learn more about Suite2a.
Madeline Jones: Antoinette, can you tell us a little about yourself and how the idea for Suite2a came about?
Antoinette Cheek: Sure! Suite2a was an idea that was born out of two elements: observation and passion. Audra and I both love boutique shopping, whether online or at brick and mortar-based retailers.
As consumers, we noticed that many of our favorite boutiques in the fashion, fitness and lifestyle industries had amazing products. However, many times they were undervalued or just unknown because the strength of their overall brand was missing core elements, such as: a clear brand story, commercial grade photography and/or a strong social following. With one or more of these key components gone, we saw a cycle where some of our favorite boutiques came and went… quickly. As two creative professionals that had spent time in the commercial world, we understood how we could help stop this cycle. Thus, Suite2a was born.
My role at Suite2a is the Chief Brand Strategist. This means I sit with our clients and go deep with them on their business. I learn about who they are, their target audience, their business goals and then I start to build. Building means a variety of things: strengthening a retailer’s brand story, helping them to better position themselves socially and/or refocusing their current e-commerce strategy to be more compelling and get a further return on their investment.
Prior to owning Suite2a, I held leadership roles in Corporate Communications at both GE and PepsiCo.
Madeline Jones: I’ve seen your work, amazing! Audra, can you tell us a little about yourself and what your role is at Suite2a?
Audra Oden: That is so sweet, thank you! I am the Lead Photographer and Creative Director at Suite2a. In my eyes, imagery is one of the key components that helps breathe life into a retailer. Yet in many cases it’s neglected, which can lead to lack of consumer confidence in a brand. At Suite2a, photography is one of the main ingredients in our strategy and it is what sets us apart from our peers in the boutique agency space. As the Creative Director, I oversee the creative process for our clients. Whether it’s the development of a look book, e-commerce shots, layout of an e-commerce website, or developing a digital arrangement for an ad—I organize the ultimate direction for how the brand story of a client will look and feel.
Much of my career has been spent in the e-commerce world including a role as an E-Commerce Photographer for Fossil, Inc. I have a BFA in Advertising Design and am a certified professional photographer. I have been privileged to have many of my works published in numerous magazines, catalogs and websites, including PMM. While I lead photography at Suite2a, I am also a contributing photographer at the Houstonia Magazine.
Antoinette: Suite2a is an agency that helps retailers engage with the shopper at each stop in their purchasing journey—ultimately we want to make the consumer’s experience memorable at a retailer…whether it’s online and/or offline. We do this through providing 3 major services: Photography, Brand Strategy and E-Commerce.
Madeline Jones: People speak about “branding” all the time. Could you explain the meaning of branding and how important it is for companies just getting started?
Audra: We have found that “branding” means different things to different clients. However, when we talk about branding at Suite2a, we define it as the promise you have with your customer. From your logo to a look book, branding is about showcasing to the client who you are and how you are going to drive a solution for their problem. It’s particularly important to remember that your brand consists of more than one element. It is not just about having a hang tag on your clothes or a cool website, the best branding is where multiple components are used to amplify the story of a retailer.
As a retailer just starting out, your brand is one of the most crucial investments you can make.
According to ReferralCandy — a Singapore-based company that automates referral programs for online retailers, there are approximately 102,728 e-commerce retailers in the United States that are generating at least $12,000 per year in revenue. That’s a significant competitive landscape. It is important for you to develop your brand early to differentiate yourself from other retailers. At Suite2a that is what we love, helping a new retailer build it’s brand from the ground up.
Madeline Jones: Can you give us an example of what potential clients could expect from working with Suite2a?
Antoinette: A potential client could receive many services from us, the most popular services include:
The Brand Diagnostic
The purpose of a Brand Diagnostic is to ascertain how your business is performing in the eyes of your customers.We do this through looking at 3 areas: Website (SEO performance, photography, shopping experience and content), Social Media ( trends, users and post performance), Brand Identity (Logo, Voice, Tone, Messaging). Post our analysis, we present and provide recommendations to our client, to begin a fruitful discussion on suggested next steps.
The Look Book is one of the best ways for any retailer and/or designer to convey their vision for their brand. We take a unique approach to designing a look book. We begin with the development of a story line, and then from there, we design a mood board to bring the story alive. Once you approve of the story and mood boards, we will source the models, stylists, make-up artists, location and conduct the shoot. The images will then be formed into the format you desire, including a pdf for print, mircosite, and/or sliders on your existing website.
For many retailers, a bulk of their earnings come from online sales. We help clients to build e-commerce sites that not only best tell the story of who they are, but create an amazing customer experience. Many times, we will rebuild on a customer’s current platform focusing on imagery and copy. We also do many lifestyle shoots where the images are used for visual installations and develop ads for retailer advertising.
Madeline Jones: Can you share some of your industry secrets to becoming a successful brand in the plus size industry?
Antoinette: Great question! When we look at how we have supported brands in the plus size industry and where we have seen success, it’s really in 3 areas:
1) Understanding and Appealing to the Market: It is important for plus size retailers to understand the facts.
The plus size retail industry made over $16 billion in 2014.
Plus size women represent over 67% of the apparel-purchasing population.
2/3 of women polled, believe that retailers unfairly represented plus size women in their branding.
With that being said, imagine how much the plus size industry could make with real size representation in their branding.
Understanding these facts, when we work with a retailer in the plus size industry, one of the first things we do is an audit of their brand and answer a few questions:
Are their images realistic and representative of the sizes they carry?
Do they have diversity?
Are the images inspirational?
If the answer is no, we make a recommendation for the client to invest in changing their imagery.
Remember: A picture is worth a thousand words; missing the chance to show the beauty in every BODY in your boutique’s branding, can cost you thousands.
2) Don’t compromise your store’s integrity:
We find that many plus size retailer owners and designers tend to over promise and under deliver. This is due to the fact that they have not taken the time to truly understand the diversity within the plus size community. Thus, many retailers think they know who the plus size woman is and end up, unintentionally, making false claims in regards to sizing and styles.
We encourage our clients to get assistance in analyzing their customer and then focus their branding on their customers’ needs. While the plus size market is a niche, it’s important to understand that there are many elements that should not be ignored with this target audience.
3) Avoiding starting a store on Instagram:
It is becoming popular for boutiques to get started through selling using social media. We understand the initial thinking of the retailer owner. We get it. Instagram and Facebook are free spaces and provide a cost savings as you are lowering your “overhead”.
However, especially for retailers catering to plus size women, the lack of investment in an e-commerce site leaves a big chance that you will not gain a returning customer. There is still a fear and lack of trust in the plus size community to purchase online. Historically, when plus size women have purchased online, they are disappointed with their purchase—due to sizing, style etc.
A dedicated e-commerce site gives you the ability to post strong imagery, even videos, so a customer can see the movement of the clothes. This customized shopping experience brings comfort to a buyer and makes them want to buy more… and buy again.
Social Media – Twitter, Facebook and IG handle: @suite2a
We also attend many industry events and we will host free private consultations with potential clients. For example, Antoinette will be attending Full Figured Fashion Week on behalf of Suite2a. If anyone is interested in having a discussion about their boutique’s branding, please contact us and we will be sure to connect with you in New York.