Most Innovative Companies

How Frank & Oak brings a personal touch to digital retail

“A store is no longer the most efficient form of distribution—but it’s a very effective form of branding”

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Frank & Oak retail location

Having started online, Frank & Oak is now opening physical retail stores. (LM Chabot)

Every package from Frank & Oak contains a handwritten card. It’s a simple way of reminding you there’s a real person on the other end of your online purchase. “Creating a human touch is very important,” says co-founder and CEO Ethan Song. The cards are just one part of how fashion retailer Frank & Oak built its signature aesthetic. In a crowded retail market, it’s established a strong brand and a community of repeat customers.

Since Song and partner Hicham Ratnani (both 30) launched it in 2012 to sell clothes for young men, Frank & Oak has amassed 1.6 million members in North America (customers have to become members of the site to purchase anything) and glowing coverage from tastemakers like GQ and Esquire. The brand—classy duds for professionals and creative types—has a lot to do with the company’s success. “A lot of young people are looking for purpose and meaning, and to give them that sense of belonging is a big part of what a brand needs to do,” Song says. Frank & Oak talks up its story through its blog and biannual print magazine, Oak Street. The approach works because Frank & Oak represents accessible aspiration—sophistication at a price that doesn’t require an annual bonus.

The company is now expanding from online into a more traditional realm: bricks-and-mortar stores. It has locations in six Canadian cities, including Montreal and Toronto. The rollout, which began in 2013, isn’t about selling more Oxford shirts. Instead, the stores act as community gathering places; customers are as likely to be drawn in by the barbershop in the Toronto location or the photography exhibits in the Halifax store as they are by a desire to buy clothes. “Frank & Oak has recognized that the store is no longer the most efficient form of distribution, but it is a very effective form of branding,” says retail analyst Doug Stephens.

These efforts might look like distractions, but that view misses the point. These days, there’s a need to link customers to a brand beyond a single transaction. “Creating a community really creates a deeper engagement that’s not just rational, but emotional, which builds loyalty,” Song says.

When the company started, the founders had a personal link to customers—they wrote each card dispatched with every order. But that became unsustainable as Frank & Oak took off; cards are written by a much larger number of employees these days. “We realized there needed to be a relationship not between the customer and me, but between the customer and the brand,” says Song. If its ballooning member base is any indication, Frank & Oak has created just that.