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CDO interview: Matthew Lawson, chief digital officer, Ribble Cycles

The 125-year-old bicycle manufacturer is transforming its business with digital innovations such as live streaming and online personalisation

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This year marks the 125th anniversary of Ribble Cycles. One of the oldest brands in cycling, the company has transformed from a crafter of bespoke steel frames in the Victorian age to a direct-to-consumer (DTC) premium bike brand today.

Now, the firm is embarking on its next major change programme – and this initiative is all about a digital transformation. It’s led by Matthew Lawson, chief digital officer at Ribble, who joined the company in 2016. Having previously worked at Loveholidays.com and AO.com, he’s using his e-commerce experience to take Ribble on the next stage of its journey.

“My professional career has been pretty much pure-play retail. A lot of the businesses I was in previously involved selling something you don’t necessarily get to see very often. As Ribble is a DTC brand and manufacturer, it added a completely new dimension to the challenge,” he says, before outlining the broad nature of his role.

“I oversee all the marketing and all the technology within the business. Therefore, I’ve got an opportunity to build a brand, as well as build an experience or a journey that is just as outstanding as the products we sell.”

Leading business change

For Lawson, the opportunity to lead digital transformation at Ribble has two big benefits. Crucially, he’s a passionate cyclist. Second, he’s relishing the opportunity to help the company’s IT and marketing professionals move the business into fresh data-enabled areas.

“I love the role. I get excited about my teams being able to deliver new things and to deliver change and transformation. And no matter how far along you are on the journey, there’s always a new transformation to come,” he says.  

“When I joined Ribble, it was a family-run business. The top-level view on analytics data was looking at the monthly accounts. That’s as granular as they went and as granular as they could be. Since I’ve been here, we’ve been able to transform to a digital-first business that’s organised fundamentally around data and the customer.”

“Culturally and ideologically, the thing I drive is autonomy within the team. I encourage people to make mistakes, because if you’re making mistakes, at least you’re trying and championing ideas”

Matthew Lawson, Ribble Cycles

The tech-led transformation that Lawson has overseen thus far has been radical. When he joined Ribble in 2016, he inherited a very basic digital platform that consisted of little more than a website and a range of supporting infrastructural elements. While the company had a successful business model, it was recognised that Ribble could do a lot more for its customers.

“We could see there was a massive opportunity with the brand and the products,” says Lawson. “My job was to step forward and take advantage of that opportunity. I had to build a team that was capable of delivering that transformation. I think that’s the biggest prize. The thing I’m most proud of is the team that’s delivered our new digital platform.”

Exploiting the cloud

Lawson’s dual role that spans both technology and marketing is representative of the changing nature of digital leadership. Rather than simply worrying about operational IT concerns, modern digital leaders must find ways to embrace data and content to create the kinds of personalised offers that keep customers happy and engaged.

At Ribble, Lawson is responsible for all areas of marketing, whether that’s around TV advertising and content production, or communications and sponsorships, which includes interacting with the company’s racing teams and external influencers. He ensures these disparate areas are closely monitored through appropriate technology tools, such as systems that analyse marketing performance and on-site metrics.

“That process is all about understanding the customer journey from the aspect of delivering a fast, optimal experience and one that aligns to their requirements through customisation and personalisation,” he says.

Lawson allies this strong grip on marketing to the company’s underlying cloud-based infrastructure. He is overseeing a shift from Amazon Web Services (AWS) to Google Cloud, which he describes as faster, cheaper and more performant. “You get a bit more flexibility from that perspective, and it’s aligned to the applications we’re delivering,” he says.

Like other digital leaders, Lawson’s reliance on the cloud has extended during the coronavirus pandemic. He supported the migration of office workers to home working through the adoption of key cloud applications, such as Microsoft 365 and Teams. It was also important that staff could use cloud-based services to hook into the enterprise network remotely and securely.

“There’s a lot to manage,” says Lawson, reflecting on his broad role and responsibilities. “But the important thing to understand is that I’m not responsible for all these areas in minute detail. My success is connected to how I manage the team to be able to deliver great results across those diverse areas.”

Empowering talented professionals

Lawson says the key to his successful team leadership approach is giving people the power to make their own decisions. He recognises the potential of his staff to come up with game-changing ideas and he ensures they have the opportunity to work with freedom.

“We’ve been able to transform what was just a website into a full digital experience that spans into the physical showrooms”
Matthew Lawson, Ribble Cycles

“Culturally and ideologically, the thing I drive is autonomy within the team. I encourage people to make mistakes, because if you’re making mistakes, at least you’re trying and championing ideas,” he says.

“The ideas they come up with tend to get implemented most effectively by them. So, let’s get more of their ideas onto the table. My job is to remove the barriers and give them the guidance – managing by the why and not the what and the how.”

Lawson says the result of this joined-up approach to marketing and technology is that Ribble has moved from a static web presence to a true omni-channel strategy. “We’ve been able to transform what was just a website into a full digital experience that spans into the physical showrooms,” he says.

“People walk into our showroom experience or interact with our web experience and they talk about it and remember it – and that’s something I am proud of. But, fundamentally, the underlying element to that success is the team that’s been able to deliver it.”

Boosting customer engagement

One of the key projects that has helped to enable the company’s shift to an omni-channel approach is the implementation of a one-to-many video streaming platform.

Ribble is using Emplifi ShopStream by Go Instore to give customers online access to a physical store, a dedicated Ribble expert and its range of products via a phone, tablet or laptop. Lawson says the company turned to ShopStream during Covid-19, when lockdown altered plans for one of its biggest in-person sales events of the year.

“We had all the bikes, we were ready and we wanted to go, but we knew we couldn’t,” he says. “Yet we also knew we wanted to be able to deliver an experience to our customers, so we decided to use ShopStream to broadcast it. And we didn’t only broadcast it to people on our website, we also pushed it people through YouTube and Facebook.”

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Lawson says the event was a great proof of concept. Ribble reached 10 times more people than it would have been able to at an in-person event. What’s more, the company created a long-term digital asset that could be used in other marketing campaigns. This success means Lawson and his colleagues are now creating the business case for using live video streaming capabilities to boost customer engagement.

“What we’re trying to look for is, ‘what’s the future?’ It’s not about just a one-off flash-in-the-pan, because lots of people could do that. We’re looking at the broad strategy around ShopStream and changes in consumer behaviour,” he says, before outlining how the technology will be part of his long-term digital marketing plans.

“We are in the process of setting up – and we’re not far away from this – a regular schedule, like a TV schedule, for Ribble and our customers, where we go through our bikes every day at seven o’clock. We’re reaching out to our audience, not only on our website, but through TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook all at once. And it’s allowing me to tick loads of boxes, from content strategies to social engagement.”

Improving personalisation and customisation

Lawson continues to search for new ways to improve Ribble’s digital strategy. The company uses Magento’s e-commerce platform and aims to create improved personalisation options for customers, particularly when it comes to BikeBuilder, which is Ribble’s online tool for helping users to customise cycles before purchase.

“We’re trying to make it simpler,” he says. “There’s a lot of intelligence that goes on under the hood. We want to enhance BikeBuilder and make our business more agile. So instead of the team having to manage 200 to 300 bike set-ups, it’s tens of set-ups and then the website does the work. We’re looking to add a lot more logic and reasoning in the background.”

Lawson says the aim is to deliver a “super-fast, optimal experience to the customer”. Some of the things he’s looking to introduce include 3D visualisations and further enhancements around the level of personalisation, so that the digital experiences that Ribble provides are more fully aligned to the demands of its customers.

“When we designed BikeBuilder, we were looking for inspiration beyond our industry because nobody does what we do. We got a lot of inspiration from computer games. Now, BikeBuilder is a bit like the car racing game Gran Turismo, where you can change some elements in the garage and leave other elements alone,” he says.

“It’s all about trying to find things to layer into the journey to make it smoother, faster, seamless and to reduce the cognitive load for the consumer who’s shopping on the website. We are going through a full platform change. And what that new platform will give us is the ability to do more once it’s there.”

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