In fashion today, products have longer digital lifespans than ever. For most of that duration their value to cross-functional teams resides in the components they are made from, and the relationships between those pieces, prior to them becoming finished content. But for most brands and retailers the potential of digital asset management has instead been relegated to helping a narrow audience make effective use of that finished content in the digital last mile.

Join The Interline and the team behind Nuxeo – the low-code, open-source content services platform – for a deep-dive into why a changing retail environment, the demand for a virtualised value chain, and a fundamental re-evaluation of the link between asset and data are challenging the limited definition of DAM.

The unmet demands in digital asset management

The typical product lifecycle is changing. All the way downstream, consumer preferences are constantly evolving. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the supply chain is being reshaped by high bars for speed, cost, and sustainability. And in the middle, brands are looking up and down an extended value chain that needs to become faster, more flexible, more transparent, more cost-effective, more reactive, and leaner so they can remain competitive.

As a direct result of these external forces and the concurrent drive towards digital transformation, the way the fashion and retail industry thinks about its products, and the route they take from idea to finished asset, is also shifting.

Today, any given product, whether it’s a sneaker or a suit jacket, spends the vast majority of its lifecycle as a collection of dynamic, evolving objects – materials, trims, components, compliance information, sales and marketing data and much more – which are all loosely coupled and travel together towards a final destination: a finished asset that then makes its way into retail networks and marketing channels.

For those final assets, the user community for software is well-defined. Sales and marketing teams pull static assets whose form and function are fixed from a central content hub, and then deploy them across different channels – whether those assets are product photography, influencer videos, event collateral or any number of other finished, approved, customer-facing content types and formats.

This remit is what most people think of as the scope of digital asset management (DAM), where the entrenched solutions serve an range of established and well-circumscribed functions: searching, attribute tagging, format conversion, resizing, cropping, and other tasks that cater to the cobweb of different downstream channels for finalised assets. And while a lot of professionals who work with major DAM solutions wish for better automation and intelligence to deliver on their vision for targeting, localisation, and personalisation, those core capabilities are well-worn.

But who is the audience for the much longer, multifaceted parts of the product lifecycle that occur before an asset is finalised? And what software is designed for them?

That audience is made up of the new content authors: a diverse group of different stakeholders, across a broad spectrum of pre-market and supply chain processes, who make critical creative and commercial choices that heavily shape the final product outcome at a time when the product itself is far from being finalised, and is defined by the objects it contains and the links that exist between those objects.

And those authors are making their decisions well before any final assets reach a content hub. Up to 36 months in advance, in the extreme case of engineered footwear, but typically months ahead of time for even reactive, trend-adjacent segments like fast fashion.

Both of these audiences have a heavy influence on the market performance of a finished product: one by deploying expertise and final assets to showcase it to the right buyers at the tip of the iceberg; the other by working below the waterline to make that product the best it can possibly be, across a network of work-in-progress processes that exist prior to that product getting approved.

These audiences, as you would expect, have very different demands for technology – not just at the philosophical level, but at the practical one. Where the sales and marketing audience is largely well-served by file and finished asset management, the content author community needs to manipulate objects and their metadata in order to ideate, iterate, innovate, and accelerate the lion’s share of the long value chain.

But both audiences are also being told that traditional, last-mile-focused DAM solutions are the answer to their different needs. And for brand and retail organisations, this forcing of wildly different functions into a narrow scope is likely to be selling the possibility space of digital asset management short.

It might be the ephemeral, ever-changing nature of consumer demand, where cultural events and temporary market conditions are compressing product timelines. It could be the drive towards environmental and social targets, or the economic push for lean manufacturing. We can point at almost any KPI against which the success of a final product is and trace its origins back to where choices were made, data was generated, and relationships between objects were established by in-house teams and value chain partners.

For every finished asset that makes its way downstream, and every attribute of that asset that matters, the roots lie much deeper. Which is why, whether your organisation already makes use of DAM for its established functions, or whether you’re evaluating different DAM solutions as part of a push towards establishing a digital twin of your products (or even your supply chain) there is a clear mandate to rethink what digital asset management can do, and who it can serve.

And that means taking a step back to consider what constitutes an asset in the first place.

Object vs. asset

Whether you make purses or performance gear, your products are much more than documents and files to you, and to your consumers. They’re the embodiment of your brand, the current you use to captivate the market, and the nexus of communication and collaboration between your departments and your partners.

In that multi-pronged role, as we’ve seen, your products spend a comparatively short amount of time as fixed assets, and much, much longer as living entities made up of parts, the metadata that pertains to those parts, and the interrelated nature of them all.

This is why approaching digital asset management as a way to simply optimise the use of inflexible, finalised assets might just be short-sighted. And this is also why fashion professionals, from executives to process champions, are looking for new solutions (like the cloud-native Nuxeo framework) that are set up at the architectural level to reach a much broader horizon, where instead of describing and distributing something with a fixed form, DAM could unlock the ability to see and manipulate one-to-many relationships between the parts of that form – a shift from an asset model to an object model.

But what is the definition of an asset versus an object?

For a fashion brand’s purposes, the difference is easiest to visualise at the product level. Picture one of your products – it might be a garment, an accessory, or a shoe – and consider what makes it valuable. You can define that value however you like, aesthetically, commercially, or culturally.

Does that value lie in the complete, finished article? Or does it stem from the moodboards, the design intent, the components, materials, trims, artwork, craft, sewing operations, colours, fabric provenance, labour, and other components that collectively make it up? It might feel like a philosophical exercise, but this is precisely the question that anyone who interacts with a product is implicitly asking themselves – whether they’re selecting materials or trying a garment on in-store. Because in a market where every element of a finished product is subject to historic scrutiny, it’s those elements – and the relationships between them – that add up to the total, aggregate value of the final t-shirt, tote, or trail shoe.

Each of those constituent pieces is what’s considered an object, and the finished garment, accessory, or shoe is considered a fixed asset. And it’s the digital representations of those objects, combined with the metadata they create, and the rich connections between them, that make up not just the finished asset but every stage of its journey to market.

And for the purposes of digital asset management and data architecture, if the finished asset is a fixed, visual representation of the product in a content hub, then the objects are a living library of different components, sub-components, and processes – where a huge amount nuance and value exists within each independent object, and in the links between them.

Overcoming data fragmentation

This is much more than a theoretical distinction; it has real, practical implications for the way those different audiences we’ve described interact with the product – as both a living entity and as a fixed asset – and for how the design-to-production cycle is, and isn’t, accommodated by existing enterprise software.

In footwear and apparel, each object also has its own lifecycle that exists independently of the products it becomes part of. A material or trim, for example, can be used in multiple different products, potentially across different categories and different seasons. And that material or trim has its own lifecycle and its own sourcing journey.

The same is true for any other object that contributes to a finished product, whether it’s a prototype, a fabric swatch, a piece of artwork, or a set of grading rules. To properly serve the goal of delivering the best possible final product, each of these objects must have its own independent life, and must be discoverable and editable in its own right. And each object must also have the connections between itself and other objects (as well as potentially many finished products) preserved.

These contextual hooks between objects and assets are what will enable organisations to tap into critical data about where those objects are used, for what purpose, how frequently, and when they were last changed or approved.

For brand and retail businesses, these connections could be the unlocks for a lot of common pain points that plague design and development processes today. Where was a material last used in another collection? What other material might be able to replace it, if a swap-out is needed to comply with regulations? How well have products that incorporate this material performed at retail in the past? How have they fared in extended consumer testing? Has this material had an impact on returns?

This level of meta-contextual data is, in fact, one of the primary things that fashion enterprises have struggled to build with their current technology ecosystems. Today, that object-level data is often split across different, disconnected systems – many of which the content authors and decision-makers do not typically have direct access to.

A PLM solution, for instance, might logically be where teams would turn to interrogate their material library to identify when and where a material was previously used, but this would require that PLM platform to house a complete material library – and it would require every content author to have access to that PLM solution.

And to complicate this even further, while the material data might reside in PLM, critical sub-objects of that material – textures, maps, impact assessment indicators and other elements – are likely to live in separate solutions, to have been offloaded to cloud storage, or to have wound up being managed through home-grown workarounds and off-the-shelf tools like SmartSheets.

Similarly, even in the rare cases where every object does reside in a single, central location that every relevant stakeholder has access to, that platform is very unlikely to also be the place where workflow, process orchestration, automation, data governance and other functions are managed. And for those processes, the burden of integrating with orchestration systems like Workfront, Jira, and 3D asset platforms can be heavy, creating an unmet need for easy integration through low-code configuration.

This data fragmentation has long been a problem for design and development teams, and is often cited as being the “missing piece” where the current enterprise technology stack is concerned. But due to the combination of external factors and internal transformations we’ve already spotlighted, it is also becoming a problem for the wider audience of content authors and users who now need to ask those “where used” questions – and who are quickly finding that there is no defined source of verified data that holds the answer.

The solution, so far, has been for organisations to integrate those solutions – either through documented APIs, or by commissioning bespoke integrations, and building up technical debt in the process. And this demonstrates an important conclusion that many organisations have reached: that the pursuit of a single solution to house every piece of asset and object-level data has been a hunt for the wrong thing.

Instead, the objective should be to continue on with product and project management tools as their own sources of truth, but to find a way to aggregate and conserve the relationships between data and assets, and to federate and connect the disparate datapoints that different audiences will need. And, crucially, this objective requires a considered approach to which datapoints, of the vast quantity housed in PLM and other platforms, needs to be made available and actionable for each audience to work with content in the way that delivers the most value to them.

This is something that major brands and retailers have already found in the Nuxeo framework: a common object architecture that connects subsets of data, and preserves the relationships between them, for cross-functional teams across product design and development, all the way downstream. And from an integrations perspective, Nuxeo customers have found it simpler and faster, thanks to the platform’s low-code approach, to bring just the subset of information they need into a data clearing house, making essential data from across PLM, PIM, MDM, and other core systems accessible and actionable – without incurring unnecessary technology debt.

How objects unlock opportunities

Based on their first-hand experience of working with those organisations to rethink digital asset management, the Nuxeo team has identified four key strategic areas where the object-first approach has delivered value. These are by no means an exhaustive list, but their status as perhaps the top four strategic priorities for most brand and retail businesses indicates the extent to which asset and object management are correlated with top fashion industry outcomes.

Speed to market

Against a backdrop of shrinking trend windows and the rapid rise and fall of cultural moments, the first to market is often the winner – meaning that optimising the route to market, and eliminating the disconnect between asset, object, and data is essential to success.

By preserving the relationship between objects, and allowing different audiences to interact with them directly, Nuxeo has seen its users realise significant cycle time savings in both traditional and novel DAM use cases.

In downstream applications, Nuxeo observed customers achieving greater success in sales and marketing by anchoring that storytelling to the different components and processes of design and development. Nuxeo’s visual nature also allowed users to interact with high quality assets and objects, something that has decision-making power for in-house teams, but that also empowered consumers to make informed buying decisions after being shown specific final assets that fully represented the colourways or trim levels they were interested in.

And for cross-functional creative and commercial teams, Nuxeo has also observed its customers being able to eliminate months from their product lifecycles due to improvements to collaborate, visibility, and eliminating the need to interrogate different, disconnected systems and data sources – something that traditional, last-mile DAM has not proven itself capable of doing.

Sustainability and compliance

In a tightening regulatory landscape, and with the ongoing threat of supply chain disruption, the mandate for preserving the web of associations between final products and their constituent parts is stronger than it has ever been. To help its customers deliver against the drive for sustainability and regulatory disclosure, Nuxeo can enable a complete chain of accountability and provenance – allowing brands to substantiate their product and collective-level commitments with granular, auditable data.

Supply chain transformation

As traditional DAM solutions have remained focused on finished products and downstream use cases, those platforms have left the supply chain audience relatively untouched. But as regular readers of The Interline will know, for most brands the supply chain represents both a source of untapped opportunity and a surface of significant risk exposure and lost profitability – making the extension of a genuine object-oriented platform into the supply chain a potentially dramatic enabler of visibility where often none exists.

The Nuxeo team found that, on average, supply chain data is fragmented across 13 different enterprise systems, which are used to both house information and enable interactions with value chain partners. By contrast, using an object-first approach to digital asset management allows brands to understand who in their chain authors objects, and what journeys those objects take to market – not just as a foundation for transparency, but as a way to achieve efficiency and process optimisation, and to make object-level content actionable so it can be used to accelerate progress.

Digital product creation

As vital as 3D and digital product creation (DPC) ecosystem tools have become to the future of fashion, the explosion of interest and adoption that The Interline has charted over the last two years has strained the ability for workflows and systems to scale. For most organisations, the demand for 3D assets, immersive experiences, digital showrooms, virtual try-on and even digital fashion shows has been constrained by the lack of a ready-made pipeline for taking high-quality files from initial modelling all the way downstream.

This stands in stark contrast to the idea – put forward by The Interline – that 3D content should be the decision-making engine for a wide spectrum of different creative and commercial stages, as well as serving as essentially the holy grail of reusable, adaptable, content. From eCommerce personalisation engines to in-house creative and technical design, the different components – geometry, materials, components, lighting – that make up a 3D asset and environment.

And as the industry’s ambitions for 3D continue to scale – with major brands like Hugo Boss betting on digital design and development as a cornerstone of their futures – the problem of isolated data, disconnected assets, and a lack of contextual integration into the digital value chain are only becoming more pronounced.

Building out these capabilities has been a key objective for many fashion businesses, and this is an area that Nuxeo sees a huge amount of potential for the object-first approach to DAM. Today, 3D design and simulation environments have delivered a huge amount of power to DPC teams, but across the broad spectrum of product renders, eCommerce turntables, virtual photography, and real-time experiences, these solutions have then become data silos in their own rights – isolating 3D content and processes from the wider value chain.

This is an area that PLM has played a role, but while those platforms are adept at housing 3D renders and potentially digital materials, they are not considered the repository for the native design files – which continue to reside in their own disconnected repositories, and which would likely encounter limitations in lifecycle control, permissions, versioning and other capabilities.

With no sign that the fashion industry is looking to scale back its 3D and DPC strategies, this provides perhaps the strongest argument for adopting an object-oriented approach – keeping the digital product properly anchored in its constituent parts, and making it infinitely reusable across a range of different scenarios, bringing it closer to being a fully-fledged, living digital twin than ever.

New framework, new possibilities

Because every business is unique, every object-to-asset relationship is also unique, meaning that the final strength of an object-first approach lies in the ability for customers to configure a platform that serves the needs of different teams, business units, and job functions.

This is something that Nuxeo sees as a key differentiator between a genuine enterprise platform – one that’s architected specifically to deal with relational metadata, and that has deep hooks into core business logic – and an off-the-shelf, preconfigured solution.

But alongside this low-code configurability, Nuxeo also provides default configuration templates for typical, foundational DAM capabilities that cover the complete spectrum of final asset use, and that optimise performance across the full marketing technology stack, at enterprise scale.

The platform then makes it straightforward for different organisations and different audiences to extend and elevate those core capabilities (automated tagging, version control, annotation, workflow management, sharing and publishing) with the ability to reference the data held in other adjacent systems of record, across brand categories and business units.

This extension can then become the key to enabling the shift towards object-orientation, building on top of the asset-level capabilities that mark the limits of traditional DAM tools. Here is where Nuxeo stands apart from those traditional solutions, by not simply relating different sources of disparate data, but by allowing a wide spectrum of audiences and content authors to manage both finished assets and the objects and data sources they contain.

And by empowering those audiences to interact with assets that are inextricably linked with objects and data, and enhanced by the relationships between those elements, content is made actionable in an entirely different way – allowing both functional teams and leadership groups to make faster, better decisions and adapt in real-time to a changing market landscape.

This is the essence of a fully virtualised value chain: a complete, contextual model of asset management that is fully anchored in the objects, the logic, and the connections between them. And this is what Nuxeo set out to build: a rethought approach to digital asset management that’s driven not by fixed visual representations, but by the full scope of the dynamic, digital lives of product and people.

About our partner:

Hyland’s Nuxeo Platform is a cloud-native, highly scalable content services and digital asset management solution which utilizes automation technologies to improve efficiencies, increase accuracy, and provide robust capabilities across the digital supply chain setting it apart from other traditional DAM solutions. By placing rich media assets at the center of the digital supply chain, the Hyland Nuxeo Platform enables organizations to connect content, data, and assets across their business and deliver exceptional customer experiences.