Shinola Detroit. Yes, the company chose its name from the old phrase, “You don’t know s***t from Shinola,” which came up more than once in discussions about starting a watch-making company in Detroit.
Conceived in 2011, the company says of itself: “As makers of modern men's watches and women's watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals, we stand for skill at scale, the preservation of craft, and the beauty of industry.”
CMO.com editor-in-chief Tim Moran recently caught up with Shinola CMO Bridget Russo to talk about the challenges involved in marketing a startup fashion retail brand.
CMO.com: Shinola is a relatively new company in the retail space. Can you give me an idea of how you came to work there, as well as a touch about your background?
Russo: Sure. I actually started in PR. I graduated with a journalism degree and, like many journalism graduates, ended up in PR. I started on the agency side, working primarily on fashion and lifestyle accounts, and then went in-house at Diesel, where I was PR director for the U.S. I was there for a few years, and that’s where I really started to develop the skill set of brand building.
From there, I went to Edun. Edun is a brand that was started by Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, to help build trade in Africa. I launched that brand in 2005, together with the team. After spending seven amazing years with a really forward-thinking team of people, I decided to go off on my own. I started a small consultancy called Passion Projects Consulting, and I continued to work on projects with Edun. In fact, I put a collaboration together with Diesel and Edun that they ended up working on after I left.
That’s when I met the Shinola folks, before the brand had even launched. They had this idea–they didn’t even have product at that point–and I just absolutely fell in love with the concept. I got a call a few months later, and they said, “Hey, would you like to come on board?” Fast-forward, and here I am in Detroit, since January 2013.
CMO.com: OK, so tell me what was it about the brand and the concept that, as a marketer, you found so fascinating?
Russo: The whole idea that a brand could exist and have a social impact was an idea that I really started to understand and become a part of when I was working at Edun. To have the ability to work for a brand that as a by-product of what they do–setting up shop in Detroit–they were creating jobs–that was something I was really interested in.
The other piece that I really liked, and that I learned along the way in this space of “conscious consumerism,” is that you really need the product to stand on its own. You could have this great story and an amazing mission, but if there isn’t a fantastic, amazing product at the end of that story, it was sort of dead in the water–and Shinola had it all.
So, for me, it was a no-brainer to come to Detroit. Of course, I’m a native New Yorker, so people thought I was a bit nuts when I said I was moving to Detroit. Now they all say, “Oh, perhaps you were on to something?”
CMO.com: What exactly is it that they think you are on to?
Russo: A place like Detroit has so much history–certainly in manufacturing–but just so much has happened here. For instance, in music, the contribution that it has made to American culture is massive. Couple that with Shinola being a brand that’s starting something new in a city that’s known for automotive manufacturing, and all of a sudden here we are building watches. That’s super exciting.
The majority of people who work here are from Detroit. Some worked in automotive, some not. So the idea that you can take people with one skill set and transfer that, teach a new skill set, and make products that are built here in the States, right here in Detroit, that’s pretty darn cool.
And, honestly, I think we also were lucky in terms of timing. I don’t think we knew back in 2011, when the brand was conceived, what would happen to Detroit today. I don’t think anyone–at least on our team–could have predicted that. We just came here, fell in love with the people and fell in love with the place, and thought, “Wow, we want to be here.” You can feel it when you walk the streets of Detroit. It’s a very special place, and we are honored to be a part of all that’s happening here.
CMO.com: Now, from the marketing side, my notion of Shinola is that it’s something of an analog company moving in a new digital world. How are you dealing with marketing in that sense? I saw the ads, which are very campaign-like and terrific and clever, but you could almost say that’s sort of the old marketing model, you know, a print ad campaign.
Russo: Indeed, and the oldest vehicle being The New York Times.
Russo: I suppose you could say we went super old-school. It wasn’t like we sat there and really thought deep and hard to say, “We’re going to be anti-digital” or, “We’re going to be uber-analog.” We just did what we felt was right and authentic.
Our classic aesthetic, coupled with a somewhat irreverent, yet approachable, voice just made sense for the brand. It was refreshing to see that kind of ad in the Times. It’s not to say that we haven’t run in other channels, but primarily print has been our vehicle, and it has worked. We are experimenting with native on the digital side of things, but I can’t say we put a huge level of our media dollars there. We do, however, put a great deal of effort into our Web site, social media, content creation, and e-mail marketing. And we have been fortunate to receive a good deal of earned media, which has been tremendous for us. I think it’s really about the mix of all those things that has helped drive our business.
I remember when we first launched our campaign in 2013, people that I know would say, “Oh, I feel like you guys are everywhere.” Well, we certainly didn’t have the budget to be everywhere, but we were everywhere that they were, so we made the most out of our media dollars. We were laser-focused on where our target lives and works and how they consume media, whether it be where we were buying our outdoor ads or what we were doing in print and PR, so it felt as if we were “everywhere.”
Experiential marketing is also a big part of the brand. We do a ton of community-driven events and activations in our stores. At any given moment we’ll have four to five activations a month in each of our stores. Some of them will be consistent across all of our stores, and others will be more locally driven.
CMO.com: What is an activation?
Russo: An activation could be something as simple as fresh flowers in the store for Mother’s Day weekend, where we partner with a local flower shop to either set up a pop-up in our store for the weekend, or we purchase bouquets in advance that our customers can purchase. For us, it’s not about creating a new revenue stream, but, rather, it’s about giving our customer an experience or added service and having something fresh and new when you walk in the store.
This Mother’s Day it was especially nice in our Detroit store–especially since we’ve had the longest winter ever–to have that beautiful array of flowers as soon as you walk in the door. It’s unexpected.
CMO.com: Is this marketing concept based on who you think your demographic is? Or is it just based on what you want to do?
Russo: It’s a combination. The great thing about Shinola is that we’re finding it appeals to a wide breadth of people. So on one end you have the style or fashion consumers who are into the brand; the older, perhaps retirees, that are into the brand because they feel strongly about supporting American manufacturing, and they love the brand message; as well as young professionals who are maybe just starting their careers; to high-level executives that might put their Rolexes aside and view Shinola as their everyday watch. It really runs the gamut.
I would say a lot of what we do is a gut instinct of what we think is right–authentic and consistent, and certainly that’s driven by our founder, who has a very clear vision of what this brand should be.
And we listen. We listen to our consumers. We’re very active on social media.
|Shinola's video channel.|
CMO.com: Tell me about what your social world is like.
Russo: Well, to start with, we opened the factory in 2012–the brand was conceived in 2011–and we launched a brand Web site in 2012, around the same time we opened the factory. With the brand site, we began to tell our story and about our partnership with the College for Creative Studies (CCS). We previewed what we were working on and who we were working with–watches (Rhonda), bikes (Waterford Precision Cycles), etc. At first, some people didn’t understand what we were: Are you a school? Are you a watch company? Are you a bike company? They didn’t quite get it, but they were intrigued. And they were along with us for the journey.
We built our watch factory in a previously raw space on the fifth floor of CCS, and our partnership has since grown into a meaningful collaboration. We’ve had the opportunity to work with CCS students in Shinola-sponsored workshops, including design courses in watches, bicycles, and leather goods. The insight and new perspectives we've gained from the students has been invaluable and, to date, we have hired six students out of this program. CCS will also offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program in fashion accessories design beginning in fall 2015 in collaboration with Shinola.
Through the brand site and social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter at the time, we went straight to the consumer from the start, which was an approach that most companies don’t choose to take, and they certainly don’t show product before it’s finished nor share their suppliers.
By the end of that year, with a lot of community work on the ground in Detroit, plus some strategic PR with niche publications and early adopter blogs and Web sites like CoolHunting.com, we started to build our audience organically from there. So by the time we did launch with product, in March 2013, we already had a substantial database of names and followers on Facebook and Twitter.
We launched a watch that no one had actually seen before from a brand with this funny name, Shinola, and it sold out in eight days–2,500 units. That’s when we knew we had something.
CMO.com: So you’re using the social world more for connection and the analog world for brand?
Russo: That’s correct. And our stores are a big part of our marketing, as well. They also happen to perform well, but in addition to that, they truly bring the whole brand to life when you walk into our stores, so it’s important that we keep them activated.
CMO.com: The world of marketing today is all based on analytics. Is it all still just gut feel by you, or are you running analytics that can show you what the stores are doing versus print versus social?
Russo: We do. We monitor how our sales are doing across both dot-com and in-store. We look at the efforts we’re making, and we see if they line up. For instance, we know we see a spike when a news story hits, such as a recent segment on “CBS News Sunday Morning,” when we immediately saw a spike online.
It doesn’t always end up in conversions, but we might gain a few hundred e-mail addresses from something like that. We also find that the ads we run in pubs like The New York Times that are a bit tongue-in-cheek garner PR value and buzz, like the recent one we did about the smartwatch–“The Runwell. It’s just smart enough,” or the one that we did at the time of the city’s bankruptcy. A few days after it was announced, we put an ad out that said, “For all of those who have given up on Detroit, we give you the birdie.”
In the marketing world, that doesn’t happen every day–PR off of an ad, and certainly off of an ad that we didn’t spend tons of budget putting it in every single channel in the world so everyone could see it. It’s just selected channels where you know you’re going to get a captivated audience who is then going to talk about it.
CMO.com: Right. But that’s serendipitous. You can’t rely on that.
Russo: No, you absolutely can’t rely on that. But, like I said from the beginning, there’s a bit of luck and good timing to all of this.
CMO.com: Do you think the kind of marketing you’re able to do with Shinola is unique to this kind of high-end fashion world? I mean, I don’t hear a lot of this kind of thing with many of the others–especially on the B2B side, but even on the consumer side.
Russo: Definitely. For what we’re doing for the consumer that would be interested in this product, I think that’s absolutely important. I don’t think we can ever get complacent or just look at the analytics or trends in the market and say, “OK, here’s a cookie-cutter approach for the brand now that we’ve reached this size.”
I think we always have to stay on our toes. We always have to question ourselves and zig when everyone zags. And that’s something I enjoy most because it keeps things exciting, and I hope we never get to a point where it’s too easy--you know, kind of plug-and-play.
But I will say, in terms of the consumer appetite, I do think the face of luxury is changing. It’s much less about logos, and people are looking for those stories behind their brands. Shinola is at that entry point of luxury in terms of price point, and so there’s definitely value in the story, and also there’s value in the product.
We took the brand to Basel [Switzerland] for the first time three years ago, and in the European market, American-made isn’t necessarily important, but they were very interested in the story. And then they’d touch and feel the watch, they’d ask us the price, and then say, “That’s all?”
So they understood the value, they understood the quality and craftsmanship, and then when you tell the Detroit backstory–even though they’ve never been to Detroit–they say, “Wow. This is something different.” We made an emotional connection as well as made a product that aesthetically they’re interested in.
CMO.com: Which in many ways is a harder thing to do as a marketer, I would think, because, like you said, it’s not cookie-cutter at all. You have to kind of be on your toes 24/7.
CMO.com: Interesting. What do you think the plan going forward is for the brand? I mean, frankly, I just heard of it recently. Now, I might not be the demographic ...
Russo: Well, you hit the nail on the head. Not everyone knows who we are, so we have to continue to hammer away at increasing brand awareness, continuing to put the brand in front of different groups of people that may not have heard about the brand before. It’s not just about creatives and people living in Brooklyn. This brand is for everyone, and we have just scratched the surface.
CMO.com: As a final thought, is there anything you think our reader marketers who are not in this space, who are more in either the B2B or the general consumer space, can learn from this kind of marketing–from this kind of brand in our digital age?
Russo: The one point I would make ... though I understand and can appreciate analyzing the statistics and making educated decisions, is ultimately you have to trust your gut. And sometimes take a risk–a risk that you just kind of know in your gut is the right thing to do and is worth making. That strategy is not always successful, but in our case it has worked so far. And there’s a great deal you can learn from missteps. It’s all a journey.
Put it this way: If we had looked at the numbers and the feasibility of opening a watch factory in Detroit, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. It takes a leap of faith and investment and a commitment to people to pave the road to success.
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