In a panel discussion at the Women in Retail Leadership Summit, a trio of female entrepreneurs offered insights into their brands that are disrupting the retail industry. The panel consisted of Rachel Cohen, co-founder and co-CEO of Snowe, a direct-to-consumer home essentials brand; Melissa Mash, co-founder and CEO of Dagne Dover, a designer and seller of handbags meant for a life in motion; and Marisa Sharkey, president and co-founder of Birdies, a footwear brand selling what it describes as a “stylish flat that’s secretly a slipper.”
The panelists were asked by the session moderator, Melissa Campanelli, co-founder of Women in Retail Leadership Circle, how they’ve managed to grow their startup brands in today’s hypercompetitive retail environment. Here’s what they had to say:
Rachel Cohen: The landscape is getting noisy, there’s new brands popping up all the time. For us, we think of it as brand and then marketing in terms of cutting through the noise. It goes back to building a brand within a space where there was nothing that resonated with us. The way we think about, and how to stand out from the noise, is that brand is our defensibility. What we can do to continue to innovate on brand — and that doesn’t just mean this nebulous thing — is everything. How we’re building content, how we’re engaging customers, how our customer experience team talks to someone, how our in-store retail team is acting as our brand ambassadors. How do we continue to innovate on the physical retail experience, and what that in-person experience looks like?
So for us, the underlying factor that is the defensibility is brand. And we’re constantly thinking about how do we stand out from the noise. Not just do something that’s gratuitous, but do something that our customer wants. Be where our customer wants to be, and have this conversation with the customer along the journey. Any which way that we can thread that through is how we think about being able to stand out from the noise. And being able to empower our team. As our team scales, it’s bringing them into the fold to continue to innovate on brand and bring their point of view and how they’re perceiving the brand into the mix. We think of it as this living, breathing person that started in one place where we had this vision for what the brand was, and we would continue to evolve it as we grew.
A lot of it is keeping blinders on because there’s so much out there. We want people copying us because we’re already six months ahead, and creating new content, thinking about new distribution channels, and new retail experiences when other entrants might be coming into the picture.
Melissa Mash: There are a number of things that we’ve done to differentiate ourselves in the market. First off, especially in handbags but really across all verticals in fashion, a lot of the messaging has been push marketing. It’s always been, “this is sexy, this is cool, you should buy it.” As consumers, my co-founders and I felt like we wanted to be heard and we wanted to give feedback to brands to get products that were truly product market fit for our lifestyles. It was really important in building our brand that we employed pull marketing. We got a lot of feedback. We surveyed and focused grouped 1,000 women and men in the beginning. We generally knew what the elements needed to be, but we needed to know the specifics.
For example, a lot of people have a pain point where they’re wearing their winter coat and they’re trying to get the bag over their elbow and it’s getting stuck on their elbow, and it’s making them feel not put together. And that’s just one of many pain points that can happen with your bag on a daily basis. Also, it’s not good enough to just have a laptop sleeve in your bag, you need to make sure the laptop is secured and it’s not going to fall among everything else that’s in your bag. Having these tiny details, and again the materials that we were using that still looked luxurious but were also really practical, was really important feedback.
We were never looking at or comparing ourselves to the traditional players in the bag space, or even any other digital-native brands. We’ve always created our own content. Every single thing that we’ve done has always been from our point of view. The only thing that we don’t totally control is that we do work with an additional advertising partner, but we heavily manage that relationship. Everything that we’ve always done — the factories, the design, any sort of content — has always been self-produced.
Another thing that we had going for us is that bags are an incredibly visible thing that people are carrying and like to talk about. If you know anyone that has a Dagne, people often approach that person and say, “that’s an awesome color,” and then go into the whole infomercial. They’re like, “but look at what’s inside, here’s where I keep my laptop, my water bottle, my smoothie, and all this.” So it was really awesome, especially in the earlier parts of the business, that literally our products were out there and our customers were our best brand ambassadors. They were selling it to everyone in their office.
Marisa Sharkey: I think it’s a combination of brand and product. For us, we started with a product but really believe that our brand is what is going to differentiate us long term. We really feel our customer is a woman of substance and style, and that’s how she’s living her life. She wants to be stylish, but she’s also doing a lot in her life. We want our product to be able to keep up with her, and really have the convergence of those two things as well.
We have a ton of technology similar to things you would find in traditional sneakers, but really looks like a fashion shoe that you can wear out in your day-to-day life. But we wanted to make sure that it has that technology because it needs to be substantial enough to keep up with her everyday life, while also holding itself to the high standards that our customer has for what she needs. So I think it’s a combination of telling a branding story about that woman and what she’s doing in her life, but also showing how our product meets those needs.