In search of a deeper understanding of what makes the Shinola brand tick, I sought out a tour of its factory in Detroit, the city where I grew up. This post is about my tour, where I witnessed the life cycle of Shinola watches from start to finish. And in the process, I gleaned some important lessons about crafting a winning brand in a digital age. All in all, it was remarkable. Join me.
Shinola’s Brief History
It all started back in the fall of 2011, when Bedrock Manufacturing conceived the Shinola brand with a renewed belief in American craftsmanship. The name Shinola harkens back to the WWII shoe polish—a name chosen to stand for hard work and the preservation of craft. The brand family includes handcrafted watches, bicycles, leather goods, and journals and is owned by Bedrock Manufacturing and RONDA, AG.
I found the watch factory nestled inside the College for Creative Studies in the refurbished Argonaut building, the former General Motors innovation center. There, I spoke to the people behind the brand including Marketing Director Bridget Russo and Creative Director Daniel Caudill. As I would learn, the partnership with the college is a meaningful one. Senior members of Shinola management teach classes using the Shinola brand as a focal point for students to learn hands-on marketing and immersive design practices.
The Detroit Effect on the Brand
Early on, Shinola infused itself into Detroit’s economic ecosystem. It collaborates with smaller companies including Detroit Denim Co. and Smith Shop, which are tenants of Ponyride, an incubator where local craftspeople make leather goods, furniture, jewelry and other hand-made items. Russo pointed me to the local video team Order & Other whose work helped the brand explode online. The visual language of the brand is so compelling that before any products were even available for sale, Shinola racked up 10,000 Facebook followers.
The Retail Experience
To get a complete picture of the brand, I decided to take the customer journey at its flagship store. As I wheeled through the gritty streets of my youth, I sensed a different energy. I saw inviting new store fronts and clusters of pedestrians. The old cobblestoned Canfield neighborhood where Shinola’s boutique is situated has blossomed into an upscale urban oasis. The bright and airy shop thrummed with mid-day shoppers. More than a store, it’s a mixed-use facility. Bikes are assembled near the sales floor. A fresh juice bar sells earthy beverages. It’s also a retail laboratory. Amidst the watches and journals, Shinola experiments with clothing and lifestyle accessories to observe how customers respond. And yes, I bought a watch. I couldn’t resist being a part of something that was breathing life back in my hometown.
Takeaways: Three Important Brand Behaviors Shinola Nails Cold
1. Have a personality. To have a place in the hyper-fragmented, social marketplace, an organization doesn’t need a better catch phrase; it must become a better person. It must cultivate an essential self. Brand communications cannot survive big behavior gaps and expect people to believe. Shinola has given this careful thought. For example, they are proud to be in Detroit. But they are also humble about their role turning the city around.
2. Use everything to communicate. Stories, video, packaging, notecards, people, partners—it all matters. In a multi-channel world, it’s easy to overlook the power of good analogue, but Shinola delivers a visceral experience throughout. This insistence on being a human-centered brand invites an emotional connection among their tribe. While their business goal may be to build handsome, high-quality products people will love to own, they are also carefully tribe building. A few weeks after I received my watch, I was at a hockey game in Chicago. I noticed a fellow a few rows up was wearing a Shinola watch. We made eye contact. I held up my wrist to reveal my Shinola watch. He did the same. We exchanged prideful smiles. Tribesman.
3. Dream on. In America, ambition is part of our national identity. Messaging such as Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” trips emotional triggers for millions of American consumers. In the case of Shinola, it’s about ambition at a human scale. It’s accessible and inspires ordinary people to want to be a part of something great–including buying products.
Shinola’s Bigger Picture
Shinola’s Runwell watches have been consistently selling out. Some customers wait six months for a watch. A smaller run of 600 sold out last June. Russo credits a carefully targeted print campaign, combined with a steady stream of national buzz for the Runwell watchs in GQ and men’s fashion sites including the influential watch blog Hodinkee. By any measure, the brand is a success. As to whether the company can thrive amidst Detroit’s financial woes, time will tell.