In search of a deeper understanding of what makes the Shinola brand tick, I sought out a tour of its factory in Detroit. There, I spoke to the people behind the brand including Marketing Director Bridget Russo and Creative Director Daniel Caudill. This post is about my tour, where I witnessed the life cycle of Shinola watches from start to finish. And in the process 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 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. As I would learn, the partnership with the college is meaningful. 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.
Talking with Caudill and Russo, I wondered out loud if a brand could save a city? “No!” they answered nearly in unison. However, the Detroit connection has infused the brand with a spirit of striving. “Detroit was the epicenter of American made,” says Russo. “When you are a comeback kid … people want you to succeed,” added Caudill. As a rising generation of potential watch buyers discover Shinola, their perceptions will be shaped by the Detroit come-back movement led mostly by ambitious young creatives and entrepreneurs –including Jack White, Eminem and scores of work-a-day talents making their mark on the city.
Shinola also infused itself early in 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 ExperienceTo get a complete picture of the brand, I decided to take the customer journey at the 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 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.
Helping me choose a watch was Clarissa. The cynic in me listened intently for any hint of phoniness as she answered my questions. In a natural, unfettered way she wove her personal story into the brand’s story. She migrated from Mississippi after falling in love with a Detroit musician. She set her sights on working for Shinola,“ to be a part of something special.” Just like the workers I met at the factory, it all rang true. In a short period of time, Shinola has achieved the delicate work of building a brand culture whereby its people convey a shared sense of purpose.
The Packaged Experience
The watch I chose was sold out and had to be ordered. Shinola has thought through every touch point from the placing of the order to the packaging. The watch arrived Fed Ex in a wooden box with a view book, a leather carrying case, polish for the strap, and a metal plate with the name of the watchmaker who built it. To my surprise, there was also a handwritten note from Clarissa. Opening it felt like Christmas. As more and more consumers shop online, the packaged experience is a critical branding device. It should be sensual, personal and feel like a keepsake worthy of selfies and shares.
Passing the Acid Test for Brand Loyalty
If there is a litmus test for a brand loyalty it’s this: imagine the world without the brand. For the American-made movement Shinola is a beacon of light. Would it be missed given its brief life as a consumer brand? I say yes. It’d matter to the customers and the people who work for the company, not to mention the partners who provide it with products and services. The Detroit revivalist in me believes that American manufacturing is poised for a renaissance. My Shinola watch helps me walk my talk.
According to Forbes, Shinola’s factory could manufacture just over a million pieces at a time. The Runwell watches have been consistently selling out. Their 2,500 limited-edition run sold out in 8 days and some customers had to wait 6 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 watches in GQ and men’s fashion sites, including the influential watch blog, Hodinkee.
Takeaways: Three Important Brand Behaviors Shinola Nails Cold
1. Have a personality. We are being evaluated 24/7 in countless conversations that have little to do with our ad slogans. 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 in 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 watch. He did the same. We exchanged prideful smiles. We’re tribesmen.
3. Dream on. Having recently worked on a project with NASA, I learned first hand that Americans have lost their confidence in achieving great things as a nation, including space travel. Because ambition is in our DNA, messaging like Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” tripped emotional triggers for millions of American consumers. In the case of Shinola, it’s not about vague BHAGs. Rather, 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.
Full disclosure: I have no relationship whatsoever to Shinola or its parent. But as a Detroit native, I am shamelessly sentimental about my roots.