Successful Strategies from Brands That Are Growing Into New Markets, Part IV: How to Be Relevant in a New Market
Ready for a round of free association? What comes to mind when you think of Danner Boots?
Leather. Hiking. Hunting. Soldiers. Loggers and lumberjacks. Cuffed skinny jeans. Portland. A proud history established in…
Yep. Believe it or not, Danner’s Northwest tradition has its roots in the Midwest: Founder Charles Danner started the business in 1932, in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Four years later, after discovering he could make a hefty profit selling to loggers in the Pacific Northwest, Danner relocated to Portland, Oregon, where the brand—along with parent company LaCrosse Footwear (also born in Wisconsin)—makes its home today.
When Danner followed the trail here, he probably wasn’t thinking about the implications for his brand eighty years later. He was an entrepreneur during the Depression, manufacturing low-cost boots—less than four dollars a pair—in a small town whose major industry had shifted from lumber to railroads. In Oregon, more people needed his products, and would pay more—five times more. He saw an opportunity and grabbed it.
It seems like a logical business decision, but to write off Danner’s early success as a simple case of supply and demand would be to miss the point. Danner boots weren’t only necessary; they were relevant. Oregon’s lumberjacks needed boots, but not just any boots. They needed boots that wouldn’t fall apart in the rain, boots that wouldn’t tear while climbing a tree. And so as Danner’s business grew, its brand became synonymous with its selling points: craftsmanship, durability, and—after a while—tradition. These were boots you could count on, just like your father did.
As brands decide to expand, figuring out what makes the brand relevant in a new market isn’t always as simple. Even with a rock-solid strategy, it may feel like a key ingredient is missing, especially for brands built on a foundation of local products, local customers, and local messaging.
Which leads us to the key question: What happens when a Northwest brand opens shop in Chicago and can no longer rely on its “localness” as a storytelling attribute, when no one knows—or cares—that your brand is Made in the Northwest?
Brands we work with are sometimes afraid of failing in their expansions because they’re uncertain about how to scale their brand’s relevance outside a local market.
The good news: It’s not. At the core of that question—“What makes my brand relevant?”—is another question: “What are my brand’s values?” Why is acting locally important to your brand?
Chances are it’s not about the physical place, but impact you have on your local community and the connection you have to your “tribe” who happens to live there.
Consider why your fans respond well to your brand. It could be your local hiring practices, the local jobs you create, or the local suppliers you buy from. It could also be something intangible, like nostalgia, or a sense of regional pride: “I grew up eating that” or “That reminds me of home” are strong motivating thoughts for consumers. Local is about people. And you can take local with you.
Walk by any Umpqua Bank in Portland, for instance, and you’ll see neighborhood-specific branding emblazoned on its windows. The branch on Northeast Alberta Street appeals to the community’s passions and demographics with phrases like “bicycle living,” “freelance meeting,” and “lazy breakfast.” It also spotlights neighborhood businesses with a rotating merchant exhibit.
The new Umpqua branch in San Francisco, on the other hand, functions more like an incubator, with an invitation-only business lounge, and free “Exchange Rooms” in which small groups can collaborate. Words like “human ingenuity” and “prosperity” adorn the interior, along with something called “The Catalyst Wall,” which profiles local startups and innovators like TCHO and Tina Sharkey. Thanks to its chameleon approach coupled with a well-developed overall brand that distinguishes it from cookie-cutter community banks, you’d be hard-pressed to prove Umpqua wasn’t a Silicon Valley original.
Danner, meanwhile, has found national success wearing its Northwest heritage on its sleeve—er, shoe. For Danner, region is a commodity. Just as Chicago is famous for its hot dogs, and the Bay Area for its tech, the Pacific Northwest calls to mind the outdoors. You can trust in the quality of Danner boots just like you can trust in REI’s climbing equipment—because it comes from the source.
Though seemingly at odds, both Umpqua and Danner share a rigorous focus on the big picture: It’s not about why the brand works here, but what here can do for the brand. Wherever here is, recognize that reputation and service will always trump regionalism. Do your research. Satisfy a need. Fill a gap in the marketplace. Treat every location like it’s your home (because it is) and every customer like they’re your neighbor (because they are). At its heart, it’s the same process that brought you where you are today. It’s hard work, but that’s what staying relevant is all about.