Why Bonobos came to embrace ‘traditional’ brand marketing

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Until a few years ago, nearly all of Bonobos’ marketing efforts were performance-based ads that focused on driving shoppers to buy the brand’s products. In particular, the men’s apparel retailer, which has been owned by Walmart Inc. since 2017, was a heavy user of personalized marketing messages. At the same time, since 2011 it has also operated a growing number of “guideshops”—stores that allow consumers to try on clothes but don’t allow them to take any inventory (shoppers can place orders for home delivery). Those guideshops serve as experiential billboards for the brand.

However, the retailer almost never invested in bigger-picture branding campaigns to convey what distinguishes Bonobos, says Colleen Conkling, the retailer’s senior director of brand marketing. But that’s quickly changing.

The shift began in September 2017 when Bonobos launched its Role Models campaign to demonstrate how it offers pants that cover 172 sizes and fits. As part of the campaign, Bonobos created a 30-second TV commercial featuring 172 men of different shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities along with text that reads: “However you fit, Bonobos fits you.”

“We wanted to move away from only promoting products to promoting a broader message that had substance to it, that inspired people to rethink how they see themselves,” Conkling says.

Beyond that TV spot, which ran in Chicago and Austin, Texas, the retailer also created a slew of videos featuring a single man explaining which Bonobos style he prefers and why. In doing so, the retailer sought to demonstrate how it has an ideal fit for any man.

The campaign was a success, she says, declining to share specific metrics the retailer used to gauge its success. After the campaign ran, Bonobos decided to embrace more brand-focused messages in 2018.

The result has been a marked shift in the retailer’s marketing strategy; whereas roughly 5% of the retailer’s marketing budget was allocated to brand marketing in 2017, this year that percentage is expected to reach about 50%, Conkling says. The idea is to drive more consumers to know about, and think about, the Bonobos brand, she says. “We want to get people to know the brand, consider the brand and, eventually, buy from the brand,” Conkling says.

That requires Bonobos to “be authentic,” she says. For example, Bonobos worked with the dad-focused lifestyle site Fatherly to put together its holiday Celebrate Every Kind of Family campaign that aimed to “disrupt the notion of what it means to be a family man,” Conkling says. The campaign highlighted the various types of contemporary families that may not conform to traditional definitions. That may mean a single dad and his daughter, a long-term gay couple or a firemen “family.” By telling those families’ stories, Bonobos wanted to offer a message with substance that would resonate with its current, and prospective, customers.

The idea is to build a brand that people don’t just know, but that they love and identify with, Conkling says.

Examining the response on social media and the other areas the stories are posted, such as a designated section on Bonobos.com, the retailer has seen an uptick in engagement, such as consumers sharing or commenting on the video or social media post or spending time on the Bonobos.com page. In doing so, the retailer seeks to convey its values, such as acceptance and family, which it believes its customers share, to build relationships with its shoppers. That’s increasingly important as Bonobos faces growing competition online and offline.

“We know we need to put a stake in the ground that says what our values are,” she says.

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