To the casual observer, the Web-only clothing manufacturer Bonobos would appear to be a skillful digital marketer, using Twitter, Facebook and a dynamic blog to interact with a dedicated customer base. With its irreverent sense of humor and pile-on approach to customer service, Bonobos begs comparison with the darling of the digital retail set, Zappos.com.
But much of that marketing is more accurately referred to as research and development. "We're including our customers in the conversation about what products we make, how they fit and how we sell them," said Andy Dunn, Bonobos co-founder and CEO. "When we think of social media, it's not just to market ourselves. It's actually for us to get input from our customers so that our team can develop more intimacy with them in order to serve them better. "
In June, the company launched a promotion called Tweet4Trunks, in which it used Twitter to give away a pair of swimming trunks to one person every day. To enter, people would reply to questions the company asked via Twitter, such as, "Would you want our logo on a new polo shirt we're making?" or "What PGA golfer should we sponsor?" Or even, "What company should we acquire in order to improve our customer service?"
The promotion helped increase the company's Twitter followers by 300 percent, and directed them to its blog, where it also offers quirky daily promotions, such as free pants to any customer who refers a new customer in, say, Iowa within a 24-hour period. It also recently e-mailed a digital questionnaire to its customers with the promise that they would receive a $50 credit if they responded."
"Bonobos takes the opposite point of view on social media: it's not a way to message out to customers, it's a way for them to message in," Jennifer Lynn Aaker, a professor of marketing at Stanford University, told ClickZ News. "
Such efforts have garnered attention for the nearly two-year old company, which is doing something unusual: operating a fully Web-based clothing operation, with no stores, no fitting rooms, and no physical interaction with the customer.
The New York company, which is funded by private investors, made $1.6 million in revenue in its first year, according to Dunn, and the average customer at the end of that year owned four pairs of Bonobos pants. In that time, the repeat purchase rate had hit 46 percent. So far the company has not worked with any outside marketing agencies.
One of its first successes involved using Facebook to sell a pair of pants specifically designed to appeal to Cubs fans. "The color of the pants is the same color as the team's blue," Dunn said. Bonobos targeted 18-40 year-old men on Facebook living in Chicago who mentioned the Cubs in their profile. The pants quickly sold out, in part because Bonobos made only as many as it calculated it would be able to sell (a few hundred).
"That taught us that because of the Web, we can pursue a marketing strategy that allows us to be more effective then if we were just throwing up glossy magazine and billboard ads," Dunn said. That led to similarly targeted initiatives, like selling winter pants to the southern hemisphere from May-August, when most brick-and-mortar companies would simply have to store the languishing inventory.
But most of the company's social media efforts since then have focused on listening more than selling. Or in a recent case, apologizing. The company practices a double bottom-line philosophy: seeking profit but also funding efforts to save the endangered Bonobos chimp. However, after producing a viral video called "Big Chimpin'" featuring a dancing chimp last month, the firm was called out by animal rights activists, who cited the poor conditions performing animals are often exposed to. So, Bonobos delivered a mea culpa on its blog, explaining why the video was a poor decision and directing customers to a video on the subject from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"For me -- this was particularly intriguing as brands are imperfect -- but ironically it is hard to find ones that apologize well," Aaker wrote in an e-mail.
Some of the credit for the company's success so far must also go to its approach to customer service, which Dunn says was directly inspired by Zappos.com. Indeed, Bonobos has poached a number of Zappos.com staffers so far, including its head of tech group. Customers are encouraged to order multiple sizes of a product and return those that don't fit (all purchases come with free return shipping labels). Customers can also return any purchase at any time -- even after they have been washed.
Bonobos is preparing to open a Manhattan location so customers can schedule in-person fittings, and also plans to launch a product development center that will allow customers to test future items.
Dunn explained that the store, likes its social media outreach, is ultimately more about listening than selling. "Don't think of it as a way to get distribution," he said. "It is a product testing center for us."
UPDATE: The story originally stated incorrectly that Bonobos plans to open a retail store in Manhattan, but the location will be used for in-person fittings.
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Douglas Quenqua is a journalist based in Brooklyn, NY who writes about culture and technology. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New York Observer, and Fortune.
March 19, 2014