No. 270: For DNVBs, brand matters.

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A look at Raden’s shuttering (DNVB No. 119) and Away’s persistence (DNVB No. 40). With the news of Raden shuttering and their founder’s commentary on the online luggage industry’s outlook, 2PM has a deep dive into what may have influenced Raden’s shuttering (it wasn’t just regulation). And Away cofounder and CEO Steph Korey provides commentary on what will shape Away’s bright future.

Founder of Raden, Josh Udashkin had this to say to Conde Nast Traveler about the future of the smart luggage industry: 

I hate to say this, but I think [the future] is nonexistent. All these companies rely on word of mouth, but buying this product now gets you hassled. I don’t see how you can continue selling it.

We disagree. Millennial consumers are practical, savvy, and even slightly territorial. These consumers seek brands that appeal to their lifestyles, their timing, their values, and their personal preferences. The narrative matters because their lifestyle matters.

The key to building a strong DNVB can be attributed to perceived quality, price value, and ease of purchase.

Convenience Change + Price Change + Perception of Quality Change > 0 

Convenience: ease of purchase, superior customer service, ease of return, and quality warranty.

Price: is the price comparable and or cheaper than the premium incumbent brand prices.

Perception of quality: how is the brand perceived? Is there an affinity for the product?

Whereas, if the DNVB’s sum “change” is greater than zero, the DNVB may be a better option than the incumbent. It’s through this lens that DNVBs and CPG brands have been able to position their products against stodgier, traditional brands. One of the keys to building an online retail presence is emphasizing both components of a winning formula: product and narrative.  That narrative communicates quality, community, and brand equity around the product. For DNVBs with $5M or less in total funding, you can argue that the narrative is as important as the product itself.

Issue No. 254: An Open Letter to DNVB CEOs

DNVB executive teams build two products from scratch, supply and demand:

  1. The product: the shirt, or the luggage, the pants, the shades, the coats, or whatever it is that people know you for.
  2. The brand: the aura of that product, the name recognition, the association, the behind-the-scenes partners, the spokeswomen, the ambassadors, the inevitability of success.

Both Raden and Away were founded in the early months of 2015. Raden raised a seed investment from Lerer Hippeau, First Round Capital, and Gin Lane – the famed and de facto kingmaker of DNVBs. Away raised a star studded seed round that included Andy Dunn, the now-Walmart executive who coined the DNVB acronym.

When Udashkin was interviewed by Loose Threads in 2015, Udashkin indicated that product was the entirety of his focus. He went on to add that the product’s narrative wasn’t something that Raden was going to emphasize.

After spending almost a year in the prototype phase, working out of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montreal, and Taiwan, Raden emerged as a product company that rejected the imagery and celebrity of lifestyle brands.

Udashkin went on to say: “How can you have a lifestyle on day one around your product unless you’re faking it? I think that works in the short term, but over time the customer gets smarter. If you don’t keep working on your product, eventually you lose.”

Cofounders Steph Korey and Jen Rubio took a nearly opposite approach to building their competing brand. In a July 2017 segment in Inc Magazine called “How I did it”, here is what was said about the duo:

Steph Korey and Jen Rubio had a problem. Their planned launch of Away, a new luggage brand, was fast approaching–and none of their suitcases would be ready to sell in time. Luckily, the two had a social media trick packed in their bags. They turned a proven retailing tactic, the preorder, and an idea for a book into a campaign that went viral on Instagram and beyond.

Burt Helm, Inc. Magazine

This thinking permeates through their entire product position. Whereas Raden’s Instagram focused solely on the products being sold, Away’s Instagram account features as much lifestyle and usability as it does the products that Away sells.

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 12.28.07 PM

While Away focused on the destination and brand affinity (to include a print magazine called “Here”), the relationship that Raden maintained with customers was altogether different than the one that Away hopes to continue. The difference between the two approaches greatly affected each brand’s product offering: Raden’s was narrow, Away’s is wide. Here’s a pivotal point in today’s featured article by Fast Company:

He walks me through the math. The target market for a direct-to-consumer suitcase brand is relatively narrow. This is not a mass purchase. Your audience is people with enough disposable income to spend between $200 and $400 on a carry-on, but also be digitally savvy enough to be willing to buy the case online, rather than in a department store.

Once the startup has convinced someone within their target market to buy a carry-on, the relationship is basically over. With some persuasion, the brand can try to sell them a piece of checked luggage or perhaps another small travel accessory. But the lifestyle value of each customer is relatively small, compared to other categories. A direct-to-consumer luxury shoe brand like M.Gemi can sell a woman a new pair of $300 shoes twice a year for the rest of her life. Everlane can sell a customer wardrobe updates every month.

Elizabeth Segran, Fast Company

Here Udashkin suggests that he did the right thing by focusing on product superiority alone (just one of the three components to the DNVB formula). But because he saw no value in building a brand and narrative around Raden, there were fewer alternative products that he could offer to his existing customers. This, in addition to his luggage’s immovable battery and the startup’s shorter runway influenced his position that the luggage maker had no choice but to cease operations. He also suggested that there was no market for these types of products in the long run, a far-reaching assertion.

In an email to 2PM, Away CEO Steph Korey explained Away’s position: 

A brand’s success isn’t determined by the amount of money it raises, or by any other one thing, but by the right combination of a lot of little things.

For us, it’s been the combination of having a customer-obsessed approach to everything we do (taking the time to listen to our customers, deeply understand what they’re telling us, and then quickly acting on it), being conscientious about the way we introduce them to the brand in the first place (ensuring what we’re marketing will be interesting to who we’re marketing it to, and simultaneously creating a narrative that’s authentic to who we are as a brand no matter the channel or intended audience), and not limiting ourselves to any one product or plan for the future (expanding from one suitcase to dozens of travel goods since launch, and setting our sights on fixing everything that’s currently wrong with the travel experience).

One of the early lessons in DNVB branding is one that cannot be explained by analytics and logic, alone. It’s too subjective. Phil Knight’s once-fledgling shoe operation sold shoes but Nike was never a shoe company: it was a company that enabled champions. Tesla sells cars but Tesla is a company for futurists. Apple sells computers but it’s a company for creators.

For aspirational products, consumers choose brands that fit their lifestyle, belief system, and goals. From the very beginning, Away achieved something that very few DNVB’s understand early on. Building the product is only half of the battle. This means that no matter what arduous regulations they may encounter, they will maintain a canvas to build products that are relevant to their community of passionate, millennial travelers. It’s likely that as traditional sales continue, you’ll see a growing number of SKUs, styles, and add-ons that are beloved by millennial travelers and commuters. Yes, Steph Korey and Jen Rubio sell luggage, but Away is a travel company. And Away will go where she wants.

Updates: On June 26, Away announced the Away x Dwayne Wade collaboration. On June 28, Away announced a $50M round of investment, one of the largest rounds by female founders in history. According to their Comms Director Cassi Gritzmacher:

With this latest round of funding, Away plans to further establish itself worldwide by extending to new markets; continue to expand its product line to create the one perfect version of everything you need to travel seamlessly; expand its physical retail footprint (opening 6 new stores by the end of 2018 in addition to its current New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Austin locations); build on its existing social impact efforts (through its partnership with Peace Direct and through new initiatives); and create 249 new jobs over the next five years, transitioning the team into a 56,000-square-foot new Global Headquarters in its hometown of New York City.

Read more of the issue here.

By Web Smith and Meghan Terwilliger | About 2PM 

9 thoughts on “No. 270: For DNVBs, brand matters.

  1. Nice article Web & Meghan. We loved the work we did with Raden, and sad to see them close their doors. We’ll be rooting for Steph, Jen, and the amazing brand the Away team are building. Agree that the travel space is a wide open space to reimagine. Will be fun to see where it goes.

  2. Emmett, that’s incredibly gracious of you. I am a tremendous fan of Gin Lane and I look forward to whatever you guys have in the pipeline, next.

  3. Nice Article. Owned both products, Raden’s was far superior to Away’s but agree that narrative and brand positioning were very different from the outset. I actually didn’t relate at all to Away’s wanderlust narrative (my life doesn’t look like that!) and chose the Raden initially (received the Away as a gift). In reading the fast company piece, I mostly think this was about cash raised, 31m vs. 5m is a HUGE difference.

    Away has spent aggressively acquiring customers while Raden barely spent on advertising and had a distribution strategy. I think all the companies in the space were doing quite well relative to how much they raised until the regulations hit. Both strategies can work depending on the goals of the entrepreneur and investors but this category will be significantly challenged by the public perception of ‘smart’ luggage. A girl got kicked off my flight yesterday with an Away bag and she was miserable and cursing the company to the entire flight. We’ll see if Away can exit down the road, they have burned a ton of cash like many of their DNVB peers (casper etc.)…feels premature to look at this as a win.

  4. Great write up, Meghan and Web.

    Sad to see them shutdown. Fascinating to see the two businesses laid side by side like this. Not that anyone is popping champagne yet, but I do think it’s too early to celebrate Away as a runaway success. Do we have any idea as to whether they are profitable?

    I think Udashkin’s concerns around only being able to sell his customers 1 item (once you’ve purchased you won’t need another suitcase for a loooong time) is a valid one. It’s one that I think about with my business, Spikeball. It’s a start, but I don’t think Away’s luggage tags and interior wall thingy’s will get them where they want to go.

    I do agree that Away’s focus on building a brand will make it much easier to branch out into other travel-related products and/or services (partnerships with AirBnb, airlines, hotels, lux car co’s, etc).

    Either way, it will be interesting to see how Away and other DNVB’s tackle the issue of starting with a product that people buy once every 5-10 years (luggage, mattresses, furniture, etc).

    1. Thanks for the reply, Chris! Away is already offering a host of products outside of the core (and a print magazine).

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