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How to Use Brand Storytelling to Make Your Customers Go Bananas

disco pants-brand storytellingBetabrand sells clothing with a quirky, California feel. The company has managed to turn a relatively small product line into an internet sensation by offering strangely appealing oddities (e.g., Disco Pants) and by encouraging customers to become brand storytellers by sharing photos and videos of their lives.

Now the company’s founder, Chris Lindland, is poised to push Betabrand from boutique to blockbuster. But can he sell a pair of khaki pants as successfully as he sells Executive Hoodies and Beardymon Mullet Socks? Read on to find out why we think he can.

Chief Content Officer: Most CMOs would only dream of having the kind of participation and promotion you get from your customers. Was that idea there from the beginning, or did it evolve?

Lindland: It was a hunch I had. We wanted to create a fashion label that had the look and feel of Flickr. We wanted something that was constantly refreshing itself, new photo after new photo, story after story. Then people would be interested in looking at it all the time. Honest to goodness, it’s now finally starting to look that way. It took three years, but it is really starting to come true.

CCO: You’re putting a much greater focus on customer-designed threads with your Think Tank and a new tagline, “New ideas, nonstop.” Will Betabrand ultimately become completely customer-driven in the same way Threadless sources all its designs? 

Lindland: Right now our product line is about 80 percent our ideas, 20 percent outsiders’ ideas. I hope that by this time next year it’s 50-50. Giving over control to our customers is so much more exciting because magical things happen that marketers can’t plan. The best example I can give you — and, sincerely, as funny as the product may be, it’s the most illustrative product we have — is what’s happened to our disco product.

We made 100 pairs of Disco Pants on a lark. We’ve sold well more than 20,000 pairs by now. What happened is, people took photos of themselves wearing this stuff, showing new audiences how to wear and use these products. At the beginning, the Burning Man crowd [a self-expression art festival in Nevada] went bananas over it, then golfers got into it, and now the BASE jumping community has adopted it. And it just keeps going and going.

Now we’re asking people to create their own videos for us, and they send in footage that is so good it could be a Warren Miller movie. All we have to do is spend time editing. Essentially, we’re letting products be promoted by the people who buy it; all we’re doing is sitting back and acting like reporters on a phenomenon.

CCO: There’s such an incredible degree of competence among non-professionals with photography and filmmaking these days. Some of your user-submitted photos are beautifully designed and captured, and yet they’re [taken by] amateurs.

Lindland: Chances are good the people you’re selling your products to own really high-quality HD devices. The reason our snow video exists at all is the GoPro camera. Period. There’s no other way. People have affordable HD cameras strapped all over their bodies. To me it’s thrilling because it speaks of a wide-open world where you can have mountains of storytelling performed by your customers, and they put a unique and very personalized spin on the product that you sell through their social networks.

When GoPro came out, it really changed my view of the potential of customer marketing. Now everything beautiful on Earth is captured by ordinary people, not photographers who cost a ton of money. You can go through it all and pull out the things that are good for your brand. Then your whole brand begins to look like this wondrous reflection of human experience.

“When GoPro came out,” says Lindland, “it really changed my view of the potential of customer marketing.” The GoPro is a rugged, “wearable” camera used most often to capture high-definition, adrenaline-soaked videography. The company sells a series of mounting systems to attach the camera to your body, race cars, surfboards, and bikes (to name just a few) to capture amazing footage. And the starting price for its entry-level camera — just $199 — puts it well within the reach of amateurs everywhere.
gopro camera
The GoPro wearable camera

How cool would Air Jordans be if the shoes weren’t just the story of Michael Jordan, but also of everybody who owned them? I’m not kidding with that one. I think that as awesome as he was, the world’s experience (or a curated version of it) of wearing those shoes may be a far more interesting story. That’s what we’re trying to experiment with here.

CCO: I’ve noticed you have certain strategies to encourage photography and sharing. Can you elaborate?

Lindland: Persistence is the big one. It’s taken us two years to get to 8,000 photos. We mention it in every newsletter. We celebrate them non-stop on Facebook. And we have discounts schemes. For example, if you don’t own a product of ours, send in a photo of yourself with our logo over your eyes for a discount. People also get discounts by uploading photos to the site of people wearing our products — something we call “Model Citizen.”

Then we thought, why does there just have to be a single Disco Pants page? What if there were 1,000 Disco Pants pages, and each one was headlined by whoever uploaded the most recent photo? When our Model Citizens share that page with their friends and family, they’re the lead model on our site. What we did was create a hack that enabled people to insert themselves as image number one in the gallery, and then that unique URL was something they could share with their friends and family. 

We filed a patent on it. It’s something done by nobody else and it’s interesting because it allows you to basically throw a purchase button on your forehead and mail it to your friends. The photo may be out of focus; the person may not fit our demographic… it doesn’t matter. That singular piece of our website is owned by that person.

CCO: What’s driving growth? Is it the personalization?

Lindland: About 20 unique people come to look at each Model Citizen page. Imagine a photo of you shows up on Betabrand. When your friends see it they’re going to ask, “What are you doing modeling on a fashion website?” We want to share that sense of theater. You’re it! For us it’s a big-time brand decision. What matters to us is that you’re a star on our site, and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like.

CCO: How do you make sure that you don’t go off the rails?

Lindland: That’s what our Think Tank is about. Let me tell you how much we’ve invested in [one of our features] the Banana Pocket. It was an idea that a junior graphic designer of ours sketched. So in terms of hours and time invested in that one, you’re looking at about two to three hours. If that idea is popular, we’ll have all kinds of signups from customers who want it, which essentially gives us a mailing list of customers to whom we can then sell the initial few hundred items.

banana pocket pants
Betabrand’s Banana Pocket

We don’t need to invest any more dollars in that concept until we’ve seen that people actually want it.

What’s interesting now is to ask, “Can we sell you a pair of khaki pants? Can we sell you a white T-shirt?” How do we start selling other parts of the wardrobe, product that may not have such supreme novelty?

“Betabrand has been a big-time press darling because we’ve been making products that people like to talk about. What’s interesting now is to ask, ‘Can we sell you a pair of khaki pants? Can we sell you a white T-shirt?’ How do we start selling other parts of the wardrobe, product that may not have such supreme novelty?” —Chris Lindland

The good thing is we’ve got a number of products already doing just that. We sell a lot of pants called “Sons of Britches” — and those are just pants. We’ve created a humor around them, and made them the official pants of amateur stuntmen — and people (men, of course) get into that because it’s the dream of every man. There’s no funny thing like a banana pocket. They’re just pants.

We are also about to see how valuable the voice of our customers will be when we bring them into this designing and buying process. So far the process has been very curated, but now it’s becoming a lot more open.

CCO: There’s a huge generational divide in how younger people are willing to, as in your case, promote a brand and do so without any kind of awkwardness. 

Lindland: I look at the way our young employees live on Facebook and say, “That’s the story I want to tell.” It’s not the story of you hanging out at the beach; it’s just you doing fun stuff with your friends. What is that brand identity? Betabrand is trying to tell a Western story, the story of creative people living in the western United States. There needs to be a center of gravity to the narrative of the brand, and right now it’s California, West Coast, 2013. That’s something creative people from around the world can look to.

What’s been exciting for me is trying to figure out how to really portray this. Here’s the one thing that we’ve got to figure out: There is new stuff happening at Betabrand about every 30 minutes, and we’re becoming this publishing machine that happens to sell clothing. Yet, if you go to our home page, it still sort of looks like a regular e-commerce company, even though the pictures are a little bit fresher and more vivid. It wouldn’t be too hard to make it look like that’s what we are if we were a big brand.

What’s fascinating about Betabrand is the speed with which everything is happening. We’ve got new photos coming in all the time. We’ve got new prototypes going up on our site a couple of times a day. We have brand new products that are purchasable going up every day, as well.  What’s exciting is we’re about to go into this phase where we’re really explaining to people, “Hey, Betabrand moves as quickly as a Twitter account,” and I can’t wait for that. It really is, “How do you communicate this kind of ‘non-stopness’ of a clothing brand?” That’s a great challenge that lies before us.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine.