Boutique vs. Legacy: How to Succeed as a Direct to Consumer Brand - Carney

Boutique vs. Legacy: How to Succeed as a Direct to Consumer Brand

Shoe company, Casca, is fighting with industry titans to stand out. Here’s exactly how they’re doing it.

If Elon Musk ever decided to launch a footwear brand we think it would look and feel something like Casca.

Two guys from Vancouver Canada have been cooking up something special in the cobblers lab. The result? A shoe designed for future builders. Casca co-founders Kevin Reid and Braden Parker are on a mission to accelerate a brighter future and they believe it starts at the ground level.

We had the privilege to catch up with the team just before their first product launch. In our discussion, we unveil the process of a boutique brand navigating the sea of legacy giants, the future of brick and mortar, and the potential pitfalls of influencer marketing. Challenging common practices and adding more value than the price tag are just some of the core takeaways from this episode.

Listen to the full interview below!

Show Note Links:

Transcript:

Nicholas Comanici: (00:07) Welcome to the Carnage Podcast. We interview some of today’s most savvy marketers, creatives, and founders to find out what’s working and what’s not. We unlock the tools and tactics they’re using every day to get results, all in an effort to help you become the sharpest marketer in the room. I’m your host, Nicholas Comanici, a creative marketer and entrepreneur obsessed with the process. Today, my co-host is Rob Carney, founder of the digital agency behind the Daily Carnage newsletter.

Rob Carney: (00:37) Hey what’s up!

Nicholas Comanici: (00:38) I’m stoked to welcome our guests today: industrial designer Kevin Reid, and serial entrepreneur Braden Parker, founders of the modern footwear brand Casca. Their mission: accelerate a brighter future. Today, we’ll learn why they started the brand, and how they plan on making a success of it in 2018. So without further ado, let’s give our attention to Kevin and Braden.

Braden Parker: (01:00) Awesome. Thanks a ton for having us. Super excited to be here. So a quick background on myself. My name’s Braden Parker, and I have a couple of entrepreneurial ventures under my belt. I co-founded a high-tech door company, when I was in university, and then I started working in the real estate investment industry for actually Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon. And through that, I got this amazing sort of behind-the-scenes look at the start of their family’s new brand, Kit and Ace. So, I got to sort of see and learn what worked for them and what didn’t, and met a ton of amazing contacts that they were sort of continuing to use. I run the business side of Casca Footwear.

Kevin Reid: (01:44) Yeah, and I’m Kevin Reid. I’m an industrial designer with over a decade of experience working in fashion and design and consumer product industries. I’ve had some lead design roles with companies like Native Shoes and Norse Projects, and I’ve developed over 300 products from concept to production, working with factories directly, and traveling kind of all over the world to create innovative user-friendly solutions. More recently, I was creative director at a major Canadian sneaker retailer called Livestock, and I’ve worked on special projects for the brands like Adidas, New Balance, Vans, kind of allowing me to see and get some knowledge on the inner workings of major footwear brands around the world.

Nicholas Comanici: (02:29) I think one of the first questions I have is that when you’ve worked for well-known brands, you’ve contributed to successful product releases, at what point do you say, “I want this to be my brand,” or “I want to do my own thing?”

Braden Parker: (02:45) I think that it comes back to having this desire and need to find a solution for a problem. So for us we were super frustrated with all the shoe products that were out there. You have different shoes for different purposes, but there wasn’t really this option that lasted, provided support and you could wear in any social environment. So Kevin and I were just lamenting about this, and we hear all our friends and peers talking about it, and it just sort of seemed like this thing that we had to solve. Yeah, that’s where it came from for me.

Kevin Reid: (03:19) Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this concept for six or seven years as I’ve been designing for other companies, and it just seems like, there’s a lack of effort behind creating a holistic solution for shoes for everyday use. So there’s tons of companies innovating for high performance athletics, or for extreme environments, for hiking or whatever it is, but nobody’s creating a shoe that brings that performance too, when people are using shoes the most, which is just in their day-to-day activities.

Nicholas Comanici: (03:50) At any given time, when you started to go down this path, did you ever become overwhelmed or intimidated by the fact that there’s so many legacy brands in the footwear space?

Kevin Reid: (04:02) Yeah, I mean obviously, it’s intimidating, but it’s also … There’s so many lessons to learn from these companies, and a lot of these major sportswear brands, they have such a structure to their company at this point, where it’s really hard for them to adapt to all these new technologies and all these new platforms that make it easier for a small niche brand to succeed. So I think, we’re looking at those brands, and taking lessons and inspiration from them, but we also feel like we have our own path, and we’re really excited about being able to kind of challenge what the norms in the industry are.

Braden Parker: (04:39) Yeah. And just to build on that, it’s also like there have always been legacy brands as long as modern commerce has existed, and going in, and disrupting those areas, and kind of … We kind of see them as they’re the big guys, that have done well for so long, but there still is the opportunity to provide a better product for the customers. So although we are definitely aware of those bigger brands, and we look up to them, a lot of them we find really influential, we still believe that we can create a better product for the customer. So we’re just trying to be as consumer centric as we can be, as we’re developing the product.

Nicholas Comanici: (05:15) Right, that makes sense. Having a smaller team allows you to move quickly, to pivot, to make decisions where a bloated organization may be weighed down.

Braden Parker: (05:28) Exactly. We’re so lean right now, but it allows us yet to shift really quickly, and to take feedback and turn around really fast, so it’s nice.

Robert Carney: (05:37) Okay so you’re selling direct to consumer. That brings me to two questions actually. One, what went into making that decision, and two, what would be the traditional route for bringing a shoe brand to market?

Braden Parker: (05:52) Well, the direct to consumer model is a lot better, because you’re ultimately able to provide a better product at a lower price point, so you’re really taking out the middleman. And Kevin has all of the design and product experience, and he wanted to create the perfect shoe. So he went out and started doing that, and at the same time, we were doing a lot of customer development, and found that our price point needed to hit around … It couldn’t be over $220 US, including free shipping and returns and everything else that you’d expect from a direct to consumer brand. And so, when it was all said and done, the only way that we could sell the … Our cost of produce is so high that the only way we could make it fit what customers wanted was doing direct to consumer.

Kevin Reid: (06:40) It actually gave us a bit of an advantage as well, just because if we’re competing against these sportswear giants, they’re getting better pricing from factories, because of the quantities, and because our price structure is totally different, and we don’t have any agents or distributors, or anything, we’re able to lower the price, or offer a better product at a lower price, which is great.

Robert Carney: (07:08) Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So you’ve been in business for approximately a year now. What is one thing that occurred that at the time maybe you thought was a failure, but as it turns out, was something that’s helped you to refine your process or even your product?

Braden Parker: (07:30) Our biggest failure is probably thinking that we could release only one type of shoe, which we were going to launch as our leather shoe. And our customers that we have talked to and we have about 1000 people that we’re always listening to and hearing what they think on our community, and people started getting pretty upset by the fact that we were only releasing a shoe that could be used in Canada or in the winter. So we kind of went back to the drawing board, and quickly produced one more product, and that actually changed our whole model. So now we’re going to be selling our products based on climate. So instead of doing a winter/summer, we’re going to do a hot/cold, or sorry, a hot/dry and a wet/cold version of our shoe. So it kind of shifted our entire way we looked at how we’re selling our products and ended up helping us to release another shoe when we launch.

Kevin Reid: (08:31) I think the mistake was we had some feedback early on that it was like, “You’re only doing one style of shoe,” and we were kind of stubborn about that. And if we had listened quicker or if we had used that feedback and checked if there was other people that felt the same way, then we could have probably made that change quicker.

Nicholas Comani: (08:53) I feel like this is a pretty common place, that a lot of us find ourselves in trying to justify things against the data, but then also having that gut feeling. Where do you find the best places to draw the line between the two?

Braden Parker: (09:07) It’s always a funny question. [crosstalk 00:09:09] I mean, that’s always a challenge. We’re a brand that is supposed to be dictating our direction and should have a good idea of what we want to do with the company, right? But at the same time, we want to be very user-centric. We want to have constant dialogue and feedback. We want to be able to please our community. So, I think there’s some aspects of the company that we try and we stick to our own gut on, and then there’s other things that perhaps are more to do with … Less with the concrete design, but more with the direction that we can take information and move with.

Robert Comanici: (09:53) Well, when you’re running as lean as you are, how do you gather that data? Do you have a formal process? Do you use friends and family? Is there a platform that you use to collect that information?

Braden Parker: (10:08) It’s a mix for sure. So obviously, we’re always speaking with friends and family, but along with that, we’ve done a bunch of things. We’ve gone on Reddit, and on a bunch subreddits, and we’ve spoken with people that are potentially interested in our product or interested in an activity that kind of goes along with our product. So, we’ve looked at a whole bunch of different avenues for just creating conversation with people, and it’s been social media, it’s been various chat rooms and stuff, but any way we can, really.

Kevin Reid: (10:40) Yeah, and we’ve also done a couple of focus groups showing people and trying best to gauge the reaction, and trying to be as careful as possible to not ask really guided questions. And then added to that, we have our mailing list in our community that we’ll send surveys out to occasionally and that we’ll try to elaborate as much as possible. Yeah.

Nicholas Comanici: (11:03) I know that both of you are pretty big fans of the book Start with Why. But when your brand is so product-centric, how do you avoid starting with the what?

Braden Parker: (11:12) That’s a really good question. Yes, Start with Why was definitely … It’s one of my favorite books of all time. And the biggest thing for us was we started with the product and Kevin had some good ideas but then we were like, “Hey, wait a minute. Why do we actually want to create this product? Who is this product for?” And for us, it really came down to these future builders, so people that are on their feet all day, are running to business meetings, still have a social life, and want to see their friends, and need a pair of shoes that can really keep up. So that was really the frustration for us. And we don’t have the technical capabilities to create the next spaceship, but we do have the capabilities to create the next best all-day performant shoe.

Braden Parker: (11:54) I think we just keep going back to that, and we’ve built it into our product, and we’ve built it into our brand, and we created a sort of culture book that includes this thing called a muse, and the idea behind the muse is that your muse is kind of this highly specific version of your target market. So for us, they have a name, an occupation, everything. And then, whenever we’re talking about the product or about our branding, we pull the muse in. So for us, it is this guy named Mads, and he has his own technology company. He’s 35 years old, and we always say like, “What would Mads think about this? What would Mads like about this product? Would Mads like this Instagram post?” And that’s kind of how we’ve been able to tie it all together, I think: trying to marry the why with the product.

Kevin Reid: (12:47) Yeah, so this was a really interesting aspect for me coming from a design background. I haven’t used this at a company in the past and Braden was really big on using the “Start with Why” kind of concept. And it helps. It helped with all of our decision making, even with specific design detailing and stuff. It allowed us to always have this concrete thing to work back to. And when a product is really technical and nerdy, like ours, I think it can be challenging to connect with people. So the why also brought clarity to others, and when we kind of add that to our message, it strengthens it.

Nicholas Comanici: (13:24) What about influencer marketing? Do you plan on using this as a tactic to create brand advocacy for Casca?

Braden Parker: (13:34) Yeah. So we are definitely going to you like influencers are definitely a part of today’s marketplace, obviously. But the key thing for us is that we want to make sure that they’re actually adding true value. I think, that consumers are really smart these days, and no one wants to feel like they’re getting duped by seeing someone posting something that’s just clearly paid endorsement. So what we really look for is, we want to find more ambassador types, that can provide value for us, because we want them to actually test our shoes and wear our product, and kind of have an active dialogue about how it’s working. And also that that person is also providing value for the rest of the world, so that they’re actually like the people out there that are building a brighter future, and that are doing things that are bigger than themselves, that we find really inspiring.

Nicholas Comanici: (14:26) I think influencers can be really valuable, if their lifestyle aligns with your products, your mission, your cause. But any more, people are trying to become influencers, so they are essentially crafting their lifestyle around a certain persona with the intention of getting a brand to sponsor them, or simply to get free product, and then their influence is really watered down.

Braden Parker: (14:51) And I think, it’s a hard thing, really, to do well. You have to really build I think a true relationship with a lot of these influencers and a lot of these ambassadors, and it shouldn’t be a one-way street, “Here is product, go yell about it.” I think it is important to have that true connection. So, that’s what I really see us focusing on.

Kevin Reid: (15:14) Everyone we’ve picked out so far, we’ve kind of had Skype interviews with, and we’ve been able to have face-to-face conversations with them. We think that’s really important. We’ll continue doing that and just make sure everyone is hyper aligned with our purpose and can kind of be an extension of that voice.

Nicholas Comanici: (15:34) In the little bit that I’ve seen in previews of the shoe, there’s some design and functionality elements that set it apart or make it unique. Can you speak on what those are and how you came around to creating them?

Kevin Reid: (15:49) We went to a orthotic lab in Vancouver that’s over 100 years old, and we spoke with this guy. His name is Mark, he’s a third-generation cobbler and orthotic technician. And I spent probably three months working in his lab back and forth, creating a foot form that we could build the shoe around, and we came up with a bunch of different ideas and solutions. And I would throw crazy concepts at Mark, and he would come back with his concerns or whatever. And we ended up getting to a point, where we created a pretty simple system, that can easily hide and fit inside of a shoe without being too cumbersome or visually wrecking that minimal look we were going for.

Kevin Reid: (16:38) And then it was probably eight months of testing, and getting all of our molds correct, and 3D printing prototypes. And so, it was a really cool process of just watching this technology come together. And we’ve patent pended it now, so waiting on the patent for that, and really excited to see what customers think, because I think, you wear the shoe and then you go back to another pair of shoes, and you immediately feel this difference, and you feel this element of support that’s missing. So we hope that there’s a huge reason why we have repeat customers and people coming back to buy more.

Robert Carney: (17:17) Are you walking in your shoes now?

Braden Parker: (17:18) We are.

Kevin Reid: (17:19) We are. Yeah. Every day every day for like the last eight months, we’ve gone on 12 hour hikes and then we’ve played tennis, and then we’ve done everything we can to beat them up.

Robert Carney: (17:31) That reminds me of being a kid my parents would buy me the latest tracks shoes, tennis shoes from Kmart, and there was no way those shoes were going to make it through the year. Speaking of brick and mortar, is that in your future?

Braden Parker: (17:51) The short answer is no. That being said, you never really know. We want to definitely look at doing popups, and we want to explore what unique ways you can kind of recreate that retail experience without having retail. So, by not doing retail we’re definitely able to keep our products’ price point lower, but at the same time, retail is definitely like a profitable billboard. So you can do it in the right way, but I don’t know. I think, we’re in a very interesting time for brick and mortar.

Robert Carney: (18:35) Yeah. What are your thoughts on that? Supposedly 10 to 15 years ago, e-commerce was dead or soon to be, and then more recently, you hear brick and mortar is going to die. But then you have those that say that the two have to work together. What do you think?

Braden Parker: (18:53) Yeah. I definitely think it’s omni channel. It’s actually interesting. If you would have asked me this yesterday, my answer would probably have been different, but I read a really good article this morning about direct to consumer brands and looking at how a lot of them come from Wharton, but also about how you’re kind of in this interesting thing now, where all these direct to consumer brands are putting so much money into their paid marketing that that’s almost like their rent. So they used to claim they were cutting out the middleman, but now a lot of them are actually going into brick and mortar. So you see Warby Parker going in there. You see Greats has opened a store in Brooklyn.

Braden Parker: (19:33) There’s a handful of these direct consumer brands that are now doing retail, and I think that it’s important to have both, but the bottom line is, how do you provide the most value for your customer at the right price point? I think that as long as that formula makes sense that you can afford to go into retail, it makes sense. But it will be very interesting to see over the next five years a lot of those companies have taken on a ton of venture capital and as they start investing in brick and mortar, even though their original value proposition was that by not having brick and mortar, they could provide a better product. I don’t know. It will be very interesting to see what happens.

Nicholas Comanici: (20:13) Getting back to that whole legacy brand thing, I can’t help but think of the book Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. And there seems to be so many parallels in his story with what you’re trying to do today with Casca. Can you tell me a few of your favorites from that book?

Braden Parker: (20:30) Be careful if you’re working with anyone named Onitsuka.

Nicholas Comanici: (20:33) Oh yeah.

Braden Parker: (20:36) And I think the other thing is actually how Phil Knight did a great job of starting with why. Nike was originally there for those runners that were out running in the rain at 5:00 in the morning, when everyone else is in their bed sleeping. And it just came out as this amazing brand. So for me, it almost hammered home that you need to have a really big and passionate purpose behind your brand and behind what you’re doing.

Kevin Reid: (21:06) Yeah, and then to follow up on that I think what Phil Knight was so good at was that once he instilled that purpose, he gave his people freedom to to work and to create solutions in their own way. He was kind of a master of empowering people and gave them room to take risks and tackle the problems in the ways that suited them. I think, that was one of the reasons that Nike was so successful in the early going is because they had these really intelligent people and they just kind of let them run with it, and sat back and saw what they could do.

Nicholas Comanici: (21:40) We were talking about this earlier. The whole Nike SB move into the skateboarding culture. For the longest time growing up, I only wore Vans, and when Nike came around with their version of a skate shoe, I think I was a little bit skeptical, but they’ve proven in a lot of different ways of why they should be in that space. Any thoughts on that?

Braden Parker: (22:09) I think, by doing it really slowly and authentically, making sure that they went to the right people in the skateboard industry giving them product and working with them to make sure that they were creating something that was actually better than what was there, and going to the truly authentic skate shops to carry the product, and not give it to anyone else, and make sure that they were really exclusive, rather than just throwing it in every single Target or Kmart. I think their very slow, methodical process was the thing that they did right.

Kevin Reid: (22:41) Yeah, they entered that community in an authentic way. They were obviously admired as the sportswear brand, but I think, when they approached the right people and they wanted to work with them, as opposed to just create something for them, that’s what made them really successful.

Nicholas Comanici: (23:01) If someone wants to learn more about Casca, get updates on product releases, and really understand more of the why, what is the best resource or place for them to find you?

Kevin Reid: (23:16) If you’re interested, feel free to check out our website, www.casca.com. We’re also on social media: Facebook and Instagram as Casca.co. Any of those channels will help you kind of get you on the right path to finding our product, and finding out what we’re up to.

Braden Parker: (23:34) Yeah. And if anybody who you think would resonate with our brand in terms of building a bright future and doing something really cool, and you think would be an ambassador, please pass them on. We definitely want to try to find some of the coolest future builders out there, and feature them, and work with them, and they can shoot me an email anytime at Braden, B-R-A-D-E-N@Casca.com.

Robert Carney: (24:02) Hey thanks for jumping on the line with us guys, Kevin and Braden. I really appreciate you taking the time and giving us your insights, especially on how even amongst the sportswear giants you’re carving out a niche. I mean, that really applies to so many industries, where you can make changes quickly, and use only quality materials that you can really establish your mark in that industry.

Braden Parker: (24:28) Yeah. Awesome. Thank you so much for having us. It’s been really fun, and we’re excited for you guys in the loop as we launch.

Kevin Reid: (24:34) Thank you guys.

Nicholas Comanici: (24:37) This podcast was brought to you by Carney, the full service digital agency behind the Daily Carnage newsletter. If you’re not already hip to it, you can sign up today at Carney.co. It may just become the best thing to hit your inbox. Stay sharp.

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