Betabrand's Building A Business On Balderdash And Memes

Betabrand's techies are beating fashionistas at their own game. Memes are helping build this e-commerce business one web-friendly, gimmicky item of apparel at a time.

How many memes of dudes mugging for the camera clad in star-spangled trousers does it take to net $2 million in sales? Chris Lindland isn’t sure, but as founder of the online men’s clothier Betabrand.com, he’s determined to figure it out, one forwarded user-submitted photo at a time. Sales are expected to top $2 million this year.

For the past year Lindland (who has no background in apparel, retail, or fashion design) has been cultivating a growing cadre of devoted customers to an e-commerce business that started with just one pair of pants. But they’re not your dad’s no-iron Dockers—Cordarounds are designed to have the corduroy fabric run horizontally. 

Lindland didn’t stop there. He and an old college buddy, Anthony Jaffe, peddled the pants with comedic copy including a (pseudo-scientific) promise of unparalleled ventilation. "Unlike vertical corduroy, which produces friction that can heat your crotch to uncomfortable, even dangerous levels, Cordarounds’ horizontal wales mesh evenly, lowering the average wearer’s crotch heat index (CHI) by up to 22%."

Sweaty balls (heyo, Alec Baldwin!) notwithstanding, guys started buying. Lindland’s no stranger to comedic writing—he once sold a cartoon series to Spike TV. He also recognized the need to continue dishing drollery to keep the customers clicking. In a playful spirit of one-upmanship, Lindland tells Fast Company, the two friends push out an e-newsletter that’s “99 percent fiction and 1 percent fashion,” two times a week.

Lindland says once sites such as Daily Candy debuted, fashion—like food, wine, and sports—was released from clutches of industry elites. “If you look at fashion and fashion marketing through the lens of the Internet, you end up taking a different approach,” he says. The idea is to turn fashion forward into "fashion forwarded."

Betabrand’s tongue-in-cheek copy for items such as Disco Hoodies (made with doubloons salvaged from a sunken Spanish galleon!) or Glutton Pants (sporting a trio of buttons appropriately labeled Piglet, Sow, and Boar to accommodate waistline expansion during feeding time) fed enthusiasts' furor to discover fun new products. "We are an imminently bloggable brand,” Lindland says. “We really think hard about each product for the sake of getting bloggers to write about us because we don’t have Ralph Lauren’s marketing budget."

So far, bloggy, viral marketing is working. Stephen Colbert was sporting Betabrand’s star-spangled pants during his Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C. Regis and Kelly wore Caperons on their talk show. And Bridesmaids director Paul Feig endorsed the (ahem) Vagisoft blanket. "According to our mail provider our open rate is astounding at 40 percent" while the average for e-commerce brands hovers somewhere in the teens, he says.

The groundswell of retail purchases influenced by bloggers and friends was not lost on Lindland, either.

In May, Betabrand debuted a feature on the site dubbed Model Citizen. That premise arose out of a problem, Lindland explains. Though plenty of sites ran photo contests, he thought it wouldn’t be cool to reject most of the submissions on the basis that they weren’t great shots. Because Betabrand’s back-end architecture could support any number of images on the site without a major cost to store them, Lindland invited everyone to submit photos. Contributors are issued a URL that would make their photo appear to be the lead model shot on the homepage.

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The response was immediate. Since test-launching Model Citizen in May, more than 1,000 customer images have premiered on Betabrand.com, each inviting an average of 20 Facebook friends to take a look.

If he’d paid for this on Facebook it would have cost $22,340, assuming an average CPC rate of $1, asserts Lindland. Instead the small investment brought nearly that much in revenue this summer as 1 in 10 Model Citizen photos generates a trackable order from a new customer. 

Now that Model Citizen is officially out of beta, Lindland has to get back to designing and debuting new products. "Our business is [built to have] brand new ideas nonstop, then track see what sells through and build web community around that product," he explains. 

Lindland doubts he could have made Betabrand’s projected $2 million in sales this year if he simply sold the world's finest wool sweaters. "Why would someone forward on a link to that, when there are so many great cat videos to send to your friends?" he quips. Instead he’s ready to launch a line made of black sheep's wool. "There's a web-friendly gimmick that every black sheep of the family needs to know about. You hook the masses on memes, then offer 'em up other fine things they can buy."

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