Love it or hate it, your success this year and beyond depends on your ability to shape a brand: your career’s, product’s, department’s, or company’s.
Here are some counterintuitive lessons from a man who built a popular snowboarding brand as a college sophomore, knowing little about his industry, marketing, or business. Shaun Neff, founder and CEO of Neff Headwear, now has his products in 3,500 stores in 40 countries, and his gear is sported on ski slopes and streets, by celebrities from Holly Madison to Lil’ Wayne.
I got a chance to sit down with Neff, to learn how he did it and, more importantly, what we can extract from his success to help us build whatever brands we are working on.
Here are four lessons on building a brand from Shaun Neff:
We hold this fantasy about great entrepreneurs being oracles who somehow recognize and move on new opportunities more quickly than others. But my research for The Way of Innovation showed that they actually make a commitment before the opportunity arises and so are poised to step into it when an opening appears.
Neff knew he wanted to start a brand long before college. He noticed what brands people wore and was fascinated by their power. His drive stemmed not from a calculated market view, but from an internal personal passion. When you choose a pre-existing commitment, it becomes an always-there, always-searching filter through which you scan for opportunities.
What pre-existing commitment are you willing to pursue, regardless of when the market offers you a profitable opportunity to do so?
The term "brand" brings up thoughts of logos, colors, and products. But when I asked Neff what a brand was, he spoke of none of these things. He said a brand is "a loyal fan base." When you think of a brand as something to be looked at, when you admire it, you turn your back on what really matters: your fan base. Instead, think of your would-be fans: who are they, what are their passions, where do they spend their time?
If you thought of your brand as your fan base, rather than its elements and colors and meanings, what would you do differently?
Shaun said that lots of brands "get stuck in one product: If you are a footwear company, you are always selling footwear. If you are an eyewear company, you’re always in eyewear." A product-defined brand is inherently limiting. Neff Headgear has top-selling watches, sunglasses, and snowboard gloves. When they think of expanding into a new product they ask two questions: (a) do our retailers know how to sell this and (b) does our "gut" tell us this fits.
If your brand were not defined by your product or category, what would it stand for?
With your pre-existing commitment in your heart and your fan base in mind, find your opening. If one angle doesn’t work, back up and try again, then again, until you find a way through.
Neff started out selling T-shirts. He’d paste stickers on signs, win over local taste-makers, and seek out the coolest snowboard shops. This created a small ecosystem in which his brand started selling. But he wanted to replicate this on a larger scale. For that he needed nationally known snowboarders to wear Neff gear. But he quickly learned that the best snowboarders were prevented by current sponsors from wearing other people’s shirts.
So Shaun studied their contracts one night and realized, "These apparel deals said nothing about the head!" Snowboarders couldn’t wear Neff T-shirts, but they could wear Neff headwear.
Unfortunately, Neff didn’t make headwear. So he went to the local dollar store, bought a stack of beanies, removed their labels, and wrote his last name with a black marker on each one. At the next tournament he convinced several competitors to wear his Neff hat. When two of them stood on the medal podium, "Neff" inscribed prominently over their heads, he knew he had found his opening. "The heavens opened … I am no longer Neff clothing; I’m Neff Headwear."
Are you stuck pursuing just one "opening"? If so, think of three more you can try this month.