Melancholy (defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as “deep and long-lasting sadness”) is not a word or state of being typically associated with brand strategy.
Overall, brands tend to avoid any whiff of negativity at all costs, gravitating instead towards positions linked with joy, positivity, usefulness (and, occasionally, sex). But Swedish rainwear brand Stutterheim does not see melancholy as negative; in fact, quite the reverse. The brand’s architects sees it as an essential human condition and a wellspring of creativity. Putting melancholy at its core is proving a huge success for Stutterheim which has earned booming growth figures and Kanye West, Jay-Z and Paloma Faith among celebrity fans of its high-end rainwear.
The backstory of the company, founded in 2010 by Alexander Stutterheim is rather touching. He found his beloved late grandfather’s old raincoat in a barn, and having been appalled at the lack of stylish rainwear available at the time, set about recreating the coat with a contemporary edge. An initial handmade batch of 200 coats sold out rapidly and he knew he was onto something. Most of brand’s coats and jackets are made of rubberized cotton and all are created with painstaking attention to detail.
The backstory lends an authentic charm to the brand but it is with the introduction of melancholy that things get really interesting. Stutterheim marketing director and cofounder, Johan Loman, explains the thinking: “We talked to a lot of people about their relationship with the rain. Almost everyone said they felt kind of blue when they see a heavy downpour outside. This made us think about Sweden as a country–we are famous for fostering a lot of influential writers and film directors. Then we thought that in order to be creative you need to be able to feel blue at times so we made the connection between melancholy and creativity.”
Stutterheim is not the only brand to tap into the evocative nature of Swedish gloom with its weak winter light and brooding atmosphere. Volvo, for instance, has also turned to these qualities in some of its recent advertising. However, Stutterheim has also injected a smart, knowing twist, seen, for example, in its strapline: “Swedish melancholy at its driest”. Scandinavia is, after all, the spiritual home of hipsterdom.
Loman has been involved with the company from its very earliest days. He was acquainted with Alexander Stutterheim when both were working at ad agency Lowe’s Scandinavian head office (Loman, a strategist, Stutterheim a copywriter). He later bumped into Stutterheim when the latter was in the first stages of forming the company. Loman kept his day job at a PR agency but worked on his friend’s brand at evenings and weekends. “We wanted to be able to talk about stuff that wasn’t the usual fashion company stuff,” Loman says of those early steps. “So we said we are going to create the best raincoats ever but also we want to change people’s relationship to rain though talking about melancholy and creativity.”
It is all working: since 2011 the company has grown from a turnover of 1,500,000 Swedish kronor ($180,000 approximately) to 23,000,000 kronor ($2,750,000 approx) in 2014. It is estimated the company will hit 55,000,000 kronor ($6,500,000 approx) in 2015, with a profit margin of 15 per cent. From its Swedish beginnings, it is now stocked in 700 retailers worldwide (growing from 20 in 2012), including Barney’s New York and Selfridges in London.
Making the intellectual connections between melancholy, creativity and an essential “Swedishness” is one thing; bringing that to tangible life is another. “In the early stages, we had a limited budget so we relied on social media. It was very important to talk to people about our product of course and about [production] processes but also about people’s relationship with rain,” Loman says.
“We did photo contests where we tried to see how people could help us in our quest in making it come to life by sharing their most melancholic image, quotes and songs and interlinking a lot with pop culture. Having a limited budget also meant that we had pictures but that was more or less it, so we had to be interesting in some way.”
The brand has also drawn considerable attention through celebrity fans. Dave Chappelle wore a Stutterheim jacket on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, a complete surprise to the Stutterheim team as Chappelle had apparently just gone to Barney’s and bought it; they had “no clue”. Other high points include a collaboration with Jay-Z in 2013 and, more recently, the omnipresent Kanye West was pictured wearing a black Stutterheim, again, like Chappelle’s, purchased independently.
Nevertheless, Loman says the widely shared picture of West made no discernible difference to sales. “Maybe he will call me now and be angry,” he jokes. Other famous wearers include Paloma Faith, Erika Badu and New Zealand pop star Lorde, but while useful, celebrity endorsers are only part of the overall branding story.
“They are an asset within PR,” Loman says. “It’s not like if Kate Moss wears our stuff sales will skyrocket but rather it’s about perception of the brand being pushed forward.” He adds: “We get a lot of exposure, we have very high standards and we want to be in press all of the time, we expect nothing less. And we scream out loud when we see Kanye West [wearing Stutterheim], it’s so amazing–but then it is on to the next one.”
Since the brand has grown the communications approach has evolved. “As we got more relevant resources to create stuff, it is now a question about doing social and PR but also using our own channels such as our web page and newsletters,” Loman says, adding: “One ambition in social media is to explain the price point [$232-$1,011]–talking about quality, craftsmanship, the range of options and explain why we are a premium brand.”
Loman also says that the company has developed a “picture language.” “Instead of relying on a consumer coming to the webpage and digesting all the stories to clearly understand what we are about, we want to send a certain type of feeling and mood in our images,” he says. This approach has become more sophisticated over time. “It’s gone from a lot of dabbling and maybe not creating the most relevant stuff all the time to creating high quality content with the product in focus but around these images, inviting people into a mood of melancholy. We made a journey from Facebook to that.”
It is worth noting that this journey has included no “traditional” advertising whatsoever.
The brand’s communications are not directed at all potential customers, however. “If you see the product, it is functional, it is extremely interesting in terms of aesthetic and craftsmanship. Because it is such a functional product it caters to many people but that does not mean that our brand building has to cater to all of those people because the product itself is our strongest marketing tool.”
He continues: “For many people the first touch point will be the product. But if you are a ‘brand fan’ then maybe you’ve read about us in your favorite magazine or liked us on Facebook, or you’ve heard about Stutterheim from a colleague. These are two different things. When we work with our positioning we have one target group in mind–but then when you look at people who actually buy the product, it is a much wider group.”
Alongside this rapid evolution, the company’s structure also changed and became more sophisticated. In 2012, the business took on new investors, a CEO, chairman and a lawyer. The newly formed board made a clear 3-5 year plan. Things then happened quickly; the company launched the Stockholm jacket, considered now to be its most iconic product and switched production from Sweden to Poland. Sales and distribution strategy were also reconfigured.
As a result, growth has been exponential but Loman says there has been no impact on the quality of the garments in the leap from small handmade batches to volume production. “If someone looked at how we were producing our coats in the beginning to now they would have a really hard time finding a difference,” he says, adding: “Our biggest selling product–the Stockholm coat–we didn’t produce at all in Sweden because no one had a welding machine [the jacket has welded seams]. But the others are produced in exactly the same way.”
Protecting quality is a shared company value and has caused no tension between the founders and the newer, perhaps more business-focused leadership team. “Everyone, from the CEO to accounts, is extremely conscious of exactly what kind of products this company puts into the market,” Loman says. This will be a key factor in the future when the company enters new categories, as is the intention. There are plans to expand into waxed cotton coats, bonded cotton, laminated cotton and possibly wool in the future.
Stutterheim’s journey is a master class in original, well-executed branding combined with business acumen. It is neatly encapsulated in an anecdote Loman shares about moving production to the supplier in Poland. “At the time we were their smallest client but today we are their biggest. They have now stopped laughing at us for making fashion out of rubber.”
There’s nothing melancholic about that.