Icebreaker: Creating a paradigm shift for a product and an industry

People often ask me which companies I think have done a good job at branding, and about those that have gone a step further and created a paradigm shift in their industry.   Going outside of my usual realm of examples of online companies, I love to talk about Icebreaker as a great example of this.  Icebreaker is a New Zealand-based company that makes edgy outdoor clothing from high quality wool called Merino.  It is an amazing business story and great case study of how to create a premium brand through an innovative approach to marketing and new thinking.

Merino sheep

15 years ago when I left New Zealand to move to the US, wool products were hokey and old fashioned. People wore sweaters to keep warm, but they definitely weren’t stylish. Wool is big business in New Zealand and when I grew up most was used in carpets, sheepskins and other products. NZ wool was certainly a good product by global standards, and there was plenty of it, with upwards of 60 million sheep in the small country.

Then, in 1994, a company called Icebreaker was born.  In 16 years, they have transformed the way people think about wool clothing, built a partnerships with farmers that embrace their sustainable philosophy in order to get the best quality wool and, at the same time created a global market for their products. Talk about a paradigm shift.

Today, Icebreaker is sold in 2,000 stores in 37 countries throughout Europe, Asia, New Zealand, Australia and North America.

Photo: Icebreaker.com

So how did Icebreaker do it?
Inspired by the place where the wool comes from (the rugged and dramatic high country in NZ’s Southern Alps) they have made the origins of the product, and nature the centerpoint of their business. Sustainability is deeply entrenched into every part of the process and the marketing of the products. Linkages to where the materials came from are so important and highlight the authenticity of the product.

  • Investment in design: By designing apparel in new ways that wool hadn’t been seen before, Icebreaker created a demand for a product that didn’t exist before and allowed them to tap into a completely new, and global marketplace.
  • Making wool sexy: Their designs make people feel differently about themselves – they are very flattering or complementary to the body, and they feel good on. Rebranding wool clothing in such a way that makes it sexy and appealing – who would have thought wool could be?
  • A clever branding and marketing campaign: Highlights the origins of the fibre and recognizes the unique natural environment that enables this product to grow, as well as communicates the outdoorsy, rugged sophistication of the terrain the sheep live in that is so unique. The marketing campaign tells stories in a dramatic and powerful way about where the fiber comes from.
  • Transparency all along the supply chain: They have clearly outlined their business practices from the grower to the end user. By creating a “BAA code” for every product, consumers can now trace their Icebreaker gear back to the exact part of New Zealand where the sheep live. This highlights the authenticity of the product and reinforces that it is natural.
  • Healthy obsession with quality: CEO & Founder Jeremy Moon says they have even had to turn down large chains in the US because he wanted to do it at the right time when the strategy was built. He believes it is a mistake to try to scale a brand too quickly and either “not be ready for it and disappoint people, or burn the people who are the core partners”. Quality follows this product all the way through from where it is grown, the treatment and manufacturing of the wool to the store experience is seamless.
  • A sustainable supply chain: Embracing and leading the way to sustainable practices through relationships with sheep farmers that produce the wool. They have created long term relationships with 140 high country farmers that last several years in order to ensure sustainable prices and help them become profitable. In return, growers give Icebreaker guarantees on animal welfare, environmental sustainability, guarantees on quality and supply.  All members of their eco-system (growers and manufacturing plants) must share Icebreaker’s core values around sustainability. This is a brilliant example of a brand taking care of its supply chain and fostering long term and trusted relationships.
  • A vision to the future: They are prepared to challenge the norm and find innovative ways through design and manufacturing to create a superior product that goes well beyond what others do.

Icebreaker opened their US Flagship store this month at 102 Wooster Street, Soho, NYC. Go and check it out!

Which companies do you think are good examples of shifting a paradigm? Post your thoughts below.

Icebreaker.com

At the Icebreaker store in Soho, NY

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One Comment on “Icebreaker: Creating a paradigm shift for a product and an industry”

  1. Hudson January 2, 2011 at 11:05 am #

    Good day Mindy,
    Wonderful story of Icebreaker; I learned of them through a friend, who had worked at Paragon Sporting Goods in the Union Square area. I’ve become a “cult fan” of them and have half a dozen items or so and wear them daily.

    The store on Wooster is set up very nicely; close to the North Face and Patagonia stores. I wonder, whether that was deliberate or because they received a good real estate deal (?)

    Hope all is well with you,

    Hudson

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