Podcast #20: Strategic Sharing & Building Brands with Kith, Jack’s Wife Freda, & Nike
In the Jewish religion, a bar mitzvah is the ritual induction of a boy into manhood at the age of thirteen. It’s recognized as the time when he, not his parents, becomes responsible for his actions.
Ronnie Fieg took this transition quite seriously.
Fieg’s first cousin is David Z, a legendary sneaker and sports- wear retailer in New York City. Ronnie’s parents were paying off his bar mitzvah celebration with the gifts from the guests, and as is customary, David came to the celebration with his gift in hand: an envelope of cash. Ronnie saw this as an opportunity and said to David, “Thanks, but no thanks; I’d rather have a job working for you instead.” The next day, Ronnie started as a stock boy at David Z.
In the late 1990s, David Z was located on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, one of the most influential blocks in the country for street culture. All the big hip-hop artists spent their weekends hanging on the block. They would start on the corner with a Gray’s Papaya hot dog, maybe grab a pair of Parasuco Jeans in one of the lesser-known shops, and end up in David Z’s buying a pair of GORE-TEX boots.
This was where Ronnie learned the business of sneakers and streetwear. As he tells it, “When Lauryn Hill spits ‘In some Gore- Tex and sweats I make treks like I’m homeless,’ the week that she recorded that album, I sold her the boots. And when you see Ma$e and Diddy in the ‘Been Around the World’ video and they’re wearing Dolomites, I sold them their boots. Anytime you’d see Wu-Tang with custom Wallabies, I used to get them custom-made for them. Jay-Z was there every weekend. ‘Cruising down Eighth Street’—when he spits that on the [‘Empire State of Mind’] track, that was him every Saturday, cruising down Eighth Street. I used to help him with his Timberlands every Saturday.” For Ronnie, working at David Z was like going to the Harvard of street style.
Ronnie worked his way up from stock boy to sales clerk to assistant manager to manager to assistant buyer and, eventually, buyer for multiple David Z stores around the age of twenty-five. As the head buyer, Ronnie had direct exposure to the brands, and luckily for him, David Z moved volume, which gave him influence. He formed a relationship with ASICS at a Vegas trade show, and the brand performed well in the stores, so ASICS decided to give him the opportunity to design his own silhouette.
This was propitious; back in the day, his mom had bought him a pair of ASICS Gel-Lyte IIIs at Tennis Junction in Great Neck instead of the more popular Reebok Pumps he wanted. At first, Ronnie hated them, but eventually he grew to love them, wearing them until they had “holes in the soles.” He wanted to replace them, but they’d been discontinued. When ASICS gave him the chance to design his own, the Gel-Lyte III was his obvious choice. He pulled them out of the archive and created three versions, of which a total of 756 pairs were manufactured. He called in some favors from a few friends, and they threw an event at David Z. The next day, they sold a few pairs, and he shared the story of the shoes with one of the buyers. The day after that, Ronnie’s mother called him, exclaim- ing, “Your shoe is on the cover of the Wall Street Journal!” The guy Ronnie had told the story to was an editor at the WSJ, and he wrote a story about limited-run sneakers. The next day, there was a line around the block. That same day, the president of Adidas America showed up and, as Ronnie tells it, “I told him the story, and that’s how we started talking about working on a shoe called the Black Tie.” Ronnie had begun to build his following.
While David Z had a thriving business focused on moving quantity, Ronnie was coming up in the era of Union and Supreme. He was obsessed with what they were doing. “What I really wanted to do is build a curated lifestyle shop, and not be pigeonholed into one category or another. [I wanted to] give [a] New York vibe [to] all types of products, multi-brand, and have our own brand.” So, in 2007, he started Kith, a small T-shirt and jacket line, and in 2010 he decided he was ready to launch a Kith shop. He partnered with Sam Ben-Avraham, owner of another legendary New York retail chain, Atrium. His first shop was 800 square feet, and during development he slept in the store for five straight days. “Just building the store with our bare hands,” he remembers. “I borrowed money to open the shop. It really took off the minute we opened, and the money was paid back in like four months.”
Since the opening of that shop, Kith has become a retail juggernaut. Currently, the brand has seven permanent locations, along with pop-up seasonal locations in places such as Aspen. They recently quadrupled the size of the original Lafayette Street store and opened the Arsham/Feig Art Gallery on the top floor with artist Daniel Arsham, a Kith collaborator. There are also multiple loca- tions offering their Kith Treats concept, a cereal bar that focuses on combining cereal and ice cream for decadent ice cream desserts.
Why is Kith thriving when most other retail brands are dying? The answer is that it is a highly sharable product built firmly on the pillars of the Creator’s Formula.
All Kith stores are designed by Snarkitecture, a firm founded by Arsham, focused on “investigating the boundaries between art and architecture.” Arsham’s work makes the stores more like immersive art exhibits than retail stores, and that makes Kith a place to expe- rience, rather than just shop. The stores are highly curated from start to finish; whether it’s their sneaker displays, book selections, wallpaper, or website, everything reinforces the brand’s status as a culture creator. As Ronnie puts it, “We take a lot of risks, but you have to take risks in this market to be rewarded…. You need to actually provide newness and culture-shifting ideas.”
While people go to Kith for the practical reason of purchasing sneakers, they also come to be a part of the movement, to say they have been there, to take photos of themselves in the store or wearing their piece of culture. Think of today’s best stores as con- temporary art museums, but instead of taking photos in front of an innovative canvas or sculpture, you’re taking photos in front of branded installations and products. It’s a similar kind of creativity, in a different medium and setting.
Next, Ronnie made collaborating core to his operation, not a side project. He collaborates with brands ranging from the commercial (Rugrats, Power Rangers, Coca-Cola, Cap’n Crunch) to high style (Colette, BAPE, Bergdorf Goodman) to footwear legends (Nike, Timberland, Adidas). Through this process, Kith is constantly exchanging intellectual capital, social capital, and customers with some of the most influential brands and people on the planet. As Ronnie explains it, “Working with brands becomes important when really represents both sides in a collaborative effort.”
And because Kith is launching these collaborations through- out the year, customers always have another reason to visit or follow, as there’s always something new happening.
This constant activity and content is vital in a saturated media landscape. Combined with their experiential stores, this makes Kith the ultimate naturally sharable product. It’s a model that makes sure all channels, offline and online, are overflowing with great con- tent. From the stores to the product to the partners to the cereal bar, Kith is brimming with interesting stories to tell and imagery to share, both for the traditional media and social media. And that kind of content is immensely valuable in the modern age—just take a look at the #Kith hashtag and you’ll see how a sharable product can transform into a movement.
Finally, Kith is tapping into two massively cultish communi- ties: sneaker geeks and street-style junkies. These communities are constantly looking for what’s next, and Kith is always there to give it to them. Kith’s followers are digital natives involved in a global conversation. Ronnie’s decades of street credibility give the brand authenticity, and the market knowledge he and his team possess helps Kith stay ahead of the curve—both invaluable assets when dealing with these types of communities. More than that, popular culture pulls directly from these two fringe communities to decide what’s new and next, so these communities amplify Kith’s brand presence and message, allowing it to have a significant impact on the larger cultural conversation.
Kith is exciting not only because the product is great, but because the business is great. Ronnie Fieg and his team understand how to drive commerce via culture, by building a product that nat- urally fits into the cultural conversation. By investing his resources into emotionally generous creative outputs, the community naturally amplifies the message, and that is the definition of strategic sharing.
You won’t understand the unabashed power of community until you are part of one.
We all crave the sense of belonging that comes with being part of a community, experiencing that fellowship with others that results from sharing common interests and goals. These types of connections engage the human spirit. Habitually, we’re driven to organize ourselves into groups—by industry, religion, hobby, sports teams, even the television shows we watch. Therefore, to effectively share your ideas, it’s critical that you recognize the importance of communities and how they’ve evolved.
In the industrial age, communication was primarily a one-way road. Messages went out from those in control of the distribution channels and were consumed by the watchers and listeners. There were only a few options, no DVR, and limited places to comment or criticize. The only way to amplify your message was to spend more money on advertising. The more you spent promoting your message, the more exposure your message received. Whether or not the audience liked the message was a guessing game.
In the Age of Ideas, the cost of communicating is far less, and digitally, the reaction is instant and measurable. While you can still buy distribution, the more you advertise or sell, the less engaged the communities you reach will be. Trust has replaced money as the most valuable commodity in communication; in a saturated environment, we only pay attention to messages from sources we trust. Additionally, that one-way road has become a multi-lane expressway, with messages that are circulated and re-circulated by communities with overlapping interests. And it’s clear where the power of those communities is generated.
In June 2017, Nike realigned their corporate structure to focus on twelve cities. They did this because they believe cities “will represent over 80 percent of their growth through 2020,” and described the strategy as “local business, on a global scale.” Translation: Nike recognized that their future sales are tied more than ever to their social relevance in key metropolises, so they decided to concen- trate their resources on influencers—not just social influencers in the traditional sense, but whole sub-cultures of influential people who live in cities. More importantly, they recognize that the people influencing culture and consuming their most profitable products are no longer citizens of countries; they’re global citizens residing in a select group of cities.
While the digital revolution gave us the ability to live remotely, it also created a ravenous desire for true connection. People, young and old, want to be part of something larger than themselves; they want to live a rich life filled with shared experiences; they want vari- ety, diversity, and energy, and cities provide these things.
At the same time, wealth is more concentrated than ever. The wealthiest among us generally live in large metropolises, and like our ancestors who settled where food or water was plentiful, we too settle where our most important resource is most abundant.
We follow the money.
This concentration of connection and capital inevitably results in cities becoming epicenters of culture and influence. Think about it—imagine being a young person watching all the amazing things happening in New York, Paris, or London on Instagram. If you’re not in one of these cities, the pull to get there is strong. This urbanization movement has been happening for some time, of course, but the communications revolution has amplified the pace dramatically. It’s predicted that by 2050, about 64 percent of the developing world and 86 percent of the developed world will be urbanized.
Trends are flowing more rapidly and randomly than ever before because these cities are linked in real time through social media and the Internet. This has forced a rapid, unmediated evolution of culture and trends. The only way to truly build relevance and drive sales is to focus your resources on influencing the culture within cit- ies. As Douglas Holt writes in the Harvard Business Review, “Social media binds together communities that once were geographically isolated, greatly increasing the pace and intensity of collaboration. Now that these once-remote communities are densely networked, their cultural influence has become direct and substantial.”
Instead of sending out one-way messages—i.e. traditional advertising—we must now relate to these overlapping communities by appealing to their shared beliefs, values, and struggles. We call this strategic sharing—putting the needs and desires of the audience ahead of your own—while maintaining your intention to achieve a desired outcome. Airbnb is a perfect example. They tapped into a global community of underserved travelers looking for a more con- nected, localized, and experiential way to travel. It took them years to establish the level of trust needed with their target communities, but once they did, travelers organically amplified their message. When you find the communities that share your belief system, you must contribute meaningfully and consistently. For some, this may mean sharing information or creativity, while for others it may mean throwing events or giving to charity. While it requires patience and time, anything worth doing requires that you make significant investments. This type of cultivated amplification is the result of doing the right thing over a long period of time, and consistently and strategically doing right by your audience is the special sauce of modern marketing.
But you don’t have to be a global brand to apply strategic sharing. As Kevin Kelly said in his popular essay “1,000 True Fans,” to make a living as “a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans. A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and Audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the ‘best-of’ DVD version of your free YouTube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand true fans like this, you can make a living.”
In Manhattan’s Soho district, there’s a restaurant named Jack’s Wife Freda that applies strategic sharing beautifully. While their food is consistent and high-quality, they aren’t serving high- end cuisine and haven’t spent tons of money on décor or market- ing. But Jack’s Wife Freda is jammed, all the time—so much so that they had to open a second location. The owners, Maya and Dean Jankelowitz, are restaurant veterans who trained for many years under the legendary restaurateur Keith McNally of Balthazar fame. They’re present, attentive, nice, and involved with their community.
Their goal has always been to run a great, comfortable, and suc- cessful restaurant and take care of their regulars, a/k/a their “true fans.” They’ve done an incredible job of tapping into overlapping communities by simply doing the right thing. Over the years, their friends and customers have become influential in the communities of fashion, art, media, and hospitality. These people posted regularly about Jack’s on their social media channels, and that led hordes of young professionals to flock to the restaurant. Maya and Dean did the right thing, combined it with good strategic thinking, and over time, the communities amplified their message.
Unlocking the power of strategic sharing and your community all comes back to the quality of your contribution. The more giving you are, the more likely a community will embrace your message and amplify it. Once you’ve earned their trust, you must continue to contribute by delivering on the promises you’ve made—whether that’s putting on a great concert or serving a hot cup of coffee. When you do the right thing, strategically and consistently, the universe will reward you endlessly.
Sharing your energy without intention, without wanting some- thing in return, is one of the most powerful actions any individual or organization can make. It transforms you from a consumer of energy, a taker, to a creator of energy, a giver. This simple act of unselfishly revealing your gifts to the world, adding something to the human experience, contributing, completes the positive energy loop that enables you to unlock your creative potential.