Joey Zwillinger, founder of Allbirds, manufacturer of Time’s “most comfortable shoe in the world,” talks about branding his startup with Karl Ulrich, Wharton Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

By Karl Ulrich, Wharton Vice Dean of Entrepreneurship & Innovation

First of all, I should say that I’m wearing Allbirds right now, and I wear them about 30% to 40% of the time, so clearly I’m a fan. I bought my first pair after Joey Zwillinger, the founder of Allbirds, came and spoke to a class of mine a little over a year ago (full disclosure, Joey is a 2010 Wharton MBA alumnus, although he wasn’t a student of mine), and he made the pitch to me that I really ought to be wearing Allbirds. I’ve bought a few pairs over the year.

Clearly, Joey has both a great product and a great pitch.

Allbirds sneakers. Courtesy of Allbirds.
Allbirds sneakers. Courtesy of Allbirds.

The Elevator Pitch

Allbirds elevator pitch: “We set out to make the most comfortable shoe in the world. What we did to do that was strip away every single detail of a current construction of a shoe that is unnecessary and either takes away for comfort or is focused on dropping cost or doing something else that’s unrelated to our customer. And then we engineered and innovated a fabric where we packed in fibers from the merino sheep that are about 20 percent of the width of a human hair that are typically used in $5,000 suits and we engineered a fabric that was strong enough to make into a fabric that could be an upper of a shoe, that’s the part that’s above your foot. And we constructed what we think is a great shoe. And we did it in a way that was incredibly sustainable for the planet.”

From the consumer end—the end on which I’m wearing shoes—this is a great pitch, with lots to appeal to me, especially around comfort and sustainability. But what I think is really fascinating about Allbirds as a company is in their brand, and their dedication to building that brand.

The Importance of Building a Brand

I was shocked when Joey told me how much Allbirds initially spent on brand. No startup I’ve ever heard of takes even the first ten percent of their financing and puts it against brand. But here’s what Joey has to say about their spending: “We put almost 20% of our initial budget we ended up spending on brand. And I think every dollar was worth it.” That 20%, by the way, came to around $400,000-$500,000—a huge investment for a startup.

Here’s the thing: it worked. On the day Allbirds launched, Time magazine called them the “world’s most comfortable shoes.” Joey summarized his takeaway: “Brand, PR and product. Those are the areas where we said there’s absolutely zero skimping on investment.”

Building Innovation Into the Brand

Beyond comfort, beyond sustainability, beyond the look, which is a great look, Allbirds is also incredibly innovative, and that’s built into the brand as well.

Joey’s still proud of the shoe they launched with, “an incredible product right out of the gate,” as he describes it—but he goes on to explain that “we’ve changed it 27 times. It’s been 18, 19 months now, and we’ve changed it 27 times, that shoe has been altered in our manufacturing process.”

Allbirds lounger -- one of many innovations since the launch of their first product. Courtesy of Allbirds.
Allbirds lounger — one of many innovations since the launch of their first product. Courtesy of Allbirds.

That may sound like a lot of change, but, as Joey’s says, “now people don’t think of you as a wool shoe company or a shoe company even, they think of you as an innovator and they think about you as a company that delivers on their promise every time and you just want to keep buying what they come out with next. I think there are some great examples out in the world, like Apple is a wonderful example of doing exactly that, which is why you see lines around the block for what they put out every time they do it.”

The Apple of shoe companies. I love it.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes.
Launch Pad airs weekly on Sirius XM Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School. Listen to more of Karl’s conversations with entrepreneurs on Launch Pad.

Posted: December 6, 2017

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