May 21

Activewear Brand Approaches D2C With A Purpose

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Simon Sinek, the business guru who has the third most popular TED Talk of all time, once wrote: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.”

Anyone who works at fashion brand Bella+Canvas is familiar with the quote. In fact, every new employee is given a copy of Sinek’s “Start With Why” on day one.

“There has to be a greater purpose behind everything you do,” said President Chris Blakeslee. “You can’t just make the product and then try to tell people why they should buy it.”

Bella+Canvas is a California-based activewear brand with a unique mix of business models. As the largest wholesale apparel manufacturer in the U.S., it has its name and logo on millions of T-shirts and other gear. It has also been quietly building its own direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand of young, urban-oriented athleisure wear with a marketing positioning that reflects its rebellious attitude. Its tagline: “Be different.” Most recently, Bella+Canvas has opened a retail business, distributing its products through Nordstrom and other department stores.

That purpose that Blakeslee refers to stems from a commitment to high-quality, environmentally friendly domestic manufacturing. Its factory is located in California because the state has the highest standards for dyes and wastewater treatment. The company plans to be carbon-neutral by early 2021. Last week, it announced that it would produce up to 100 million face covers per week, making it the largest global manufacturer of non-medical masks. The company converted its manufacturing floors and retooled its machines to make the masks, and has committed to donating at least five million face covers to organizations serving the homeless, healthcare workers, first responders and underserved communities. Additionally, through a partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors, Bella+Canvas will donate one million face covers, which will provide 1,400 cities with critical protective equipment.

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“If there is a secret sauce to what we do, it is that we are very purposeful and entrepreneurial,” Blakeslee noted. “Even though we’ve become a large business, we’re still able to tell our customers who we are and what we believe in, and through that we create a connection with them.”

The retail business, both D2C and in-store, is a relatively new iteration for Bella+Canvas, and has comprised about 50 percent of the company’s total revenue. The company opened Nordstrom as its first account in October of 2019. As a D2C brand, Blakeslee believes his company has an effective platform for marketing and messaging.

“I was on a call earlier this week with about 60 retail executives across the world,” he said. “Everyone seems to think that the trend we’ve seen with direct-to-consumer eCommerce far outperforming traditional channels is going to continue. We agree, and we’re very fortunate to have a partner like Nordstrom. We feel that one of our biggest competitive advantages is our ability to tell the consumer a story about who we are – and trying to find even more creative, integrated ways to do that.”

The D2C marketing for the company’s street and athletic wear (think Nike with more attitude) is hip and up-tempo, with a music video vibe. The videos and other stories on its website and social channels are diverse in both genre and ethnicity. Blakeslee said he likes to think the customers are creating the marketing.

Going into the post-pandemic world, Bella+Canvas has a two-pronged strategy. On the wholesale side, it will focus on innovative products and new partners, planning for the production jump that has necessitated an expansion of its Los Angeles factory by 30 percent. On the retail side, Blakeslee said he is considering new product lines and distribution partners, and is doubling down on the brand’s environmental purpose.

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“Prior to this, we were very focused on getting to carbon neutral as a company and doing more with recycled products,” said Blakeslee. “The crisis delayed our execution on that. But when people start getting back into the normal world again, it will be just as important as it was five months ago. We want people to know that we take doing well and doing good very seriously.”

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