How Shinola Uses Community to Take Their Brand Global
By Anisa Aull
In five short years, Shinola has emerged as the modern luxury brand to beat. Infused with as much authenticity and cool as style, Shinola’s retail and social media presence has been expanding rapidly with stores from their home in Detroit to the bustling center of London. Driving much of this growth is Director of Editorial and Social Media, Sarah Shanfield, who joined the brand in 2015 to build out their in-house content team. We sat down with Sarah to discuss how she’s using content to develop Shinola’s brand and what the future holds for retail marketers around the world.
What’s your story about joining Shinola?
I was living in New York and working as a copywriter at an ad agency for a luxury car brand. One night my roommate and I were invited to the opening of the Shinola Tribeca store — likely we took someone’s unused invitation from the agency. We went to the opening and had so much fun. Even though the price of the watches was outrageous for us at the time, we were so excited about the brand, and we ended up spending the price of our rent on a watch.
At the agency where I worked, I ended up pitching a series called “Detroit Stories,” which included a story about Shinola. So, I came to Detroit, visited the factory, and was hooked. At the time I was making content for a product that I rarely got to see or touch much less use, but Shinola had its creative teams here inside the factory itself. I really, really loved that. I met Bridget Russo, Shinola’s CMO — and it only took a couple of months for her to convince me to move. At the time the brand was still really small, there was no full-fledged social or editorial team. My job was to build that up.
Funny story is that we don’t make the model of watch that I bought back in Tribeca, but I’ve never bought a new watch. It was love at first sight.
In a few short years you’ve grown into a successful, well-regarded and, honestly, cool luxury brand. What’s the journey been like? What were some of the defining moments in Shinola’s history?
Actually, a lot of people come to me thinking that we’re the shoe polish brand that became this luxury watchmaker. But actually, our founder Tom Kartsotis had the idea to make a watch company in Detroit first, then he bought the name Shinola. We actually make a shoe polish as a sort of love letter to the brand before we reimagined it.
What were some of the defining moments for us? I think when President Obama visited Detroit in 2016 and bought a journal, and subsequently toted our watch at press conferences. But also, the announcement that we’re opening up a hotel. To us this is really indicative of the design voice that we’ve been able to cultivate, we’re translating it into this 360-degree brand experience.
Most of Shinola’s marketing is based around the stories of Shinola employees and the craftsmanship behind your products. Where did the insight to make storytelling the centerpiece come from? What do you think makes it compelling?
I was really inspired that we could make beautiful content for a luxury brand within our own factory walls. It was something that I had never seen done before by a fashion brand at this level. I was curious if it would resonate — especially on social media. I think people are very excited not only to see how our products are made, but also who’s making them.
We keep this in mind whenever we plan content. We’ve identified four content pillars, one of which is “Making,” that means that no week ever goes by where we don’t celebrate the theme of “Making.” Whether it’s Tawanna in the watch factory, or a highlight of the partners we have making journals out in Ann Arbor, we celebrate “Making,” and the jobs created because of it. What makes it compelling is lifting the curtain on things people are doing with their hands be it computer-based or artisanal work.
You’ve succeeded in winning community in a way that many brands are still struggling with. How do you win a community as a brand from a local marketing perspective?
We believe that every store we open should be a community hub. We put on lots of smaller community-building events that bring groups together. But really it starts before the actual store opens. My job is more to promote, to get people in the doors, and to let people know that they have a new store in their neighborhood. But, we have an entire team of people on the ground getting to know the community — taking people out to dinner and finding out who the tastemakers are. They go door-to-door making connections. We’re really trying to understand each community that we operate in.
After you build relationships and community in person in a new location, how do you support that from a digital perspective?
We have a great campaign called #LoveMyCity: we find influencers and tastemakers in each city, and we challenge them to make a city guide that we publish on social, our website, and our blog. That gets people excited and gets the word out. Our community manager is really skilled at finding unconventional platforms that engage with specific communities.
What’s your process for localizing content, whether that is for American cities or for international markets?
It depends on the team we have in that specific market. For example, we have really small team in Europe. We rely on them to really understand what is going to resonate about our story there. They found that the Detroit/Made in America story wasn’t really going to resonate with a European audience, but what would resonate is that our watches are built with Swiss movements. That was really resounding — European parts built with American hands.
In terms of the process for creating localized content, we’ve worked with international agencies of all types, but the truth is we get the best stuff when we’re working with our internal team. We do our own research and find advocates that we think are really going to get it. We’ve had such success between our community manager, our editor, and our art manager finding the right people no matter what city or what continent. We give our influencers briefs, we give them deadlines, and we negotiate with them — just like any agency we might partner with.
The biggest thing that we want to take internationally is that we produce a very high-quality product. We use our hands. We feature real people. These are things that resonate — we focus on different aspects of this depending on the market — but this value tends to strike a chord all over the world.
Shinola isn’t the type of brand that jumps on new trends; much of your marketing is rooted in heritage and the values that come along with that. What does “authenticity” mean to you, particularly as the gatekeeper of Shinola’s brand voice and tone?
To us, authenticity means transparency. That’s something we like to think we set the bar for. That’s the most important thing for us going forward — continuing to show people where their product comes from. For instance, we recently launched our Snapchat with the theme of “Factory Chat Fridays.” To us, it’s another way to show exactly what’s happening within our factory walls.
Another reason our content is so authentic is that our in-house content studio truly doesn’t sit in a silo. Here at Shinola, we sit in the middle of the room: we’ve got our creative team in front of us, marketing on one side, and the audio factory is down the hall. I wouldn’t have it any other way — you can get ideas from anywhere.
For instance, we’re trying to close the gap between HQ and the stores. Sometime we’ll get a picture from an employee in the L.A. store, and it will be the most beautiful picture that will total pop off on our Instagram. All they have to know is who at HQ to send the picture. It made us realized that we should all be making content together. Our retail employees go through pretty rigorous training, including social media training. We take them through what we’re looking for, and we’ve put together brand bibles that teach employees how to take pictures that will work for us.
You guys are really focused on Instagram — how are you building out the strategy on that channel?
Instagram is our most artful and our most beautiful channel. We want followers to feel like they’re inside a Shinola store. We’re trying to take the experience of being in a Shinola store and make a digital manifestation of it. Not only that, they can also see all the “Making” that we do, all the events that we have, and all the cities that we’re in.
What types of changes in consumer expectations do you predict in the coming years?
My big dream right now is to make our stores a place where people can go to make content. I’m very convinced that this will be the future. Whether it’s photobooths or some sort of art installation that could become Pinterest or Instagram famous — we still figuring it out. But I also think it needs to go beyond these types of experiences. Customers will say, “I want to go to the store and…” We need to ask ourselves, “what is our ‘and?’”
A truly enriched digital ecosystem needs to include stores. It’s a big challenge, but I want to continue to get people in the door using digital methods. A lot of people are really inspired by Burberry — they’ve been doing this for years and are constantly setting the bar. I want to get on that level with our brand.
Take us through your process of building the Shinola editorial and social calendar.
Our calendaring process starts on Monday the week before. We spend those first three days figuring out what product launches are coming up, what events are happening, what stores are opening, and if there any other milestones that we need to know. Then we sit with our calendar and look at it like a puzzle. We put in all the things that need to be there — events, product launches, etc — in between we put in those softer moments — celebrating “making,” cities, or our factory team. By the end of the week, we have this puzzle buttoned up and ready to go for the following week.
We’re always looking to improve our process. We’re also looking to make sure that we show enough people internally what our week looks like. We want to ensure that every single department knows what’s on social media before it happens. We also want to supply our retail employees with images to help them with clienteling and sharing images with customers. We need to share images across the board while making sure the rights for every photo are set.
Tell us about your favorite Shinola campaign to date. Why did you enjoy working on it?
The very first campaign we worked on was called “Make Your Dog a Hero,” a dog adoption campaign with The Humane Society, where we were selling collars and leashes. We had a big photoshoot with dogs in need of adoption, and we brought toys and beds. All of the dogs that participated were adopted, and we celebrated with a big adoption event at the Shinola dog park up the street from our Detroit store. Honestly, I didn’t just love this campaign because of the dogs. I think when you’re a social strategist, there’s a thirst for immediate data that you don’t get in other media platforms. Seeing the dogs get adopted so quickly was exactly the kind of results we wanted — along with clicks and comments, of course.