Small business: Jeremy Moon - starting Icebreaker

Excerpt from a Better by Design case study with Jeremy Moon, founder and CEO of Wellington-based Icebreaker Nature Clothing. Icebreaker is the world's leading brand in the merino outdoor clothing category. The brand is now sold in more than 2000 stores in 24 countries.

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Get clear on the idea: develop your story first, product second

Even before the first garment was designed, Icebreaker developed a story with the potential to excite a global audience - the story of a natural fibre from the mountains that could reconnect humans with nature.

Embrace intuition

A big distinction between a design-led company and marketing-led company is in their proximity to, and understanding of, their customers. A design-led company uses research to confirm their intuition, not to lead their thinking, and the people within the company 'live it'.

Jeremy: Design-led required an intuitive leap, not just trying to find out what people want, because most people don't know what they want until they see it.

Go beyond the obvious

At the most basic level, wearing a merino garment is about staying warm. In the Icebreaker world, products are designed to transcend the basic need for warmth and relate to the customer on a broader level of values-based wants. For example, aspiration is important; having adventure at the heart of the brand talks to the yearning for adventure and excitement that is latent within many people.

Different is critical, but it must be a meaningful difference

You can make an underwater car that is beautiful and different to anything else, but it's not necessarily a product that is meaningfully different. To be successfully design-led, a company needs to make products that are unique, well executed through high quality design and production, and meaningful to consumers.

Have a marketing focus at the top

Any company wishing to be world class at identifying latent or new needs requires a strong marketing focus at the top. This will also ensure sufficient investment in design capability and a company culture that is geared to living the brand in everything it does. This can be achieved by having a CEO who sponsors projects, or a direct line from design or marketing through to the CEO. The whole culture of the company needs to embrace these design-led principles, from the top down.

Designing the difference

Designed with a single-minded focus on the wearer achieving a sense of oneness with nature. Icebreaker created a new category.

Jeremy: If it wasn't well executed we might as well have "just been selling jerseys".

We needed to design our story into every Icebreaker garment - a story about relationships to nature and to each other. Everything we do, every aspect of our design, must support this core theme.

Hence the notion of Icebreaker, of breaking the ice between people, between mankind and nature and between wool and skin. Icebreaker garments are designed to capture the physicality of the human body and a sense of the possibility of adventure, every time they are worn.

Each year the core brand themes are reviewed and new relevant brand themes are discussed and worked into the design execution plan for the year. Leading through ideas ensures the product is always relevant and fresh.

More insights

Make every aspect of your product reflect your brand values.

If your product design, graphic design and language work as one, you'll have a product that's an expression of your brand values, rather than a product with a brand stuck on it. Central to this is the use of words - one word is the difference between success and failure for Icebreaker. Wool. Given wool's negative connotations as a fabric against the skin, the word "merino" distances Icebreaker from both wool and synthetics. In doing so, it creates a new category.

Niche is good

There's a $2.2 billion market in the US for outdoor clothing - and outdoor clothing is still referred to as niche. There's no need for a design-led New Zealand exporter to look beyond a niche. Apart from the practical considerations of the ability to supply a non-niche market, you're likely to spread design resources too thinly and lose uniqueness. Allow the brand to become too broad and it'll lose its meaning. Icebreaker's aspiration is not to create the greatest outdoor brand in the world, it's to create the greatest merino outdoor brand.

Moon:The moment we step outside merino we'll be eaten.

Let your people be your eyes and ears

Because your people live your brand, there's a natural fit between their values and the values of their customers. Icebreaker's sales team is the eyes and ears for ideas about future design needs and opportunities.

Seek exclusivity

Icebreaker chooses to be stocked in only 72 of 250 outdoor and snowsports stores in New Zealand. For those 72 stores it's a point of difference that brings them customer traffic that their competitors do not get - and ensures Icebreaker has significant store presence.

Make your inputs as much a story as your outputs

The Icebreaker supply chain starts with 60 hand-picked high country merino stations covering two million acres which supplies over 500,000kg of pure merino every year. That forms a major part of the Icebreaker story and the way the company designs its messages.

For full story read

Other videos and stories from Jeremy:

Is your business prepared for a natural disaster - do you have personal/ company insurance, business interruption, health insurance? Reflections from Christchurch companies. Email me, Gill South, with your story at the link below:

- NZ Herald

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