Social media and “emotional” expression boosts active streetwear company.

They began using friends as "walking billboards". Now ilabb stands as a golden example of using social media and the power of community to start and grow a business.

Billed as an "active lifestyle brand", ilabb has grown from the smallest of beginnings to a textbook case study of a modern business creating a brand, targeting an audience and using the power of "emotional marketing".

They now have a staff of 25, 75 wholesalers across New Zealand and Australia, three retail stores and an online store which sells to countries around the world, including the US, Canada, Japan and Europe.

Friends Matt Saunders (then an architect) and Seadon Baker (then a signwriter) were, of all things, keen motocross riders (motorcycles racing on off-road circuits) when, about 11 years ago, they invented a resilient decal for riders to stick to their machines and which "looked pretty crispy".

"The decal was a pretty niche market but we also had some T-shirts and some friends supported us by wearing the T-shirts, with logo, as walking billboards."

Advertisement

From such small and in-community beginnings, can trendy and desired assets grow – and that is what happened to ilabb. Their gear started to spread from motocross riders, fans and T-shirts to active sportswear and then sports-inspired streetwear.

Product expansion is one thing. Finding and relating to the audience to support the expansion of the company is quite another.

That's where ilabb's use of social media (they now have a combined social media audience of over 3 million) came in: "We are not social media gurus or anything like that," says Saunders. "But we know the majority of our customers are young teens to late 20s and we know how to interact and communicate with them and inspire them digitally."

They started out on Facebook (and are still there) but now see Instagram as the "glory platform" for their young audiences: "There is less clutter, it's very visual and it gives you little bits of relevant, interesting and exciting material."

But use of social media on its own, while powerful, is still not the whole answer. ilabb did something else clever. They began collaborating with partners who had their own burgeoning social media audience.

Drifter extraordinaire Mad Mike Whiddett, freestyle skier Anna Willcox and soul, drum and base band Shapeshifter are examples. They collaborate with Saunders (who looks after the design side of the business) on streetwear or active wear which resonates with their fans.

"We work together to come up with products which are co-designed, co-branded and we speak to their communities and ours," says Saunders, "so it is a kind of a double whammy. Mad Mike, for example, has over 2 million followers himself.

"We have grown up with social media and know some of the idiosyncrasies that apply in that community – and we work with some very clever athletes in sports like mountain biking, BMX, triathlon, yoga, motocross and drifting, for example."

Mostly sports which do not get much space or time in traditional media, they have strong followings from fans who communicate in very modern ways.

Ilabb CEO and COO, Jeremy Johnston and Matt Saunders. Picture // Michael Craig.
Ilabb CEO and COO, Jeremy Johnston and Matt Saunders. Picture // Michael Craig.

So social media is the channel, but what about the message? Saunders says ilabb has consistently used emotional marketing (the art of telling a story that connects with an audience in a personal, human way rather than "hard sell").

"It's a big thing for us. We do a lot of things with real intent when it comes to design and when it comes to our brand, we spend a lot of time working out how this will appeal to our end users – who we call the ilabb family. It's all about the emotional connection and what people feel when they wear our products."

When working with Mad Mike, for example, they will cut mini-edits videos of him but produced in a way that caters for a wider audience than drifting fans as well.

All this has given ilabb something of a mystique. Their logo, for example, is always produced upside down. Like the lyrics to a popular song with hidden meaning, the logo has prompted much debate among fans on the rationale behind it.

"It was just a happy accident," laughs Saunders. "It wasn't originally meant to be that way but it has now come to stand for the fact we do things slightly differently."

Tim Wixon, BNZ's Partner - Commercial , has worked with ilabb for over three years and says their social media and emotional marketing approach was ahead of its time: "They have set themselves up as a kind of social community which has worked to make the brand represent a lot more than just clothing.

"Their collaboration with the likes of Mad Mike and others has been really interesting – sponsorship of athletes is not new but working with them on social media on that scale is."

"We have been working with BNZ for a while now and they have been incredibly helpful, in a way no other bank has been," says Saunders. "They have stuck with us through some hard times and helped us to healthier times – and we are excited about working further with some clever humans who can help us continue to grow our three different sales channels."

For the future, ilabb say they need help to reach the next level. Growing a wholesale channel while also trying to grow a retail and online business can be a tricky balancing act and the company wants some advice from mentors experienced in that area. They also want help to develop a customer relationship management system to further understand and communicate with "the ilabb family".

That is a long way from using friends as mobile ads.