By Joan Voight
March 17, 2014
To pack more wallop among the denim-and-leather set, Levi’s is turning to people like Alice Saunders, a 29-year-old designer and history buff in Boston with a fetish for World War II duffle bags. Saunders, ironically, could care less about mainstream fashion, preferring vintage felt hats and rustic jewelry. What Levi’s likes is her passion and the $165 one-of-a-kind tote bags she creates for her Forestbound brand using old, salvaged military fabrics. “My ultimate find is an old Navy duffle bag that the sailor had hand painted with pictures of pinup girls or palm trees,” Saunders says. “I can make it into a tote that tells the history of that time.”
Levi’s promotes Saunders and her products on its blog and sells her bags with its Levi’s Makers tag at the brand’s boutique shops in the U.S. Never mind that almost all Levi’s clothes are mass-produced in huge factories overseas; the “maker” movement and designers like Saunders are now part of the Levi’s brand. The maker movement, as we know, is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers like Saunders. A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans, the niche is established enough to have its own magazine, Make, as well as hands-on Maker Faires that are catnip for DIYers who used to toil in solitude. Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in–China merchandise.
Sensing potency, Levi’s and other big-ticket marketers such as General Electric, Home Depot and Best Buy are tapping into the maker movement to infuse their brand identities and product lineups with a whiff of individuality. For brands, “it’s all about the emotional tug of the maker movement,” says Tom Bernthal, CEO of Kelton, a brand strategy consultancy. “Even if a maker product is not better than a mass-produced version, people have a more positive feeling about it because the makers’ stories are personal.”
But the challenge of logistics looms for both sides, with massive companies struggling to work with multiple one- or two-person operations. It helps that makers often share resources through online outfits like Quirky and Skillshare and workspaces through entities such as TechShop, which can offer big marketers a single, efficient way to organize their maker relationships. Like the inventors themselves, maker branding alliances are eclectic.
The Makers Project inside Levi’s was started by brand concept director Jay Carroll, who trekked around the world to find and win over unusual indie artisans, including Saunders. Levi’s “knows how to attract that special group of customers who are looking for unique handcrafted items,” Saunders offers.
To promote makers, Levi’s makes and distributes branded videos that serve up a soulful view of the designers and their handiwork. “For Levi’s, the Makers program celebrates those who are still making things by hand while providing an outlet to tell their stories to inspire others,” explains Levi’s master tailor Jared Everett.
General Electric lives in a different neighborhood of the maker movement. The industrial giant partners with collaborative website Quirky to launch co-branded, app-enabled gadgets for GE’s “smart home” collection. Quirky operates as a next-gen manufacturer and R&D firm whose global online community of about 800,000 people submit, vote and fine-tune potential inventions. Quirky then manufactures, packages and sells promising ideas at retailers such as Home Depot and Best Buy as well as directly on Quirky.com.
One of the products from the partnership is a $70 “smart” refrigerator egg tray (invented by Arizona researcher Rafael Hwang) that alerts your smartphone when your eggs are bad or you’re running low. Upcoming co-branded products will include an app-controlledgarage door opener and sensors that detect water, temperature and sound, says a Quirky rep. In a nod to the makers movement, all the Quirky + GE products show the name and picture of the inventor.
In another GE initiative, dubbed GE Garages, the company works with maker groups to provide aspiring inventors with free workspaces equipped with 3-D printers, laser cutters, welders, cold saws and other tools. “The Garages invite everyone to be part of the resurgence in manufacturing and to be hands-on with the spirit of invention that runs throughout GE,” says Sebastien Duchamp, the company’s digital communications director. For instance, at Chicago Ideas Week last September, GE Garages provided free work labs for a month, along with training on high-tech equipment and lectures by experts. This year it will host a workshop in Washington, D.C., from March 20-April 7.
(Invention-based advances also inspired Adweek Project Isaac. Now in its second year, API cast a celebratory light on invention across all of Adweek’s areas of coverage. Go toisaacawards.com for more information).
Home Depot, looking for an edge over archrival Lowe’s, has also gravitated toward Quirky. Last October, Home Depot sponsored a Quirky contest seeking homeowner-friendly inventions. Within a week nearly 800 ideas poured in, ranging from home repair kits to lighting fixtures. The winning products, including a propane tank that lets you know when it’s out of fuel, are currently in development and will be sold later this year in all of Home Depot’s 1,981 locations.
“Our partnership with Quirky and GE demonstrates our ability to bring new products to the end user in a very rapid manner,” says Randy Light, Home Depot’s senior merchant,home automation. “This partnership ensures that the company is exploring new product inventions that make life easier for our shoppers and solve real problems.”
Quirky offers brand partners three benefits, argues Bret Kovacs, its head of brand partnerships. “First, we are faster; we bring new products to market in months instead of years. Second, our products come with homegrown stories and personalities,” thanks to the real-life makers behind the inventions, says Kovacs. The third, and likely most important, benefit is that potential customers have heavily tweaked the merchandise before it ever hits the shelves. Anywhere from a few hundred to 2,000 Quirky members offer input on each item—from voting on the initial idea to brainstorming on the packaging to dreaming up the product’s name and marketing slogan. For instance, about 2,400 Quirky “influencers” contributed to launching the egg holder. “That’s like 2,400 CEOs who can say, ‘I helped make that,’” he adds.
Are some big marketers threatened by the Quirky process? “We are redefining the way consumer products will be developed in the future. Large, forward-thinking companies want to join forces and be part of it,” explains Kovacs.
Nevertheless, major brands enamored with the maker movement need to be careful about an identity disconnect, say experts. “If the marketer understands the core story of the maker and connects that story back to its own brand narrative, then the partnership is brand-enhancing,” says Ty Montague, co-CEO of brand consultancy co:collective and author of True Story. “But if the consumer can’t understand the connection, then the partnership seems like the flavor of the month.” For GE, “innovation is the company’s lifeblood, so partnering with makers seems to be a great way to bring innovation to market efficiently.” Levi’s also gets Montague’s thumbs up: “The maker connection clicks with the company’s efforts to focus on its authenticity and its roots to working clothes.”
And a bad fit? “A brand such as McDonald’s that is built around mass production and the notion that one-size-fits-all, which is the antithesis of the maker ethos,” he concludes.
WELCOME TO TINKERNATION
Sharing your marketing spotlight with makers is one thing. Incorporating the maker culture into your brand can yield even better returns—if it’s the right fit. Liquid Wrench, which has been selling spray lubricants to home DIYers since 1941, decided to embrace the maker movement last year to reach a new generation of hobbyists and amateur mechanics. In May, Liquid Wrench launched its Tinkernation online community and was a sponsor at the 2013 World Maker Faire in Queens, N.Y.
By year-end, it saw a dramatic 250 percent increase in overall social media engagement, including the number of brand mentions, Twitter replies and retweets, says Chris Ott, Liquid Wrench category marketing manager. Annual sales also inched up 4 percent in 2013 over the previous year. “Celebrating the successes of makers and helping them connect with each other has clearly helped expand our audience,” Ott says. His company plans to extend its sponsorship program to other maker gatherings this year.
About 75,000 people went to the World Maker Faire last year, at least a third more than the prior year. About 100 regional Maker Faires attracting more than 530,000 participants were also held around the world last year. Add to that dozens of independently produced mini faires popping up all over the country from Anchorage to Nashville. This year, national Maker Faires are slated for the San Francisco Bay Area, Kansas City and Detroit between May and July, with the World Maker Faire in New York on Sept. 20.
Who are these modern-day Edison wannabes? Based on the 50,000 who make up Tinkernation.com, almost half are female and most have families, says Ott. Their incomes and ages vary, but “they all like to create stuff from everything they get their hands on: boxes, Styrofoam, old machine parts. Plus, they tend to be frugal and they want their children to learn to be self-sustainable,” he says.
BUT IS IT A REVOLUTION?
Beyond the marketing and branding implications of makers, some evangelists, such as Mark Hatch, author of The Maker Movement Manifesto, believe that personal manufacturing will upend mass-market manufacturing, leading to a new industrial revolution.
It seems a far-fetched notion that people like Alice Saunders could ever disrupt how the clothing and appliance companies do their business. But then again, that’s probably what Budweiser thought about those pesky microbrewers a decade ago—before Bud started losing market share to them.
To gauge how much the maker phenomenon might hurt the manufacturing world, researchers point to a few indicators. Most important is the trust, or lack of it, that mass marketers command from consumers. According to JWT research conducted in 2012, 55 percent of U.S. adults say they would put their trust in individuals over corporations any day, and that swells to 63 percent among millennials (18-34). “People, especially younger adults, are more likely to trust neighbors, friends and peers than institutions, and smart brands are looking for ways to leverage that,” says Ann Mack, JWT’s director of trendspotting.
Second is the issue of speed. Andrew Taylor, managing director of global innovation at Boston Consulting, reports that big brands are looking more aggressively at external entities for the innovations they need. “It is absolutely faster and more efficient to go outside than to depend only on internal R&D to drive innovation,” says Taylor.
But maker partnerships aren’t for every company, particularly mass-production outfits. And when they can be crafted, they’re usually co-branded. “The small entity must keep a separate and distinct identity; the big corporation is just there to help,” Taylor says. “It all goes [very] wrong if the makers are absorbed into the big brand.”