LONDON — Shinola employed digital storytelling more than a year before it was ready to sell anything, building a following organically.
This grassroots effort paid off in March 2013, when its first Made in Detroit watches were made available online in an initial limited edition of 2,500.
“They ended up selling out in eight days,” said Jacques Panis, president of the company, which today also markets leather goods, bicycles, journals and accessories via seven boutiques and 450 wholesale doors. “We wanted to take this story to people and share this story offline before we dove in online.
“We believe today that the consumer wants authentic, rich stories. They want something they can sink their teeth into,” he added.
Calling Shinola an “analogue brand living in a digital world,” Panis said online represents about 25 percent of total revenues, a proportion expected to grow to about a third of the total.
The company plans to open seven to eight more boutiques this year, including a location in Washington, D.C., skewed to evening hours because of its speakeasy/restaurant concept, Panis noted, calling Shinola stores “community hubs” that typically incorporate coffee stands or juice bars to encourage frequent visits and lingering.
Despite the brick-and-mortar focus, the brand plans to unveil a third-generation iteration of its Web site in early 2016, which Panis billed as a “mobile-first responsive development” offering a “personalized and customizable shopping experience.”
The revamped Web site also spans an editorial component dubbed “The Argonite” designed to “fuse brand stories to the online experience.”
To be sure, Shinola had a rich tale to recount, bringing specialized manufacturing back to an iconic American city devastated by the collapse of its automotive industry, but whose residents were inclined to manufacturing excellence “thanks to this weird strand of DNA,” Panis recounted.
Hounded by the media to comment on Motown’s bankruptcy filing in 2013, Shinola deflected requests and instead ran ads proclaiming: “To those who’ve written off Detroit, we give you the bird” and “Someday they’ll call Geneva the Detroit of Switzerland.”
The slogans landed Shinola executives appearances on networks including CNN and MSNBC, generating invaluable “added value in p.r.,” Panis said.
The brand also followed up with a traditional print campaign shot by Bruce Weber, which drove traffic online and also “softened the brand and attracted female customers,” he said, citing a customer split of 60 percent male and 40 percent male.
Sharing 2014 data, he noted that 30.5 percent of site visits were made via smartphones, versus 15.7 percent on a tablet.
Site visits catapulted from 6,600 a month in 2012 to more than 504,000 in March. Panis noted 31 percent of traffic in the first three months of the year was organic, while 22 percent came from paid search, 25 percent direct, 12 percent from e-mail, 2 percent from social media and 8 percent from other avenues.
Panis touted user-generated content — including selfies and other images in which customers show how they wear the product — as particularly effective, and are sometimes showcased on the online store next to the products in question.
“This is one of the highest connecting mechanisms in the social channels,” he said.
More recently, the media came after Shinola for comment on the smartphone juggernaut fanned by the much-hyped launch of the Apple Watch. Panis said the company retorted by reprising an earlier slogan: “A watch so smart that it can tell you the time, just by looking at it.”