Companies and brands have relied upon existing and emerging artists to find new ways of communicating their brand messages through advertisement clutter. The technique has recently proven to be a success for Gucci likes, who have turned to many artists for ads and capsule collections, and is a winning formula implicitly borrowed from past directors, including Marc Jacobs, who at Louis Vuitton helped make Takashi Murakami a mainstream name and collaborated on sneakers with Kanye West, which arguably spearheaded the high-fashion musician collaborations that we see today.
Most labels have their returning artist collaborators, have access to others that wouldn’t miss out on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, or have launched programs to support artists through funding, but while artists are paid to make, one may wonder whether it’s all worth it if it’s just about trade in the end? Was art not meant to relate more to our lives and our feelings than to our wallets? How can it be used for a moment and forgotten by the next season? These ideas are a glimpse into what makes the Gentle Monster marketing strategy so unique.
Gentle Monster was founded in 2011 by Hankook Kim and backed by Jae W Oh. In six years, the brand has gone from a S$150,000 startup focused on quality eyewear designed for the “Asian face” – low bridges and oversized glasses – to a S$200 million eyewear giant. It did so by acquiring two factories to control production, and developing an iconic design with thick frames and titanium rims.
It now runs over 10 flagship stores: seven in Korea, one in New York, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chengdu, respectively. It also sells in over 20 countries through authorized retailers. Its revenue last year was $250 million, of which 70 percent came from direct sales, according to Business of Fashion.
What has this Korean brand done right that made it grow into a phenomenon in just a few years? Gentle Monster’s founder and CEO, Hankook Kim, shared some secrets to the company’s success:
Consumers are fond of buying new items. It’s about human nature. The company maintains it that way because they know that customers are not paying for goods, but rather the sensation that something new and fresh is experiencing. So the task of a brand is to continue to exceed the expectations of consumers in providing “newness” for them.
His formula? Belief x Interpretation = Attraction, or Newness. Belief refers a brand’s creation, and Interpretation is consumers’ understanding or expectation. Kim emphasized that brands should not think of newness from their own perspectives, but always approach it from the understanding of the consumer.
2. An Art Piece
But how does a business keep appealing to unpredictable consumers? For now, Kim attributes Gentle Monster’s swift rise to its superb retail store experience, a result of his “strange aesthetic.”
Kim did a detailed research of retail stores before opening his first flagship store four years ago, but only to find most of them was to give one message to customers: Please buy our goods. He wanted to do something else — to bring freshness to an art environment. Stores at Gentle Monster would feel like galleries of art. Eyewear would be merely the byproduct.
He changed the display in stores every seven days, at first—finding it extremely difficult, he slowed the pace to every 21 days and continues to keep up with that pace today. Every display has a distinct theme such as: The Artisan, Home and Recovery, Secret Apartment, and Quantum Project.
Each display is curated, as if it were an art exhibition. It takes a while for consumers to finally start to look for sunglasses—they always rush to take photos first.
3. Collaborations and Partnerships
Given all these efforts, Kim was not afraid to admit that with the support of the K-pop culture, Gentle Monster has risen. The brand started out great: it had its own factories so that production was strictly controlled; its bulky form and low bridge fit matched Asian customers better than most Western brands; and its innovative store design draws much attention from design blogs.
But it was not until 2014, three years after it was established, that it suddenly became known by all of Asia: South Korean actress Gianna Jun was wearing Gentle Monster sunglasses when she appeared on the hit show My Love from the Star. Soon more Chinese celebrities were photographed wearing Gentle Monster: Li Yifeng, Yang Yang, and Kris Wu. Fans from the West include models Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid.
But as the brand is expanding internationally, it’s trying to every the link with K-pop. As such, Gentle Beast and the mysterious Tilda Swinton declared a collaboration. The partnership exhibited a series of great pieces, some of which were variations on the classic Gentle Monster template and others that were more stylistic artistic. In all, it produced an incredible sensation inside the Gentle Monster community. But that’s not the only partnership they’ve had. Other collaborations include Hood by Air, Places+Faces, Henry Vibskov and more.
For Kim, the key task is still to impress consumers with newness—though he, too, has been trying to figure out what’s new, next.
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