By Ian McCue, commerce and retail reporter at Grow Wire
⏰ 5-minute read
- For more than two decades, Beyond Clothing only designed technical outerwear for the U.S. military. Then, it launched a direct-to-consumer line in 2019.
- The brand relied on a content-rich e-commerce site, influencer marketing and a third-party online retailer to drive brand awareness among this new customer base.
- Direct-to-consumer sales have spiked 400% year over year, though the transition wasn’t without logistical challenges.
Despite Beyond Clothing’s 24-year history as a successful, profitable company, it felt like a startup last year.
That’s because Beyond Clothing started selling its products directly to consumers for the first time in 2019. Since Scott Jones founded the company in 1996, the manufacturer of technical outerwear had sold almost exclusively to the United States military’s special operations forces. The clothing can tackle demanding climates (from minus 70 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit) and specific problems these soldiers face. Beyond Clothing designed an eight-layer “survival clothing system” called Axios that can get soldiers dry and keep them warm after wading through a river or hiking through an icy tundra.
Beyond Clothing’s new direct-to-consumer (D2C) apparel line for everyday adventurers, Kyros, is also an eight-layer system -- the average number of layers worn at once is four -- built for the same range of temperatures. However, Kyros products have a more tailored fit and are manufactured abroad instead of in the U.S., allowing for a much lower price point.
The line is sourced from non-domestic, trade compliant countries, which allows the brand to continue to sell to government entities such as local law enforcement and border patrol, along with everyday consumers.
“We look at our product and our clothing as access passes to see the world’s wildest places,” said Andrew Connor, Beyond Clothing’s director of omnichannel.
The company’s challenge in going D2C was getting those “access passes” to consumers.
Beyond Clothing began selling its military-grade apparel to consumers last year.
Making a direct-to-consumer apparel brand from scratch
Beyond Clothing decided to sell the Kyros line directly to consumers rather than through traditional wholesale channels because it believed that model presented the fastest and easiest path to success. Breaking through and realizing profits in wholesale is difficult and requires various teams to be closely aligned, Connor noted.
“If you have built a brand with great products and a great purpose, then you’re able to utilize the D2C price point to create a plan of action that is close to fail-proof [vs. pursuing wholesale],” he said.
“If you have built a brand with great products and a great purpose, then you’re able to utilize the D2C price point to create a plan of action that is close to fail-proof."
Despite its strong reputation with the armed forces, Beyond Clothing had almost no brand recognition among civilian consumers. To change that, Connor started with the company’s existing e-commerce site. With the help of an e-commerce developer, copy writer and production team comprised of a videographer, photographer and graphic designer, the company added content to educate customers about the quality of its products and its layering system, including a “System Builder” explaining how the layers work together.
The brand had to develop not only a D2C strategy but also a plan to introduce itself to an audience outside of government and professional teams.
“With [D2C] it was, ‘OK, we’re about to launch ourselves into this entirely new world where no one knows about us,’ so we had to be very cognizant of our brand positioning, how are we going to create our voice and tone,” Connor said.
As another early step, the manufacturer adjusted core business systems like its ERP, CRM and email service provider to “improve [its] digital ecosystem” beyond the e-commerce site, he added.
Earning employee buy-in for this business shift
Building a direct-to-consumer channel at Beyond Clothing was Connor’s second time working on such a project. (The first came at a much larger brand.) Companies about to make the leap should expect some internal resistance, he said. Employees, especially more tenured ones, may not initially embrace the new structure and responsibilities necessary to support D2C.
“Externally, going direct-to-consumer is fairly easy and a no-brainer,” Connor said. “But for a lot of people, it’s not as easy to see that if they’re not fully involved in the plan, so this is why we put a big emphasis on internal communication and education across the brand.”
Beyond Clothing earned employee buy-in by having top brass express its support for the new channel, which then permeated through the organization. Direct managers communicated the core goals of this new endeavor and laid out a detailed plan for how they would achieve those goals.
Company leadership fostered employee support for the D2C line, which includes mens and womenswear.
Direct-to-consumer marketing plan takes shape
During its transition to D2C, Beyond Clothing’s most successful marketing campaigns involved paid search and paid social, Connor said. The brand highlighted its D2C products in email cross-promotions and by partnering with a number of outdoors influencers, including professional photographers, climbers, mixed martial arts fighters and surfers. It also earned coverage from relevant publications like Outside and The Manual. A social media manager and communications manager – two new positions – helped coordinate all of this.
“The objective is still the same [in D2C and wholesale]; you still need to reach new consumers, increase market share and engage with them in a way that increases conversion, resulting in sales,” Connor said. “But the way you go about it isn’t necessarily a wholesale route.”
“The objective is still the same [in D2C and wholesale] ... but the way you go about it isn’t necessarily a wholesale route.”
Any D2C apparel brand starts by looking for communities representative of its target market, then tries to reach those segments with one or two campaigns that have personalized messaging. Beyond Clothing uses a feature called dynamic tagging in its email campaigns to send specific emails to specific consumers, Connor said. The goal is “making people feel like they’re the only ones” to receive said messaging, which he noted is more feasible with a smaller customer base. (Beyond Clothing currently has about 35,000 active D2C customers.)
He favors these carefully-built campaigns over large, programmatic ad buys.
When it comes to ads, “Instead of your traditional ‘test and learn’ model where you may start off by throwing a few ideas up in the air … We’ve put in more effort on the front end to do our due diligence and identify the right demographics through analyzing analytics,” Connor said.
In a step away from its direct-to-consumer strategy, Beyond Clothing started selling certain products through one wholesale channel: Huckberry, an outdoor retail and lifestyle site. Company leaders felt the partnership offered a valuable opportunity to increase brand awareness since Huckberry already had a loyal audience. Aside from that, however, Beyond Clothing’s Kyros line is only available through its own e-commerce site.
The strategy pays off
Throughout the past year, the fresh content and targeted direct-to-consumer marketing strategy paid off – Beyond Clothing’s D2C sales spiked 400% from the third to fourth quarter of 2019, as well as year over year.
But that breakthrough created back office challenges. The apparel business uses a third-party logistics (3PL) provider to fulfill and ship its orders, but it must manually send those orders to the 3PL, so the surge of holiday orders created more work for employees.
The surge also initially overwhelmed the customer service team. The team quickly devised a way to streamline incoming queries and responded to each individually, seeing them as opportunities to upsell, gather feedback and “simply build relationships as if [the customers] were micro-influencers,” Connor said.
“… When you make a business decision as large as direct to consumer or anything of that nature, you’ll run into unexpected challenges that you can’t get away from,” he said. “What’s best is to try to turn those challenges into opportunities.”
Despite challenges, Beyond Clothing's plunge into D2C is paying off.
Building toward the future
Beyond Clothing expects direct-to-consumer sales to become more critical to the business in the years to come. As more recreational adventurers discover its one-of-a-kind products, the company believes direct to consumer could account for 50% of total revenue within the next five years.
The business’s early success suggests that’s realistic. Beyond Clothing has struck a chord with a new audience, and that should keep its D2C momentum rolling.