In times of economic uncertainty, waning consumer confidence and widespread unemployment, starting a business seems ludicrous at best. Yet, for an increasing number of ambitious entrepreneurs, there is no better time to set-up shop than when the odds are stacked against them. While well-established businesses are tightening their belts and shying away from unnecessary risks, independent brands the world over are rolling up their sleeves and taking chances, creating opportunities and doing their own thing.
At the 17th edition of CreativeMornings Utrecht (30 August 2013), author, editor and curator (just to name a few) Anneloes van Gaalen championed the heroic efforts of these entrepreneurial underdogs and how they are revolutionizing the way we do business. Her recent publication, Indie Brands (BIS Publishers) delves into the world of independent brands –from biodegradable shoes and slavery-free chocolate to minimalist mobile phones– and what makes them tick, their must-have products and the inspiring minds behind them. Far from glorifying their exploits, Van Gaalen reveals the overwhelming challenges that these brands face in running their own business.
“It all started with a book–a book idea, actually,” Van Gaalen explains. At the time, advertising agencies began to develop and launch their own in-house brands – a phenomenon that she and her publisher felt the need to capture. Not only were their products and ideas of great importance, but also their urban work environments that “cater to the creative mind.” Upon further investigation, Van Gaalen uncovered a multitude of independent brands varying in size, industry and lifecycle. In order to determine who made the cut, these small and medium enterprises had to fulfil specific criteria. By definition, indie brands are financially and creatively independent, have a unique story that is worth sharing and are masters of the magic of marketing.
Of Their Own Accord
According to Van Gaalen, the economic crisis added a new dimension to the whole indie brand discussion. Since capital is proving more and more difficult to come by, these savvy entrepreneurs have taken matters into their own hands (or in some cases, directly solicit the customers themselves via the social medium of crowdfunding). In doing so, they maintain their independent nature, “walking a tight rope between being creative and running a business.” With no stingy shareholders or shrewd creditors to please, indie brands are free to make their own decisions as well as their own mistakes.
One such venture that captures this indie spirit is Paris-based parfumerie Etat Libre d’Orange. With fragrances such as Fat Electrician, Jasmine and Cigarettes, and Hotel Slut, the brand unapologetically concocts robust scents that are far from the conventional. The founder, Etienne de Swardt, “believes in creative freedom, first and foremost,” Van Gaalen says. “He’d rather please just one person instead of 99.” Daring though this may be, creative freedom alone does not make for a good business model. “On paper it doesn’t work,” she admits. “But the thing is, he doesn’t care. He cares about pure creation and to create an environment where people can innovate.” Indeed, independent brands opportunely thrive by challenging the norm and going against the grain.
“Brands are born out of passion, personal beliefs or a chance encounter,” declares Van Gaalen. “It’s that independent nature that I personally feed off and that make for interesting stories. When I first started the book, storytelling was relatively new.” In fact, the majority of commercial brands have always been product-centric or relied on slick marketing campaigns to gain consumer loyalty. Indie brands, on the other hand, present themselves as they are, incorporating their compelling stories as part of the overall product. Not only do they put their best foot forward, they also “keep it real” by sharing their imperfections and inviting customers to join them on their journey.
Biodegradable shoemaker Christaan Maats, for example, did not possess a background in business or manufacturing. Nevertheless, he envisioned creating a fashionable product that was 100% sustainable. Nominated in 2010 for the Green Fashion Awards at Amsterdam Fashion Week, his brand O△+ (Oat) received a staggering amount of publicity and experienced an immediate surge in demand but had no means of production. “Sometimes, indie brands aren’t catered to the success they are experiencing,” Van Gaalen reveals. “Success [is accompanied by a] whole new set of rules. What do you do then?” Rather than simply selling out and turning to mass production, Maats is staying true to his sustainable concept, taking as much time as possible to perfect his craft.
“[Storytelling] is an intrinsic part of the brand,” Van Gaalen claims. “It’s important to have a story. It’s also important to have an authentic story.” Nowadays, even large corporations are jumping on the indie bandwagon, carelessly brandishing trendy terms such as eco-friendly and fair-trade while mimicking the indie brand look and feel. Despite their best efforts, consumers can easily see right through them and the myth they are trying to sell. “We live in a day and age where there’s so much stuff,” Van Gaalen says. With the economic crisis still in play, consumers are deliberately making better choices, supporting businesses that they feel add value to society.
As a matter of fact, brands such as Tony’s Chocolonely are largely driven by their mission to increase public awareness of prevalent social issues. What began as a documentary on human slavery has resulted in the establishment of an actual brand. Educating consumers on the injustices suffered by cocoa plantation workers in the developing world, the firm is quick to admit that slavery-free chocolate is impossible to guarantee, presenting themselves as a work-in-progress.
“It’s that kind of honesty that’s interesting,” insists Van Gaalen. “It goes against the grain.” Moreover, it is an intrinsic virtue that simply cannot be faked. As far as indie brands are concerned, they are “not afraid of sharing ‘the rub’.” Beyond the marketing gimmickry and short-lived hype, their authenticity lies in their original stories. With most founders having no formal business education or entrepreneurial experience, “They do by trial and error,” Van Gaalen states. “They learn the hard way.”
Given the pandemic difficulties of today’s global economy, it appears that indie brands are at a major disadvantage. However, due to their inherent nature, it is precisely in these turbulent times that these independent enterprises are able to thrive, finding innovative and creative solutions to the challenges they face. In the end, they are only doing the best they can with what little they have, enduring in a constant state of improvement. ✌
☞ For more information on Anneloes van Gaalen, Indie Brands, CreativeMornings Utrecht and CreativeMornings™, visit the websites listed below: