Plenty of Kiwis have Icebreaker products in their drawers, and, as the brand has gradually expanded outside of New Zealand's borders, so do an increasing number of foreign folk. And now the pioneering apparel brand has decided to partner with DDB New Zealand to help gets its woolly gear on more of them.
Icebreaker creates quality products and since it launched in 1995, its marketing strategy has largely revolved around PR, print and social/digital, with a big emphasis on the connection to nature, a series of attention-grabbing, almost mythological 'sexy sheep' executions, inviting retail environments, and a tool called Baacode that allows wearers to discover the provenance of their garments (it has generally done its creative in-house and its internal creative services team is based in Auckland). As a challenger brand, the early days were all about standing out and the inter-species erotica and beautiful photography certainly helped do that, as evidenced by the fact that the brand is now available in more than 44 countries. But, judging by its website, it now seems to have evolved into a more mature, mainstream adventure apparel brand, a shift it has no doubt made in an effort to appeal to a broader, more conservative customer base in overseas markets (judging by the quivering rocky mountain oysters on this page, there's still a dash of irreverence, however).
Icebreaker has a stated commitment to "world class consumer-led marketing" and in a release it says the decision to appoint DDB is designed to capitalise on the agency's "deep roots in the New Zealand marketplace and worldwide presence in key markets throughout North America and Europe" (the pitch was thought to involve Saatchi & Saatchi and True).
Louise Kuegler, Icebreaker’s recently appointed global chief marketing officer (and past Colenso BBDO employee), was unavailable for a chat, but said in a release: "DDB performed exceptionally well across all our criteria for a creative agency partnership, displaying great creativity, chemistry and collaboration right from our very first meeting. The DDB team are world-class, with a clear understanding of the brand and the ability to market Icebreaker around the globe. I know that with the right creative thinking in our business, we’ll create progressive creative work that will drive the conversation, awareness and sales of Icebreaker’s incredible products around the world."
The relationship begins with two new 2015 global campaigns for new product innovations. But as it wants to get noticed globally, Justin Mowday, DDB New Zealand’s chief executive, says he's not sure there will be a role for traditional media and it certainly won't be running TVCs in New York.
"We're approaching this in a less conventional way," he says.
"Icebreaker is one of those brands that we’ve always wanted to work with," Mowday says in a release. "They’ve founded something incredible that has grown to be a part of New Zealand, a symbol of New Zealand’s identity and future in some ways, as it grows rapidly around the world. What’s more, the product itself is exceptional. All we need to do is make sure people understand just how great Icebreaker is. We’re really looking forward to working alongside the Icebreaker team and being a part of the next chapter of growth."
Mowday says the appointments of Kuegler and past Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe, who recently took on the role of executive chairman after joining the Icebreaker board in 2012, as well as the appointment of a large creative agency, show the company is maturing and it has a major focus on global growth. Mowday says the creative will be done out of the Auckland office, but he says it helped that DDB has strong offices in all of the regions Icebreaker is operating in and it will call on those insights and resources when required.
When the brand launched, synthetics were all the rage and the companies making them had plenty of cash at their disposal to promote them. As founder Jeremy Moon has discussed often, it was an uphill slog to educate punters that natural products like wool were superior to plastics. And Mowday says there's still a long way to go, with less than one percent of people in some markets even knowing what merino is, let alone knowing what Icebreaker is. But in many sectors, it seems the world is moving back to nature (Tip Top's decision to remove synthetic colours and flavours is an interesting example of this shift and Patagonia is another, much bigger brand that's following that path). Consumers are also increasingly demanding that businesses are accountable for the supply chain.
Mowday says the bigger apparel players have certainly noticed this trend and while Icebreaker was one of the first companies to embrace merino, there are now hundreds of companies offering similar options.
He says the company has always been creatively-led, with Moon driving a lot of that (since stepping back from the running of it, he is focusing more on marketing so will be working closely with DDB), and while they're conscious of staying true to the heritage of the brand and understand that "some things are sacrosanct", every brand needs to evolve.
Icebreaker now has 19 company-branded retail stores, over 4,000 wholesale customers, direct eCommerce and over 400 employees worldwide. Sales have tripled in the last six years with sales projected to exceed $200m in 2014, with 80 percent of those sales now in Europe and North America. And while Icebreaker is still tiny by global standards, it has ambitions to double sales within the next five years through global expansion across all channels.