“An innovative ‘Stance’ on socks.”

On stage at the IAB Leadership Summit in 2018, Randall Rothenberg, CEO at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, spoke about emerging business models including direct to consumer, subscription commerce, on-demand and second-hand marketplaces. He said, “We believe this is a revolution,” calling it “the direct brand economy,” and dated its origin to 2010. This is the same year Warby Parker was founded and just so happens to be the year Stance started shipping product.

In some cases like that of Away or SmileDirectClub, direct to consumer (DTC) startups have been reported to be a personal solution from one of its founder’s observed issues within their categories. Jeff Kearl’s sock company is quite the opposite.

Stance’s story begins with Kearl’s serendipitous geography being, as he describes, “ground zero to the surf industry.” After selling a tech company and serving on various boards, he was ready for his next venture, but wasn’t sure what it would be. Meeting people from Quicksilver, Billabong, Oakley and Vans in neighborhood outings, his interest piqued in sports apparel. What Kearl did next resembles more of a business analyst’s approach than a passionate consumer looking to improve a personal buying experience or product.

His unorthodox journey began with research targeted at the likes of Lululemon, Under Armour, Tory Birch and many more before he ever had the idea to make a sock company. He was looking for commonalities across the category in hopes of revealing the most successful business attributes. That convergence turned out to be a focus on a single product with perfect market fit.

Kearl now had to decide what category to build it in. He proceeded by screening 300 of them to find out – the final being socks. Before making his decision, he went shopping. He once revealed that he bought 500 pairs from many different retailers in an effort to understand the consumer journey. Through this he learned about the highest selling products, the most frequently asked questions, details about pricing, and material sources. With this detailed view, he was able to determine that, from production to distribution, buying socks was a broken experience. In other words, he uncovered a disruptive opportunity.

“If everyone is positioned the same, it makes our jobs very easy to position ourselves differently.”

With the category of socks being incredibly homogenized, the next step was to decide that if Stance won the battle of distinction, would it be valuable? Further research reviewing leading lifestyle brands (including Levi’s, Vans, and Oakley), additional evidence of existing market fragmentation, and the discovery that apparel brands have the fastest growing brand value, Kearl and his founding team decided to go for it. The only question remaining was how would they build a brand around socks? What could it stand for?

These questions, paired with a powerful piece of human insight, led to a decision that Stance could offer a subtle outlet for self expression in a way that other articles of clothing couldn’t. Thus, developing a mission aimed at celebrating originality guided everything about the brand and its communications moving forward.

“We wanted to be part of the vocabulary of our customer base.”

Breaking the now accepted pattern of DTC category disruptors, Stance pursued an unusual sequence to market attacking wholesale first. Selling only to mom-and-pop surf, skateboard, and snowboard shops as well as sneaker culture and boutique fashion outlets for the first three years. According to Kearl, this decision allowed consumers to discover the brand adjacent to other great brands and provided credibility as an accessory.

Stance furthered this approach with a desire to bleed into pop culture early on in their move to e-commerce. Savvy PR efforts, brand partnerships and ultimately selective store locations pushed the brand awareness across sports, fashion and more.

As the company grew, Kearl knew the brand could struggle to hold its market position as the sock that would save the world from a lifetime of “beige.” One of Stance’s investors, Randy Komisar of Kleiner Perkins, states, “companies unable to inspire love and loyalty will die.” With this in mind, Kearl realized that figures like Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and Repeat Purchase Rates were lagging indicators of brand relevance. He began asking himself, “what really precedes a great brand?”

Inspired by a quote from Tony Hsieh’s, Delivering Happiness, Kearl adopted the belief that “culture is the leading indicator of brand.” Not the kind of culture the brand had already invested in publicly, but rather what does it feel like in the four walls of your building? What are the processes, the way people treat each other, the words that are used, the overall feeling one has when they enter the business? That’s culture and the team at Stance invested heavily in it.

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hanson, founders of Basecamp and authors of Rework, wrote that “you don’t create culture. It happens. Culture is the by-product of consistent behavior.” While you may not be able to buy culture with “foosball tables or trust falls,” Kearl knew that he could guide Stance’s culture by having a clearly articulated belief structure. Having never done this, the team first set out to create clarity around their mission, purpose and vision. Kearl mentions on stage at the DDB Summit in Auckland, delivering a keynote this article was titled after, “These things were already there, as culture happens whether you realize it or not. The question is whether you want to proactively manage it or just let it happen.”

The result? The company has grown from four founding members to nearly 300 employees with over 50 million pairs of socks sold. Now found in over 40 countries, Stance continues to create products and attract new consumers through their mission to “celebrate human originality.” An internal driver that mirrors their original market distinction almost a decade later.

As Kearl and his team learned, this internal mission tethered to the outward expression of the brand is arguably the single most important aspect of the brand beyond product quality. It affects your brand personality, your point of view and your position. It sets the fundamental foundation of consumer attraction and retention. Get this wrong and you may find yourself without an audience.

We'd love to hear your thoughts and perspectives @tobedisrupted