Heritage brand Viberg boasts a lot of soul: it was launched in 1931 by Edwin Viberg, who immigrated to Canada from Sweden in 1907, and it’s all about showcasing fine craftsmanship, high-quality materials, and stylish designs.
Viberg manufacturers beautifully crafted men’s boots and shoes, which can be found on its ecommerce site, Viberg.com, as well as on a host of online sites for the style savvy gent like ClubMonaco.com and Mr Porter, and some physical retailers across Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
Equipped with a mission statement “to produce the highest-quality footwear possible using only the best materials and manufacturing methods available,” Viberg delivers.
But first, more on the current footwear landscape. According to an op-ed in The Business of Fashion, if current trends continue at the same pace, then men’s U.S. shoe sales are slated to surpass women’s. At $26.2 billion in 2016 versus $29.9 billion for women’s footwear, “men’s is closer in size to women’s than it’s ever been,” says Beth Goldstein, fashion footwear and accessories analyst at the NPD Group.
In fairness, sneakers are dominating the men’s footwear pie, which is a reflection of a cultural shift. Sneakers are perceived as a status symbol, collector’s item, and all-occasion shoe. It also points to the fact that when it comes to boots and brogues, there is a huge opportunity for men’s footwear. (Read between the lines: men care about shoes!)
Viberg is successfully speaking to the sartorially inclined guy, who is passionate about durability, craftsmanship, exquisite detailing, and aesthetics.
Learn more about how this British Columbia-based men’s footwear brand harnesses the power of strong editorial content to attract its discerning male target customer, with plans of expanding to new merchandise territories while always staying true to its roots.
How Viberg parlays high-quality craftsmanship
Aimed at a specific target audience (its largest demographic is males aged 25 to 34), Viberg produces footwear for men who appreciate the finer things, who tend to conduct pre-purchase research, and who prioritize craftsmanship and longevity in products.
Its mission has been crystal clear, even in its early stages—“crafting the best boot possible”—and the key step in this process is transparency. Successfully communicating and showcasing quality craftsmanship, especially online, can be a big challenge, especially when traits like rich leather and durability are more tactile. This is why high-quality content and photography play a strong role in Viberg’s marketing strategy.
Guy Ferguson, Brand Director at Viberg, gave us an inside look at its branding strategy and why content is so important.
“We try to pull back the curtain that typically exists between manufacturer and consumer,” he said.”Most of the people working in our factory have been with the company for over 25 years. Some of the machinery is over 100 years old. We travel all around the world to source components from small, artisanal producers. It’s really just about communicating our efforts to the customer in an honest way. We also try to focus on the human element that so much modern manufacturing is lacking. There are real, skilled craftspeople making these products and that extends all the way down our supply chain.”
"We are a manufacturer first, and a brand second, and that structure will always inform our marketing efforts.”
—Guy Ferguson, Brand Director at Viberg
And since Viberg is an online retailer, its products’ supreme quality needs to be evident in a digital world.
Ferguson explains: “The biggest challenge as an online retailer is missing out on the tangible element of traditional brick-and-mortar retail. Our product, in particular, is so much about experience. Our boots are heavyweight and the materials have texture and character that can be difficult to capture in a photo. The feedback we always get from first-time customers is that they are impressed with how substantial the boots feel compared to other brands.”
And then there’s the element of size when it comes to footwear, which is a whole other ballgame since fit is critical in purchasing decisions.
“Sizing footwear is also a complicated process online, so we have to pay careful attention to the advice we give and make sure the customer feels confident in their purchase,” Ferguson continues.
Using editorial to build brand identity
Enter: the power of next-level editorial.
Viberg’s editorial content is featured on the “Journal” section of its website, which houses rich blog posts and stellar photography. “These mini editorials have become a really essential piece of our brand identity. We produce them all in-house, generally with friends or staff. The idea is to contextualize the products. We are an old company, but we have a young, modern perspective. We want to show people how the products can be used and styled, without creating too much of a uniform or guidebook,” Ferguson explains.
TAKEAWAY 1: Content and context can be key ways to showcase your brand’s values, especially when selling premium fashion and lifestyle products. It’s also a good way to differentiate yourself from competitors, as an ecommerce brand.
“If you want to use your boots to go hiking on the weekend that’s great, but it’s also fine if you only wear them to the office or your favorite cafe. The workplace has changed dramatically since 1931 and we want to showcase how our products have evolved alongside this shift. They also give us a chance to highlight some of the amazing brands and creative people we have formed relationships with over the years.”
As for social media, Viberg counts over 60,000 highly-engaged and genuine Instagram followers. And since Instagram is the channel where fashion enthusiasts play, it’s no surprise that it’s a key channel for Viberg.
Viberg makes a point of not partnering with bloggers, as it’s critical that the authenticity of the brand comes through and the Wild West of influencer marketing is filled with blurred lines of late.
“Instagram has become such an effective tool for communicating a story visually and the platform has really evolved alongside the needs of brands and businesses. We are constantly working on new products and samples, so we are never short on content. I think our social following enjoys seeing a behind-the-scenes look at our process and we also use the platform to promote our wholesale partners and help customers track down specific products. Email newsletters are also an extremely effective tool for us and give us a direct line to our most engaged customers. We are active on Facebook and Twitter, but see less of an impact through those channels.”
Viberg’s history: from settler to shoemaker
When Edwin Viberg arrived in Canada in the early 1900s, he settled on farmland in Saskatchewan and began making leather harnesses for work horses and belting for machinery. Business slowed when the depression hit and he eventually met and apprenticed with a British shoemaker. Hence, the eponymous Viberg Boot Mfg Ltd, which Edwin Viberg founded in 1931. The company’s start was truly grassroots and Edwin proved to be a merchant in every sense of the word: he began traveling around the Prairies, selling his boots to workers of all sorts.
Viberg kept the company small for many years with just two employees. When the logging industry began to grow in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Edwin followed the work to the Pacific Northwest. After bouncing around a few different cities, Ed—as he is known—finally settled in Victoria, B.C. in the early ‘70s, where the Viberg factory has remained ever since.
Today the company is still entirely owned and operated by the Viberg family. Ed’s son Glen took over the company when Ed passed away and still spends six days a week on the factory floor, personally finishing every pair of boots they produce. Glen’s wife Leslee manages the factory shop, while youngest son Brett serves as the company’s Creative Director and older brother Jason handles the imported line of work boots.
This rich history could also be considered the brand’s Achilles heel—older companies often have trouble adapting to new sales channels and tactics. But thankfully Viberg knows exactly how to innovate without alienating its core customer.
Ferguson explains further:
“As a heritage company, you begin to become associated with a single product or aesthetic, but the reality is most companies as old as we are have had to continually innovate and reinvent themselves in order to survive. This spirit of innovation is as much a part of our brand as any manufacturing technique or technical aspect. We have to be conscious of how quickly we move as a brand and how we bring the customer along with us. Thankfully we control our own manufacturing, which allows us to experiment on a small scale without sacrificing the production volume of our signature products.”
Viberg’s retail and wholesale footprint
As for Viberg’s stockists, the brand is also particular about who they choose to partner with on a wholesale level.
“We are very fortunate to be in the position of being extremely selective when choosing wholesale partners. I can confidently say that we currently work with some of the best shops in the world. Because our production capacity is relatively small, we have never succumbed to the pressures of high-volume wholesale business. Behind most of our partnerships are real friendships and relationships based on common values. We make a specialty product and we need the people selling it to be able to communicate our story to their customers. A brand like ours can easily get lost in a big-box shop, which is why we’ve generally avoided many of the high-profile department stores that have reached out to us. We exhibit at trade shows in Europe and NYC twice a year, but most of our stockists have found us organically. We will always keep our distribution limited, but we are currently working on entering some new and underrepresented markets.”
TAKEAWAY 2: Keep in mind that this strategy is not necessarily for everyone, as some brands thrive on a more ubiquitous, mass strategy. Viberg’s more discerning, curated approach vibes with its core values.
Making strides with new nerchandise
That’s not to say that Viberg will only stick to men’s footwear: for starters, the brand has recently expanded its product offering with a range of lifestyle products.
Ferguson gives us the scoop: “It’s been a long-term goal of ours to round out the brand with offerings outside of footwear. We are constantly tinkering in the factory and testing the limits of what we can produce in-house. We are currently offering bags and small leather goods, but have plans for a few other lifestyle and homeware products in the coming months. We’ve also outsourced certain items to other manufacturers who share our ideals. Our hats are made in Vancouver at a 60-year headwear factory and our leather care products are handmade here in Victoria by a local soapmaker, using food-grade ingredients. These items provide a lower cost of entry for new customers and allow our existing clients to engage with the brand on different levels.”
To give you an idea, the price spectrum of Viberg’s boots ranges from $640 U.S. for the Scout Boot to $1,100 U.S. for limited-edition Derby Boots.
Viberg is also launching select styles in women’s sizing for the first time ever and launching the only “made in Canada” sneaker, which has been in development for several years. They are also expanding their range of accessory offerings to include apparel. So stay tuned...
Advice to fellow (fashion) founders
Ferguson offers up three key takeaways for aspiring entrepreneurs:
1. It comes down to product first. “If you don’t believe in what you are selling, your customer won’t either,” Ferguson states.
"Too many companies are formed around the idea of a perceived gap in the market, or a fleeting opportunity. If your product is honest and transparent, your marketing strategy becomes a lot simpler.”
—Guy Ferguson, Brand Director at Viberg
2. Get down to basics like great design and quality. “With social media and platforms like Shopify, the playing field has really leveled in the last few years and it really doesn’t take much to start a business now. More than ever good design and quality will find a way to separate themselves.”
3. Go back to your core values. “If you are struggling with a business concept, go back to the beginning and make sure you’ve addressed these core values (i.e. design and quality) before you start worrying about things like marketing and logistics.”
What’s next for Viberg?
While Viberg is steeped in history, the brand has its sights on the future as well, with exciting plans—including taking its boots to the streets with a first flagship retail space. (Stay tuned for this as well.)
And this is just the tip of the retail iceberg when it comes to the constant experimenting, tweaking, and collaborating that keeps the Viberg team busy and excited day to day.
A version of this article was originally published on the Shopify Retail blog.