How Allbirds is Redefining Sustainable DTC by Thinking Global and Acting Local

Resilient Retail - Allbirds

For sneaker sensation Allbirds, it’s all about balancing purpose and profit.

Originally a DTC pioneer following closely in the footsteps of models like Warby Parker, Allbirds grew a loyal digital fanbase before experimenting with their first popup. That popup was the first spark that paved the way for a global retail presence consisting of 22 stores and counting.

Growing fast meant holding on fiercely to the core of the brand and its ethos of transparent sustainability, while also listening to the customer at an atomic, local level.

Travis Boyce, Allbirds Vice President of Marketing, has been with the company since the very beginning.

When we spoke to Travis, he explained how sustainable stepping stones and customer engagement remain at the heart of Allbirds, every sneaker-clad step of the way.

Putting sustainability first

If you’re looking for a company that practices the sustainability they preach, look no further. Not only does Allbirds aim to reduce their carbon footprint, they want to help other brands do the same.

To that end, they’ve opened-sourced many of the components and materials that they have developed that at other companies might have stayed in the realm of proprietary. While Travis thinks there’s still a long way to go, it’s encourage to see big brands starting to jump on board the sustainability wagon.

[Sustainability] has always been a core tenet of our business. And I think as we've gotten more mature, as we've learned more, it's become more of a dialogue and something that we communicate more publicly outwardly to customers. And so I think it was probably a year and a half, two years ago, we started to really keep track and measure our carbon impact through a number that we call the carbon score. And ultimately, our view is that any business, no matter who they are, should measure what their output is. And that's across the whole business.

Travis Boyce, Vice President of Marketing, Allbirds

“So for us, it's our products, it's our headquarters, it's our stores, it's the commutes to work. It's everything is our impact from a carbon standpoint. And we want to measure that. So we measure that. We completely offset it 100% so that we are carbon neutral. And then it only matters if you offset if you start to work to reduce it. So we are constantly looking at ways to reduce our impact from a carbon footprint standpoint across every aspect of our business.”

Catering to customer microcosms

Succeeding in different global locations means more than translating your message into different languages. It means figuring out authentic adjustments that resonate with the local community. Despite having a global presence, Allbirds is committed to acting locally with community-specific marketing, events, and partnerships.

“Even within the United States, there are so many different regions and preferences and types of consumers. Even if you choose to go to a certain part of town, that's the cool part of town versus your local suburban mall. The same city has a very different feel type of customer. So I think even with the United States, there are a lot of these microcosms of customers and what their experience expectations are.”

“And I think the same applies sort of on a larger scale internationally. And certainly as we've entered other countries, there's the obvious parts. You've got to translate a lot of things and make sure we're doing things that make sense in that language. But there's also a localization of the experience. And I think what we've been good at is bringing in, as we've talked about, really exceptional retail leaders and leaders of the broader international businesses and having a bit of trust that they're going to help figure out what the right adjustments and tweaks to the customer experience are to to resonate with that local consumer.”

The customer experience spark

There’s a certain magical metric that you can only crack within the four walls of a retail store. One factor is that a retail space allows for spontaneous discovery of the Allbirds brand by people who aren’t plugged into the world of digital marketing.

Another is the fact that you can watch customer evangelism unfold in the form of customers excitedly recommending products to other shoppers in real time. After all, at the end of the day, real life engagement with a physical product is what most brands are all about.

“I'd say domestically in the US where we have reasonable awareness, we're still growing and still relatively small, but we have reasonable awareness, there's a few things that we're focused on. One is we want these to be financially successful and stand on their own for a while, so to speak. So we are really focused on sort of traditional four wall metrics and making sure that they deliver on that.

“Another thing we're focused on, because we are so small and relatively young, is acquiring and meeting new customers as an opportunity for folks to come in and maybe they haven't come across us on Instagram or Facebook or other traditional digital marketing channels, but they walk down the street and they find us. And we hear that story every day of customers who are maybe not as tech-focused or don't follow those kinds of accounts. But they walk by the store and they jump in and say, I've heard about your brand or I've seen it, but I've never had the sort of willingness to really give it a shot. And so that customer acquisition component is really important.”

“And then the third, I'd say, is just the experience itself. And we have consistently some of what I believe some of the highest NPS scores of any retailer. And it's something we're incredibly proud of.”

Investing in team ambassadors

Helping to feed that customer spark at Allbirds are the employees themselves. Travis was exceedingly proud of a team who are more than just bodies moving merchandise. They are a team of educated and inspired brand ambassadors who care as much about sustainable fashion as they do about making a paycheck.

“We have found that finding someone who's really passionate about sustainability or about our brand already or who cares about the goods they're consuming, we can help coach them and develop them into a retail ambassador. And that passion for our business and what we're going after and our mission, it just overflows into their interactions with customers.”

“So I would absolutely say that we view our team members and we call them retail ambassadors. So the folks who are on the front lines are the ones who spend all the time with our customers. We're still so new that most of those experiences for the customers are their first interactions with our brands. So there's a tremendous amount of, I don't say pressure, but that first impression means a lot.

And so we put a lot of trust and expectations that if they have a great experience for that first impression. And again, it's our service, that word-of-mouth and that willingness to come back to our store and come back to our brand because of that amazing first experience, not just of the product, but with the interaction in the store.”

Retail is just another DTC channel

If you thought DTC meant just shipping boxes to people’s doorstep, think again. Travis doesn’t see digital and retail as separate in this regard. While digital and retail may indeed be separate channels, he sees both of them as existing underneath the greater umbrella of Allbird’s core DTC framework. Both channels are centered on delivering shoes directly to customers, with no third party such a wholesaler in between.

“We've always been direct. And we started direct through our own website, and ultimately believed that a retail component that would also be direct and not wholesale would also be a part of our business. And in late 2016 we had an opportunity to run a pop up, sort of no-cost, low-cost right in our own backyard in San Francisco. And we jumped at the opportunity.

“And we quickly figured out how valuable it can be, and how much of a superior experience it can be for a product that's tactile as far as shoes, and with the materials that we choose to use. The ability to try things on and touch and feel makes such a difference. So I think we always knew we'd have retail.”

“That early test in San Francisco gave us the confidence to accelerate it quite a bit. And we still are a direct to consumer business, we just use two different channels at this point. And we believe strongly in that model and that we have a direct relationship, whether through the store or through our website, with everyone that buys from us, and allows us to learn from them and understand their needs and have a direct relationship. So we're very committed to the DTC model and using both channels, both digital and brick and mortar.”

Technology as a supporting character

Successful retail doesn’t require a modern revolution. In fact, Travis says we have a lot to learn from old-school tactics that put the human-to-human connection first. This means technology supports sales efforts rather than lead them. The ultimate goal is to make the sales process more conversational and experiential than transactional, using technology in a seamless way that supports that interaction but doesn’t replace it entirely.

“We're not trying to necessarily be revolutionary in a lot of the things on the experience side. We can be conventional in how we do it, but we need to be exceptional. And so there's a lot of things where there's examples of a fantastic customer service in very old-school or traditional businesses. And you can find them all over the place. They’re maybe few and far between on the retail side, but there are examples. And taking lessons from them about how to deliver exceptional customer experience doesn't need to necessarily be revolutionary. And I think that human connection is such a big part of it.

The last thing I would say, too, is I think people often lean into technology and think that we have touch screens, we'll have all this sort of stuff. And I think there's probably going to be an opportunity for that. And there's going to be technology that ends up being really additive to the customer experience that is consumer-facing. And I've seen examples of it. But I do think that what we believe right now is that making the customer experience more seamless is often supported by technology in the background.

“And so that's an interconnected point of sale. It's having one view of the customer. It's the ability to deliver omnichannel transactions, where companies that are in this sort of new age world of DTC are using platforms like Shopify to deliver a more seamless experience. And customers are looking for that.”

Resiliency is not in the job description

For Travis, resilience means rising to unforeseen occasions. Nobody signs up for something like a global pandemic—true grit and resiliency lie in the ability to rise to any challenge. During COVID-19, Allbird’s team members focused on solving problems in the face of adversity so that they could survive one lockdown at a time.

“I think for us it's how you deal with adversity in challenging times, and your reaction to that. And certainly this past year has been a great example. And I'll point to—frankly, something we've talked about quite a bit—the people that are on our team.”

“And it started with the folks in the field and their immediate ability to make sure their teams were safe and that we focused on the health and safety, that we shut the stores down overnight and moved to the HQ, teams making sure that we had everything figured out as we started to deal with different local issues even before reopening, but figuring out what was going on in each market, how we were going to navigate this reopening process with a focus on health and safety, the safety of our employees, but also our customers.

And it was a resilience because that was not their job or in their description when they signed up to work at all. They signed up to work on an amazing brand that was growing retail for. And they were thrown into this situation that the whole world was thrown into. But the resiliency to navigate that and start to come out on the other side, I think stronger, and having solved and figured out a lot of things that maybe would have taken us quite a bit more time, had we not faced such adversity. I think that that's what resilience means to me.”

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