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Direct-to-Consumer Men’s Footwear Brands Fight for Market Share on Instagram

It’s no secret that direct-to-consumer brands have taken over social media feeds across the globe. The vast, seemingly limitless array of vendors provides something for everyone, but in a swirling sea of competitors, who rises to the top?

For male consumers, the answer often trends toward brands that appeal to their lifestyles, blending accessibility with a hint of aspiration. Reaching men is a nuanced art form, brands say, and Instagram is the primary battleground.

“Instagram is definitely a core place where men are discovering fashion brands today,” said Patrick Woodyard, CEO of Nisolo. “There are plenty of brands out there who cater to men only, and are built 95 percent on Instagram paid ads.”

In 2017, the Nashville-based leather goods brand launched a separate Instagram account to cater more specifically to its male audience.

“I think the most powerful ways that men are being influenced to buy is directly from brands themselves,” Woodyard said, explaining that this process is driven primarily through targeted ads across social media and other paid platforms.

“Brands are going directly to prospective customers, talking through their primary value propositions, and influencing men to transact directly,” he elaborated.

Nisolo’s men’s Instagram feed consists mostly of artfully composed land- and city-scapes, where the presence of shoes is secondary to the aura of exploration captured in the photos.

Looking at the feed, one might deduce that the primary value driver for Nisolo’s men’s shoes is their versatility: these are the shoes he might pack for a European backpacking trip, but also the ones he’d slip on for a jaunt to the local coffee shop.

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“Whether you’re trekking city streets or camping in the mountains, the Mateo’s water-resistant features will last through every adventure,” reads a caption on a product photo of the brand’s water-resistant moc-toe boot.

Woodyard said that style and price tend to be the most important variables for the brand’s largely coastal, mostly millennial consumers. Quality, brand sustainability efforts and functionality are other factors that draw them in—all of which are issues highlighted in the brand’s social feeds.

Narratives surrounding an “easily packable Men’s Travel Derby” and a durable all-weather boot have proven compelling, Woodyard explained, as they highlight the functional aspects of the products and illuminate potential use cases.

Social media’s direct line to the consumer has proven invaluable for the brand, Woodyard said. It even overshadows the impact of male influencers, he added, though he admitted that some of them “certainly garner a large audience.”

Male consumers look to third-party sources, too, for validation and inspiration. Woodyard cited product reviews on gear sites, Reddit and curated marketplaces like Uncrate as popular traffic-drivers for Nisolo.

Maintaining a handle on brand perception is also a pivotal element of marketing for Greats, the Brooklyn-born cupsole sneaker startup that’s reached cult status with hipster creatives.

Launching and conducting the majority of its business online has been a boon to the brand’s bottom line, according to Ryan Babenzien, CEO and founder.

“I don’t believe you can create a brand today without being digitally native,” he said, adding that the experience allows for a relationship that’s “one-on-one with the consumer.”

“We get to control the narrative,” he explained, comparing the online experience with launching at brick-and-mortar retail. “Not having anyone interpret your message to the customer is a huge advantage in building a brand.”

Babenzien believes that all consumers want to “align with a brand with which they have a shared belief system and shared values.”

Communication is key to that connection, he said, and online platforms provide a venue for the discussion. “As a core discovery platform from a digital standpoint, the channel we use most is Instagram,” he said.

Though the targeting tools that the brand uses are similar for men and women, Babenzien admitted that the behavior of the two audiences is “very different.”

“If I were to make a blanket statement, I’d say that men buy and women shop,” he said.

When a guy finds something he likes, he explained, he tends to stick with it. “And then he’s going to come back and buy it again in a different color or version or material.”

Babenzien noted that Greats’ female consumers are looking for variety, choice and “newness” in brand offerings, while male consumers are looking for a dependable, if aesthetic, solution to their footwear needs.

The brand’s “anchor consumer” is millennial, or “millennial-minded,” by Babenzien’s characterization.

Shoppers range from 18 to 60-plus, he said, but the commonality between them is that they’re constantly connected. “There are plenty of 40-year-olds who didn’t grow up with cell phones, but they now spend the majority of time with an iPhone in their hand like anyone younger.”

In targeting male consumers through their all-important mobile devices, Babenzien said that men are responsive to posts by people they admire, like athletes and celebrities. New era “influencers,” like style bloggers and self-made Instagram personalities, take a backseat.

Recently, actor and professional guy’s guy Ryan Reynolds was spotted wearing Greats cupsoles throughout his “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” movie tour. The style choice was covered by Esquire and has generated huge buzz for the brand.

Athletes also have become visible supporters, with basketball players and others spotted touring in the brand’s bestselling Royals. Babenzien said Greats will begin offering shoes up to size 18 specifically to cater to the pro ball clientele.

“The masses are going to be influenced by an editorial piece, a celebrity, a musician, an athlete or just a friend,” he said. “All of them matter, and you have to be firing on all cylinders.”

Any cultural figure or personal connection can become a force that sways sales, he said. And while men aren’t always as dialed into discovering the latest fashion trends, they are responsive to influence all the same.

“They may not say, ‘I want to dress like Ryan Reynolds,’ but they may still discover products through him. If what they’re seeing fits within their style profile, that’s what gets them there with the brand,” Babenzian explained.

“Men like to believe that they have their own style and that they’re not so easily influenced,” he added. “But they likely are.”