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SJ Summit Preview: Ryan Babenzien of GREATS Talks DTC Brand-Building

As CEO of GREATS, Ryan Babenzien turned a small sneaker startup into a cult favorite, seemingly overnight. In a market saturated with rivals—many of whom with more industry expertise, deeper relationships and established supply chain infrastructures—how does a new brand take off the way his has?

According to Babenzien, the perceived pitfalls that plague newcomers can actually play to their advantage in a retail landscape where the rules are constantly shifting. GREATS eschewed traditional retail models, instead embracing the power of online marketing and social media. As it turns out, meeting consumers at their fingertips on the devices that they depend on for nearly every interaction is a pretty good strategy. But that’s not all the brand is doing to capture the attention of the coveted millennial shopper.

Babenzien will speak to direct-to-consumer strategy at Sourcing Summit New York on Oct. 17, where he’ll reveal more about what it takes to build a “digitally-native” brand from the ground up. We caught up with him this week for a look into the DTC landscape that brands like his are helping to shape.

Sourcing Journal: Do direct-to-consumer brands have an inside scoop that traditional players don’t?

Ryan Babenzien: For starters, I think DTC brands—or as I prefer to call them, “digitally native brands”—have a closer relationship to the customer than traditional brands do. That in and of itself is not enough—it’s what you do with that proximity that will matter over time. Building a community is what every brand should do, and GREATS does that on multiple levels, not only on digital. For example, we recently did a photo shoot with a local laundromat and cafe called Celsious. It’s owned by two sisters and they are located two blocks from our office and they have this amazing environmentally forward-thinking laundromat. We featured them in our Royale Knit which is made from recycled plastics, which also aligns with their mission. Working with partners in your local community in real life is something that still works, and it’s a tried-and-true way to build your community in the real world.

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SJ: What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting the GREATS name out there?

RB: Getting your brand out there is a constant challenge and one that we are still working on. There are multiple ways we did [and continue to] do that but the best way I know of is through word of mouth. Now, that may come in a digital form via a customer review on our site, a share from a customer using our referral platform, or, it may come from someone being stopped on the subway by another person asking about their sneakers or having drinks at a bar. Having customers as your ambassadors and gaining awareness through your customer is a powerful way to get the name out there. Getting the GREATS name out there is a never ending job, and we approach it one pair of shoes at a time.

SJ: How much has the current sneaker craze helped GREATS gain traction?

RB: The sneaker craze is an interesting beast and one that we know well. The general awareness and acceptance of sneakers being part of the daily work uniform has certainly helped lift the category overall, so we benefit from that.

SJ: How important is having the right product these days? Is that what traditional players aren’t getting right?

RB: Product is where it all starts, so I’d say it’s critical. Getting it “right” is a challenge for anyone that makes anything, for a multitude of reasons. For starters, trends move very quickly, so if you are selling trend product you can wind up on the wrong side of the trend and stuck with a style that simply is no longer relevant. I wouldn’t say traditional players are getting product wrong. They still dominate the market, so it’s unfair to say they are getting it wrong. The traditional player is generally relying on broader distribution with wholesalers and that’s where things can appear to be wrong. Most big box multi-brand retailers are struggling, so even if they have the “right” product, they don’t sell as well as the brand does on its own. People just are not going into these types of retailers as much anymore, particularly certain demographics. GREATS’ largest customer base is millennial, and that demographic in particular is where digitally native brands thrive.

Hear Babenzien speak on the Sourcing Summit New York panel, “What You Don’t Know About How DTC Brands Are Doing What They’re Doing.” Visit our event page for more info and to buy tickets.