Shoppers love unique products and great brand stories. If on top you sell upcycled products, are a niche company from a small country, that makes all the ingredients for a great brand story. For us that delivers great learning on strategic brand management.
If someone had told you in 1993 that someone would manage to turn truck tarps into it bags in Seoul by 2019, and create a best practice brand development story in the process, you may have questioned their judgement.
Freitag the one that just turned 25. The brand looks as innovative as it did in the early days, and is now preparing for the next evolution.
Freitag’s Strategic Brand Management
This story doesn’t begin in the most sexy way. In a rundown student apartment in Zurich, Markus and Daniel Freitag go about washing, cutting and stitching dirty used truck tarps.
Their idea was that recycling tarps would make a great environmental contribution and a nice extra income for two creative students. But their talent for marketing, strategic brand management, and storytelling led to far more than that. They should soon become “the unofficial outfitter of all urban, bike-riding individualists”. Great upcycling, long before the term was ever coined.
We may wonder whether their hunt for tarps to work with still involves “prowling around the truck stops of Europe to hunt down the best tarps”, as Freitag’s homepage would have us believe, or whether that’s simply an instance of great brand storytelling. Whichever it is, it creates great images and stories for a time where shareability is everything.
The past 25 years of Freitag’s strategic brand management offer many entertaining stories and milestones, grown from the founders’ extraordinary media talent. The Freitag brand story fills blogs and books, while their products reach MoMA status. I’ve chosen the following three examples to illustrate Freitag’s excellence in strategic brand management.
The Freitag Tower
If our top score for flagship store appearance is 5 stars, the Freitag flagship store in Zürich receives a solid 6 stars. Built in 2006, it remains a lighthouse brand store, a must visit destination for brand shoppers, Swiss culture tourists, design students and retail architects alike.
What to other brands is a simple brand extension project, to Freitag becomes best practice in brand storytelling. Described as the search for sustainable work wear, Freitag’s 5 year journey culminates in the story of an “entirely new green life cycle”. And essentially this is nothing other than Freitag learning about fashion production. But the stories, the video and the newspaper produced for the project are an absolute marketing highlight. With that storytelling, who cares whether the product extension is commercially viable in the long run?
The beauty of creating an inspiring brand is that many other creative minds will share their brand experience and interpretation with the world. Lucky you, if you can win over an animation artist to tell your brand story, like in project tarp blanche. All of the videos are worth watching, but if you’re only going to see one, I strongly recommend it’s Truckin’ by Neil Stubbings.
Simply best practice in brand storytelling.
Freitag’s Brand Growth Strategy
Nothing is published about Freitag revenues or profits, but the brothers are quoted saying “we had essentially nice weather all years, there were clouds, but no storms”. Bank loans were taken up for extraordinary investments like the Zurich Flagship Tower and a new HQ. That speaks for a financially healthy strategic brand management, considering Freitag’s distribution is investment heavy, own retail and online mainly.
With their average price ticket, 24 stores and 400 resellers, we estimate revenues in the area of CHF 50m. That makes them small in size, but outstanding in brand value creation, given the small invest. Freitag never invested in consumer advertising; the brand grew through storytelling and word of mouth.
Although company growth can be assumed steady, and reported numbers of production, stockists, own and partner stores have been growing most years, there have been varying dynamics of store openings. The current wave of openings started after the Swiss-Euro Shock in 2012, when the brand took a hit due to mainly distributing in Japan and Europe. Management decided to build the brand in more Asian countries as well as in the US. While the Asian expansion steadily sees new openings, the learning curve in the US is reportedly slower.
But not only expansion growth had its varying dynamics, so did Freitag’s organisational development.
The Brand’s Organisational Development
Best practice strategic brand management here too? If brand development is measured in frequency of changes in organisational structure, Freitag receives five stars. But whether the current model will hold long-term, remains to be seen.
While Freitag is very disciplined in documenting processes and support tools (a snapshot see above), the company’s management structure had ups and downs. Much of that is likely due to the unique leadership style of the two founders; both love the creative and marketing part of their job but hate being the boss. But then again, their energy and vested interest influences almost all functional areas.
That holds some challenges for Freitag’s staff and burned three CEOs between 2009 and 2015. The latest development was having no management at all but organising the company as a Holacracy.
“Freitag always worked in circles” is the way the brothers explain their new leadership style. The Holacracy system was professionally launched in 2016 and normally takes a few years to establish. But Freitag’s existing culture and management style may actually be a good fit for the system to work. And the brothers’ dedication to finding their ideal balance between staff, management and shareholder interests seems wholehearted, as long-term staff report.
I follow Freitag’s strategic brand management since my time in Switzerland in the late 90ies. To be honest, it took me some time to believe in the brand’s long-term development. But over the years I have seen the organisation and its founders making very smart moves.
It’s not that they never made any mistakes. But they’ve become very advanced at trying out new things and quickly correcting course when necessary. That’s how Freitag is now in year 26 and remains a very up-to-date brand, creating a premium experience with an innovative product and unique marketing. Often by trial and error, but always by strategic brand management. I personally love to see that the organisation is a very normal one, striving to reach adulthood without getting old, securing social and environmental engagement while staying on a profitable growth path.
Regardless of how the current Holacracy trial will end, Freitag’s founders, the organization, and the brand will take the next step of brand development. I will continue to follow Freitag’s brand evolution with much sympathy. But above all, I hope Freitag becomes a role model for many more brands in their strategic development.
About the Author
Guido Schild is an urban biker of the rare species that does not own a Freitag bag. But he is a fan of healthy and balanced brand development. Read more of his work here and connect with him on LinkedIn to create or share your own brand development story.