For those who have not yet had the pleasure of visiting Minneapolis in winter, I can testify from firsthand experience, it is a bone-chilling experience. This year’s Super Bowl is sure to give many more people a taste of the frigid northernmost reaches of the lower 48. Before they head out to Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium for the game, they are advised to swing by the Askov Finlayson shop in the North Loop neighborhood to get properly outfitted to face the cold.
Brothers Andrew and Eric Dayton founded Askov Finlayson in 2011 as a men’s clothing store, for which they won accolades from Esquire and GQ as one of the 10 best men’s stores in America. With their deep understanding of their customers’ needs, they then turned to designing and making their own namesake brand of clothing specifically “inspired by Minnesota’s traditions of exploration” and designed for “year-round enjoyment of the outdoors.”
Askov Finlayson’s flagship product was its North Hat, an affordable $29 stocking cap with a pompom made in neighboring Cloquet, Minnesota. They have since expanded the product line to include sweaters and tops, pants, shoes and accessorizing “gear,” in casual style fit for all that Minnesota’s climate can throw at a man, or woman who chooses to go unisex.
The core branding story that grounds Askov Finalyson is to “Keep The North Cold,” and everything in the product line follows that mantra. Further the company backs up the brand promise with an official “Keep The North Cold” initiative, which gives money to local organizations in support of the cause, such as Green Lands, Blue Waters, a 2018 grantee, that promotes a Continuous Living Cover program to keep soil covered year around with living ground covers.
With its unparalleled success in outfitting Minnesota natives, Askov Finlayson is now looking beyond the state’s borders to take its message and brand to the rest of the country starting with a limited time collaboration with Target, in line with the upcoming Super Bowl events being marketed around the “Bold North” theme.
The brothers’ Dayton had an obvious in with Target, as their great-great-grandfather was George Draper Dayton, founder of Dayton’s department store, which later became Target Corporation. The “Askov Finlayson for Target” collection will feature 50+ items designed to help people enjoy winter. And it is critical to the brothers that the collection maintain the brand’s “Keep The North Cold” integrity with items sourced in the U.S., like its mugs and ceramic candle holders from Red Wing, and where possible, from companies that make their home in Minnesota. So, for example, the hats for Target are made in the same town as Askov Finlayson North Hats, the only difference being Target’s hats will be pompom-less and at $15, half the price.
Also in keeping with Askov’s cause-related efforts, both Target and Askov have pledged to make matching grants to Wilderness Inquiry, a local nonprofit that gives underprivileged children outdoor adventures.
Growing a Regional Brand to National Scale
Now it is time for Askov Finlayson to scale. Its name is a mouthful, but also memorable in its unfamiliarity. The company says its name is derived from two neighboring towns in Northern Minnesota that share a highway exit.
The brothers Dayton feel that to expand the brand, the company must to step up its design proficiency to expand its product range, which until now has been handled by the brothers. “Everything Askov has done up until now has been my brother and me serving as the designers,” Eric said. “I don’t consider myself a designer, which is why we really need one.”
Initially Askov Finlayson growth plans focus on ecommerce, following in the footsteps of Eric’s college buddy Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker co-founder and CEO, which has partnered with the brand since 2015 in a Warby Parker shop-in-shop inside the Askov Finlayson’s store. “Minneapolis is quickly establishing itself as a hotbed of design intelligence, and Askov Finlayson is a prime example,” Blumenthal said. “Andrew and Eric Dayton founded their company with an eye toward style, integrity and doing good in the world.”
And being a cause-driven company dedicated to keeping the North cold, Askov Finlayson will take that message national too. It has just launched a new “Give 110% initiative to make its commitment to battle climate-change national. “Starting this year, Askov Finlayson will invest more money fighting climate change than running our business costs the planet,” the company announced. The idea is to measure the company’s carbon footprint and estimate its cost using the Social Cost of Carbon calculation then donate 110% of that amount to major organizations working to solve the climate crisis. They’ve committed $1 million to the cause over the next five years.
In the “Give 110%” program, they are hoping to create a movement behind their cause. “If we lose our winters, if we lose our cold, we’ll lose a lot of what the north means to me,” said Eric. “So it’s a way of tying the business to a cause I feel passionate about, but also a natural fit. It also just happens to be one of the biggest, most pressing issues of our lifetime. So that helped too.”
New Business Model for a New Age
Like another socially-conscious brand, Warby Parker, which donates a pair of glasses for every pair sold and provides much-needed vision care to those in need, Askov Finlayson is making this cause core to the brand. “To me, this is what running a business in 2018 looks like,” he said. “You have to be focused on doing well as a company, but you also need to be focused on and committed to doing good. I don’t see those two things as mutually exclusive. In fact, I think they go hand in hand.”
It is this new business model that Fabian Geyrhalter writes about in his book, Bigger Than This: How to Turn Any Venture into an Admired Brand. Written for brands, like Askov Finlayson, which aren’t creating innovative new products or services, such as Uber, Drybar or Apple, this is a guidebook for commodity brands where the brand stands for something bigger than just the shoes, shirts or furniture that they offer. He writes, “A new wave of commodity brands is winning hearts and is teaching us how to turn any product into an admired brand.”
Geyhalter identified eight common traits of brands that sell commodities and “want to be bigger than this,” bigger than just the mundane products they sell and engage with customers on a deeper level.
The playbook is fully illustrated with case studies of brands that have found out how to become bigger than just the products sold and filled with practical strategies to bring a bigger than this approach to a company. Geyrhalter identifies these key traits for exalting a brand:
- Story: When the background story is bigger than the product. Stories become the brand glue that draws people to the brand and engages them. It is what transforms a commodity product into a meaningful brand.
- Belief: When values are bigger than the product. People cluster to common beliefs. They form tribes looking for honest products created by honest people that they can trust. Shared values and beliefs can play a significant role in sparking sales and increasing the value of shares as an added benefit.
- Cause: When the cause is bigger than the product. The cause has to create true value for the recipients, both the consumer as well as the less-fortunate beneficiary, and it is important to think all the way through to how the product is produced.
- Heritage: When the sense of location is bigger than the product. Formulating a brand story based on heritage can be an extremely rewarding proposition if a brand can connect the product with the desire of consumers to formulate a deeper connection with the place the brand is known for.
- Delight: When the small delight is bigger than the product. Make unexpected but thoughtful delights something offered in addition to the product. A small gesture will lead the customer to see you as a friend, which becomes the basis of a lasting relationship.
- Transparency: When trust is bigger than the product. Most brands compete in a space characterized by opacity and complexity. A brand that is transparent and honest builds community and sets the brand apart from the competition.
- Solidarity: When solidarity is bigger than the product. It’s the unique ability to show deep empathy for a very specific, often niche audience and to align the brand offerings, story and beliefs around their point of view. The brand becomes the enabler of the group’s goals.
- Individuality: When customization is bigger than the product. Consumers gravitate toward unique designs, especially the ones that make the brand experience personal to them. Through mass customization brands sell one-of-a-kind commodities.
While Geyrhalter’s book is about new-age brands, it is written specifically for established brands that need to inject some of their new-age thinking into transforming their commodity products and services into something bigger than just the products offered. The need is obvious. “For the first time in history it is more difficult for big brands to gain unconditional consumer trust than it is for a startup,” he states, and goes on to conclude that today, “The ‘why’ and the ‘how’ are winning over the ‘what.’”
Askov Finlayson has incorporated all eight strategies into their brand. They started with innovative thinking and use these ideas to take their brand to the next level. While I may not share Askov’s passion for The North, preferring the Sun Belt myself, I have passion for the brand in their story, belief, cause, heritage, delight, transparency, solidarity and individuality. These are the traits that will set Askov Finlayson apart and make it an important brand in the future. This is new world retail at its best.