5 Lessons D2C Brands Can Learn from Bonobos – The Pioneers of E-Commerce Fashion

Bonobos success story

Don’t you find it annoying when you go to buy clothes from a store, and you really like a pair of jeans or a nice t-shirt, but somehow the fitting is just off? Either the waist is perfect, but the thigh is too tight, or the shoulders fit well, but the sleeves are too long. Now you have a couple of options to choose from: you can either buy the clothes and get them fixed, try a different brand, start getting all your clothes stitched from scratch, or build your own clothing brand!

Well, you may not want to take such a drastic step, but two college roommates really did!

In this edition of exciting D2C stories, we delve into the making of the pioneers of e-commerce men’s fashion – Bonobos.

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From a Car Truck to Walmart: Here is the Story of Bonobos

It all started in 2005. Brian Spaly would spend his evenings in his college dorm at Stanford Business school sewing his pants to make them fit better. He realized that he could not be the only one who hated the way traditional pants fit him. Spaly surveyed his classmates and learned that he was right. None of his classmates liked their pants. That’s when he began creating a prototype for better-fitting pants.

Within a year, Spaly, along with his roommate and friend, Andy Dunn, created the prototype and sold $10,000 worth of pants out of their college room through word of mouth. After finishing college, Spaly offered Dunn to make a business out of his prototype. Together, they started selling these pants to their friends and family at college parties, trunk shows, and even weddings! Like this, they quickly sold 475 pairs of pants, which validated their business model.

That’s when they realised that they are really onto something here. In 2007, they raised $750,000 with the help of a group of customers and mentors, launched an e-commerce site, and relocated to New York. Within just two months of launching their e-commerce website, they made a whopping $100,000 in revenue. At that time, for a company without any physical stores to have such revenue was unheard of. In 2017, Bonobos was acquired by Walmart for $310 million. 

Launched online with its signature line of better-fitting men’s chinos, Bonobos is now the largest e-commerce apparel brand ever built in America. It has expanded beyond khakis, and now sells menswear, including suits, trousers, denim, shirts, shorts, swimwear, outerwear, accessories, golf apparel, and shoes. It has received several awards and accolades over the years and is named “One of America’s Hottest Brands” by Advertising Age.

So how did they do it? What can other businesses learn from their story? Here are five lessons we think every D2C business can learn from the story of Bonobos.

5 Lessons D2C Brands Can Learn from Bonobos

When it comes to direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands, the success of Bonobos clearly stands out. From selling pants out of their car trunks in 2007 to being acquired by Walmart in 2017, Bonobos has been a trailblazer in the D2C space.

#1. Focus on Mastering One Product 

When Dunn and Spaly set out to start Bonobos, they only had one thing in mind: to make the perfect pair of fitted pants for men. By focusing on perfecting one product, they were able to build a reputation for quality, fit, and style. This focus also allowed them to stand out in a crowded marketplace and build a loyal customer base. And in just over a year, they were doing $100k in annual revenue just by selling pants!

Even after building a stronghold in the apparel market, Dunn talks about perfecting that pair of chinos before moving on to expand their business. In one of his blogs, he wrote, “If you don’t start with a relentless focus on an amazing first product, odds are you won’t even get a seat at the table. You don’t start with the right to do product two. You earn it.”

Focus on product by Bonobos - Press release in Urban Daddy
Credit: UrbanDaddy

They scored a feature in a PR article by UrbanDaddy (for free!) that led to their e-commerce website to crash due to heavy traffic!

For D2C brands, it’s imperative to identify a core product and focus on perfecting it before expanding into other areas. 

#2. Invest in Personalized Experience for All

Bonobos’ Guideshops are the perfect example of a business knowing what they want, and carving their own way to do just that. Guideshops were something no one had ever thought of. Even if they did, chances are, they never thought they would succeed. 

Bonobos guideshops offer a personalized shopping experience for customers. Instead of browsing racks of clothing in a shop, customers can make an appointment to visit one of the guideshops where they would meet with a personal stylist who would help them find the perfect fit and style for them. But it doesn’t end there. Once you know what you want to buy, you can place an order through their website and they will deliver your custom-fitted clothes to your house! 

This not just builds on the customer wanting to touch and feel their products before purchasing, but also helps maintain the personal relationship with its customers. 

This personalized experience sets Bonobos apart from other retailers and creates a lasting impression on customers. D2C brands should strive to offer a personalized experience to their customers, whether through chat support, video consultations, or by solving for their target audience. This brings me to my next point.

#3. Provide “Ninja” Customer Service

Bonobos is popular for its exceptional customer service. They coined the term “ninja” to describe their customer service team, who are empowered to go above and beyond to solve customer issues. Apart from giving advice on fashion, fit, and style, these customer service ninjas are given a unique sense of flexibility to improvise and find individualized solutions to customer problems, if necessary.

Such commitment to customer satisfaction resonates with the buyer and helped Bonobos create a loyal customer base. And loyal customer base = fewer returns. Customers who are loyal to a brand would much rather exchange an item for a better one if it doesn’t fit them, instead of returning them entirely. By attracting stickier customers through a good shopping experience, Bonobos is able to build a stable and continuing source of revenue for the long term.

#4. Utilize Word-of-Mouth Marketing 

Bonobos has built a sticky customer base by utilizing word-of-mouth marketing. By creating a product that customers love and providing exceptional customer service, they’ve created a loyal following of customers who are happy to share their experiences with friends and family. They hardly have to spend any money on marketing. For D2C brands, it’s important to build a loyal customer base who will spread the word about your brand. 

Not just that, Bonobos has a policy of lifetime returns (later reduced to 90 days). This takes customer service to another level and has generated immense word-of-mouth marketing. In a Time Magazine article, Dunn revealed the importance of reaching his customers the right way. He estimates that referrals account for 50% of Bonobos’ new customers.

#5. Solve a Real Problem in The Market 

Bonobos was founded on the idea of solving a real problem in the market – the lack of good, fitted men’s pants. Till then, nobody even talked about how all men’s pants had a “diaper-butt” and rarely came in a variety of colors and designs. Dunn and Spaly’s focus was to create pants with a curved waistband and slim thighs to prevent the bunching of fabric in the back like a diaper. And it came in a rainbow of colors!

By identifying and addressing this problem, they were able to gain the customer’s attention as well as interest who appreciated their commitment to quality and fit.

#6. Interesting Digital Marketing Campaigns

Bonobos is famous for its interesting digital marketing campaigns. Be it their innovative social media posts, their sharp targeted ad copies, or their clever emails – apart from being extremely original and creative, they remain authentic and true to their brand voice. 

This is one great example of how creative they are. They posted a reel on Meta revealing that you could plan your pants according to the day of the week with Bonobos pants! 

Interesting social media campaigns by Bonobos
Credit: Bonobos Instagram Account

They also have a weekly personalized email blast going out to their subscribers, called “The Fit List”, that highlights their best selling products. Planning to start your email marketing campaign? Checkout our blog “Ultimate email marketing guide For D2C & e-commerce businesses

promotional email by Bonobos
Credit: Email newsletter by Bonobos

And if all that wasn’t enough, what we absolutely love about Bonobos that keeps bringing their customers back to them is their consistent and ardent belief in customer satisfaction. How do they ensure that? Through constant feedback surveys, online as well as in person, their customer support ‘ninjas’, and various other ways we have discussed in the blog post. By doing that, they are able to turn their customers into loyal followers. 

This is what has led to their high NPS score of 75. The industry average for consumer brands or retail is 50. Impressive isn’t it? 

If you liked this story, let us know which bits you liked or which brand you would like us to cover next. 

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