Breaking the mold


Emily Heyward co-founded Red Antler in 2007 with a mission to serve startup ventures early in the process of brand building. The client roster, companies “changing how the world works,” includes retail business model disruptors Allbirds, Birchbox, Casper and Snowe.

Heyward is uniquely qualified to lead Red Antler. The Harvard graduate studied postmodern theory and consumer culture — translation: pop culture, ethical philosophy and what drives people — then served with firms such as J. Walter Thompson and Saatchi & Saatchi. Earlier this year, Fast Company magazine named Red Antler as one of its top 10 most innovative companies in marketing and advertising.

Next month Heyward will share the stage at NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show with three startup founders who will discuss how they are completely reimagining a category to better serve people and their needs.

How does Red Antler compare with a traditional agency?

First off, we are mission-driven to help startups. Red Antler was absolutely born out of our time spent working at traditional ad agencies on large global brands — both the positives and negatives of that experience.

On the positive side, ad agencies are where we learned to apply an incredible amount of rigor to understanding a target audience, drawing out deep consumer insights, using those insights to inform brand strategy and then using strategy as a foundation for all our creative work.

However, unlike traditional ad agencies, we saw an opportunity to take that process and apply it much further upstream, to launch and grow new things that people want and need, versus just finding new things to say in a campaign. I also have found that many ad agencies have strict divisions between departments. Strategy, account management and creative are very much treated as separate lanes, whereas our approach is more multi-disciplinary and focused on co-creation.

Why disrupt the established model?

Because we’re most often working with entrepreneurs, our relationships with our clients tend to go very deep and extend far beyond our scope of services. Our team consists of client management, strategists, copywriters and designers across a very wide range of skill sets and disciplines — think brand ID, digital experiences, industrial design, advertising, art direction, talent and HR, as well as finance and operations.

Red Antler also does research on behalf of clients. What’s your approach?

We use research upfront to get smarter about our target audience and understand the key insights that need to drive our work. We do not use research to “test” creative, as we find that leads to the safest, most expected solution and not the solution that will ultimately drive category-defining success.

Allbirds, Birchbox and Casper have made the move to bricks-and-mortar stores. Did Red Antler lend a hand?

Our initial work establishing a brand system very much lays the groundwork for an expansion into bricks-and-mortar because we’re always thinking about where a brand might go in future phases of growth. Our branding process ensures that we’re at least starting to put tools in place that can take them there. Our industrial design team and brand team will do further work in helping determine how a brand lives within physical retail when the time comes.

Don’t miss Emily Heyward at NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show!

For example, we’ve been helping to launch pop-up stores with our client Rebag (a luxury handbag reseller) across New York City and figuring out how the brand behaves in that format.

What have you learned that might help legacy retailers?

It’s about rethinking the role of online and offline. It’s important to create an online relationship with customers, even if ultimately the goal is to get them to shop offline — actually, especially if the goal is to get them into a store.

Online is the place where customers are discovering and falling in love with brands, but that doesn’t mean that’s the death of offline retail — look at all the brands that started online and now are doing really well in offline retail. The buildup comes from customers learning and tapping into the brand through social media, and then they’re excited to experience the brand in real life.

In the case of Rebag, it wasn’t about remaking the [pop-up] space over. The handbag is the hero, and the wall of these exclusive and highly desired handbags became an Instagrammable moment.

A pop-up becomes a destination driver because it’s not permanent. What else can legacy retailers learn from your work with startups?

It’s not about a cool ad campaign or new tagline for some of the most iconic retailers who are losing relevance. Our most successful clients set out to achieve a vision that was much bigger than their initial set of products, and they knew they had to build a brand that stood for something beyond functional benefits.

It’s not enough to just have a great product and tell people why it’s great. You need to tap into their needs in a deeper, more emotional way, always thinking about how you can positively transform their lives. I think traditional retailers can think about innovation through the lens of the customer — it’s not just about being new and different in a flashy way. It’s really about how you can make things easier, more fun, more delightful and more meaningful for people.

What is the most important channel of communication in the mix?

I don’t think you can isolate one channel as the most important — to me, it’s about how they all work together, and it’s important to consider them as a whole. What’s the story that unfolds over the entire journey, with each one playing its unique part?

Red Antler clients aside, who’s doing a good job morphing from online to offline?

Warby Parker is doing online/offline incredibly well. It does an incredible job of creating Instagrammable stores, showcasing its stores in its social media in a way that makes you want to go to see it. Also, I admire just how its strong point of view comes across everything it does. There’s a consistency and clarity. It’s such a clear aesthetic and a clear world that you just want to be part of it.

What do you see in retail’s future?

Well, personally, I’m very excited for the ultimate VR shopping experience. … But I do think, aside from that, all trends point toward a continued trajectory of putting more power into the hands of customers, whether that’s about the role they can play in new product development, innovative customer service policies that blow people’s minds or new ways to allow people to experience products before they buy them.

Janet Groeber has covered all aspects of the retail industry for more than 20 years. Her reporting has appeared in AdWeek and DDI Magazine, among others.


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