An inside look at streetwear brands Need Supply and Totokaelo

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When Need Supply and Totokaelo merged operations last year, it might have seemed an aligning of two fairly similar brands.

Both focus on new wave and streetwear fashions and both are heavily focused on ecommerce with a relatively small bricks-and-mortar footprint. The courtship began in 2016 when Totokaelo was acquired by the same venture capital firm that held a minority interest in Need Supply. But late last year, the two merged into one, calling the umbrella NSTO and with Need Supply founder Chris Bossola at its helm.

Make no mistake: Both will continue to operate as separate entities with strong adherence to the distinct identities at each core. “The way we see the two brands is very distinct,” says Fanny Damiette, vice president of brand and marketing for NSTO. “One of the key distinctions is the point of view. There are customers who shop at both, but we don’t assume that they do so for the same reason.”

With a keen focus on understanding the distinctions and in reaching those audiences in new and creative ways, Need Supply’s and Totokaelo’s marketing efforts might be as leading-edge as the streetwear fashions both brands represent.

UNDERSTANDING THE DISTINCTIONS

Totokaelo has a more urban sensibility, Damiette says. “It’s actually talking to this urban customer who has a strong creative interest, creative sensibility. They are interested in creative expressions. They have an intellectual understanding of fashion. When they buy a piece, they are interested in understanding what makes that piece special.”

Need Supply customers are “more relaxed, more casual, a little bit more nostalgic,” she says. “If you look at the offering, there are a lot of nods to the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, in how we sell the product and look at the product.”

With such distinct brand visions, the company has a clear mission in marketing to each, though a commonality is in a nontraditional approach. Both brands find their customers most often on their own social platforms, Damiette says: Totokaelo may use Instagram to promote an interview with a well-known designer like Stella McCartney, while Need Supply’s Twitter account touts an up-and-coming filmmaker. Both approaches align with those distinct customer profiles.

“For Totokaelo, we look for inspiration on the outside, meaning we try to open our customers to new faces, new brands, new experiences and new ideas,” she says. “We’ll interview an interesting chef who opened an interesting sushi store. We may feature a brand and their approach to sustainability. We bring them information they won’t find anywhere else.”

Need Supply customers are inspired by up-and-coming and emerging talent, so the company emphasizes images shot in industrial spots or modern homes. “The Need Supply approach to creative direction is more relatable,” Damiette says. “And for Totokaelo, it is more aspirational.”

The term “aspirational” gets a bit of an NSTO definition, Bossola notes: “We use aspirational, not in the traditional sense of a luxury brand where our customer is looking to show they’re rich. But the aspiration is to be seen as a person with vast knowledge, to challenge the customer with things they haven’t seen before.”

Damiette believes that lack of need to “show off” separates both Need Supply and Totokaelo customers from similar brands. “Both brands talk to a customer who is very self-aware.”

And that means using marketing to play up cultural knowledge — which Bossola believes is the core of what both customers seek.

A MINDSET, NOT AN AGE

The focus on outlook rather than demographics reflects a shift that Damiette believes applies to other retailers as well.

“We’re not in this world anymore where each generation is siloed into their own way of life or geographically siloed,” Damiette says. “That’s an asset for retailers. It means that we’re free from some of the boundaries that used to exist and some of the silos that used to exist. A mother of three from Los Angeles shops in the same way as a student from Stockholm. They get the information from the same influencers, the same blogs. They read the same magazines.”

Damiette says the “only way” for a retailer to get out of the race of demographic is to “double down on the point of view, on what you stand for. Let’s say you have a store that’s all about brands that are sustainable. You should double down on that and your message should translate that. You will reach that global niche that is interested in that point of view.”

Granted, there are generational applications as well — especially when it comes to aging the product or sticking with the initial vision.

“In our case, it’s even more relevant,” Damiette says. “When the first iteration with Need Supply was born, it addressed what is now Gen X, which now has children, probably earns a good living, whereas before they might have been students. Need Supply was always about the American spirit behind fashion.”

Because that point of view is so deeply in the Need Supply DNA, “we happen to renew our customer base a lot,” Damiette says. “You might have someone who has followed us for 20 years but still shops at Need Supply. They still see themselves as the 20-year-old they used to be. And they look at the current 20-year-olds and a little part of themselves wants to be that 20-year-old because they have a better vision of what those customers’ lives look like.”

Bossola, who has been with Need Supply from the beginning, notes the big changes in communications. “When I look back, media was more of a way that you pushed communications out. The only place you had a dialogue was in a physical store. We don’t push messages out anymore. We create content, we share it with our customer, and we have a conversation.”

That content may appeal beyond a certain age group — but that does not mean NSTO eschews demographics. It has its eye firmly on the next generation of shoppers, Gen Z, and anticipating the shifts that they will bring. Already, they are bringing some definite ideas.

“They’re definitely into brand nations and brand point of views even more than the other generations,” Damiette says. “They’re more sensitive about what brands stand for and care about. For us, it will be about being even more transparent and how we plan on playing on those values. That’s going to be true for every brand out there.”

ALIGNED AND READY TO GROW

Now that the two brands have formalized and expanded the relationship, don’t expect a blending of perspectives. Granted, the underpinnings of the ecommerce technology are shared — but the messages won’t be, Damiette says. “We want to keep the points of view very pure, more integral to each other. The Totokaelo lens and Need Supply lens are very different. There’s very little advantage of mixing them. Maybe one day we’ll see an interesting opportunity. For now, there’s actually more value in keeping them very separate.”

Don’t think that NSTO’s point of view is in staying stagnant. The company recently added shoes and is keenly focused on expanding private labels. More bricks-and-mortar stores are on the table, too.

Even then, expect NSTO to do things a bit differently. “We’re taking the approach of not having a strict bricks-and-mortar strategy, but a geographic strategy,” Bossola says. “We decide based on our ecommerce data, where we may be underrepresented. Then we ask, ‘What is the best approach to engage with that consumer, considering the competition and the logistics?’ Is it a full bricks-and-mortar store, a pop-up store, a private showroom, additional marketing? We will develop an approach in each of those markets from a digital physical strategy.”

Sandy Smith grew up working in her family’s grocery store, where the only handheld was a pricemarker with labels.

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