Shinola’s CMO Wants You to Know Where Its Products Come From, and the Story Behind Them

Adweek’s 2016 Brand Genius winner for lifestyle

Luke Wilson is a busy man. With 64 movie and TV projects to his credit (and three more in postproduction), the Santa Monica, Calif.-based actor doesn't have a lot of time to hang out in Detroit—let alone stand on a roof in Detroit to host a short film. But last month, that's what Wilson did. It wasn't to shoot a comedy or another bro flick, either. This time, Wilson led a 360-degree camera on a tour of the former Argonaut Building at 485 West Milwaukee Ave.—better known as the Shinola factory. "To be someplace where things are getting made from scratch to completion seems like a particularly American endeavor," Wilson notes.

That's an understatement. If Shinola's popularity owes itself to one thing apart from the coolness of the products themselves, it's the brand having embedded itself in the American industrial mystique. Shinola watches, bicycles and leather accessories—all come from the Shinola factory in the heart of the Motor City. It's an irresistible narrative that, as Wilson's video demonstrates, makes for compelling marketing. And the marketing is made in the building, too—by CMO Bridget Russo and her team.

Russo, who joined the company in 2012, has kept its postrecessionary message intact: This stuff isn't just cool, it's designed here and it's helped put Detroiters back to work. "Provenance is important to the consumer," Russo says, "not just where a product is coming from, but the story behind it."

As for those stories, Russo need only walk down the corridor to find them. Under her leadership, Shinola has produced some of the most effective content marketing around, much of it centered around those making the products as much as the products themselves. In April, Shinola partnered with Harper's Bazaar for a video titled "Every Stitch Has a Story." It starred model (and now women's design director for Shinola) Carolyn Murphy, who explained that the brand "has a lot to do with creating jobs, changing people's lives."

Six weeks later, the brand teamed with Viceland to create a series of videos that introduced viewers to Shinola's employees by name—watch technician Te'Nesha Martin and leather artisan Tarez Franklin among them. The video showed employees enjoying their jobs and a middle-class lifestyle that Detroit hasn't seen since the Cadillac plant closed. "I love my people—it's a big family," Franklin says of his co-workers on the assembly line. "It's been a long time coming for Detroit."

Robert Ascroft

Shinola isn't the only brand whose marketing features the people who make the products, but the lavish attention it pays its employees is unusual. Given how much this presidential campaign season has stressed the loss of manufacturing jobs, the timing couldn't be better. "We intentionally chose jobs as our key message point for this year's campaign," Russo says. "We wanted to highlight the 500+ jobs we created. It was also an element that, in an election year, we knew was going to be a hot topic."

Shinola's strategy for making its name synonymous with high-quality, hand-assembled goods has obviously worked. While the privately held company does not release detailed financial results, its store count has grown from 10 to 18 over the last year, watch production has grown by 325 percent since its founding, and the brand now books $100 million in annual sales.

Shinola's messaging isn't just current, it's integral to the appeal of the brand, according to Kyle Anderson, market and accessories director at Marie Claire. "Shinola's rapid success is proof that when we have the products available to us, we will choose to purchase American items," he says. "The company has a great story and a cool assortment of products and designs that are covetable and well-priced—classics that will withstand the test of time."

In the coming months, Shinola plans to add turntables and fine jewelry to its line. Those products will also be made in the Motor City. "Detroit can't wait for automotive, so it's looking to other industries," Russo says. "We got lucky with our timing."

Check out all of Adweek's 2016 Brand Genius winners.

This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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