To pack more wallop among the denim-and-leather set, Levi's is turning to people like Alice Saunders, a 29-year-old designer and history buff in Boston with a fetish for World War II duffel bags. Saunders, ironically, could care less about mainstream fashion, preferring vintage felt hats and rustic jewelry. What Levi's likes is her passion and the $165 one-of-a-kind tote bags she creates for her Forestbound brand using old, salvaged military fabrics. "My ultimate find is an old Navy duffle bag that the sailor had hand painted with pictures of pinup girls or palm trees," Saunders says. "I can make it into a tote that tells the history of that time."
Levi’s promotes Saunders and her products on its blog and sells her bags with its Levi's Makers tag at the brand's boutique shops in the U.S. Never mind that almost all Levi’s clothes are mass-produced in huge factories overseas; the "maker" movement and designers like Saunders are now part of the Levi's brand. The maker movement, as we know, is the umbrella term for independent inventors, designers and tinkerers like Saunders. A convergence of computer hackers and traditional artisans, the niche is established enough to have its own magazine, Make, as well as hands-on Maker Faires that are catnip for DIYers who used to toil in solitude. Makers tap into an American admiration for self-reliance and combine that with open-source learning, contemporary design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. The creations, born in cluttered local workshops and bedroom offices, stir the imaginations of consumers numbed by generic, mass-produced, made-in–China merchandise.
Sensing potency, Levi’s and other big-ticket marketers such as General Electric, Home Depot and Best Buy are tapping into the maker movement to infuse their brand identities and product lineups with a whiff of individuality. For brands, “it’s all about the emotional tug of the maker movement,” says Tom Bernthal, CEO of Kelton, a brand strategy consultancy. “Even if a maker product is not better than a mass-produced version, people have a more positive feeling about it because the makers’ stories are personal.”
But the challenge of logistics looms for both sides, with massive companies struggling to work with multiple one- or two-person operations. It helps that makers often share resources through online outfits like Quirky and Skillshare and workspaces through entities such as TechShop, which can offer big marketers a single, efficient way to organize their maker relationships. Like the inventors themselves, maker branding alliances are eclectic.
The Makers Project inside Levi’s was started by brand concept director Jay Carroll, who trekked around the world to find and win over unusual indie artisans, including Saunders. Levi’s “knows how to attract that special group of customers who are looking for unique handcrafted items,” Saunders offers.
To promote makers, Levi’s makes and distributes branded videos that serve up a soulful view of the designers and their handiwork. “For Levi’s, the Makers program celebrates those who are still making things by hand while providing an outlet to tell their stories to inspire others,” explains Levi’s master tailor Jared Everett.
General Electric lives in a different neighborhood of the maker movement. The industrial giant partners with collaborative website Quirky to launch co-branded, app-enabled gadgets for GE’s “smart home” collection. Quirky operates as a next-gen manufacturer and R&D firm whose global online community of about 800,000 people submit, vote and fine-tune potential inventions. Quirky then manufactures, packages and sells promising ideas at retailers such as Home Depot and Best Buy as well as directly on Quirky.com.
One of the products from the partnership is a $70 “smart” refrigerator egg tray (invented by Arizona researcher Rafael Hwang) that alerts your smartphone when your eggs are bad or you’re running low. Upcoming co-branded products will include an app-controlled garage door opener and sensors that detect water, temperature and sound, says a Quirky rep. In a nod to the makers movement, all the Quirky + GE products show the name and picture of the inventor.
In another GE initiative, dubbed GE Garages, the company works with maker groups to provide aspiring inventors with free workspaces equipped with 3-D printers, laser cutters, welders, cold saws and other tools. “The Garages invite everyone to be part of the resurgence in manufacturing and to be hands-on with the spirit of invention that runs throughout GE,” says Sebastien Duchamp, the company’s digital communications director. For instance, at Chicago Ideas Week last September, GE Garages provided free work labs for a month, along with training on high-tech equipment and lectures by experts. This year it will host a workshop in Washington, D.C., from March 20-April 7.
(Invention-based advances also inspired Adweek Project Isaac. Now in its second year, Project Isaac casts a celebratory light on invention across all of Adweek’s areas of coverage. Go to isaacawards.com for more information).
Home Depot, looking for an edge over archrival Lowe’s, has also gravitated toward Quirky. Last October, Home Depot sponsored a Quirky contest seeking homeowner-friendly inventions. Within a week nearly 800 ideas poured in, ranging from home repair kits to lighting fixtures. The winning products, including a propane tank that lets you know when it’s out of fuel, are currently in development and will be sold later this year in all of Home Depot’s 1,981 locations.
“Our partnership with Quirky and GE demonstrates our ability to bring new products to the end user in a very rapid manner,” says Randy Light, Home Depot’s senior merchant, home automation. “This partnership ensures that the company is exploring new product inventions that make life easier for our shoppers and solve real problems.”