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How one man grew a $1.6BN brand.
I have a confession to make. I am one of the least fashionable people you’ll ever meet & I am terrible when it comes to skateboarding. Why do I tell you this? I want to reassure you that while I have no personal bias toward today’s brand, I do believe it holds important lessons for all of us. No matter the sector or stage of growth your company is in. Let’s break down the secrets of Supreme’s success.
Whilst Supreme sold in 2017 for a whopping $1.6BN it had far humbler beginnings. Founder James Jebbia had recently moved back to NYC (after previously working in a battery factory in England). It was whilst working in NYC that Jebbia realised the size of the streetwear opportunity & in 1994 he opened the first Supreme store. But how did this little shop go on to become a $1.6BN empire? Let’s break it down 👇👇👇
#1 MEMBERS AS MEDIA
When you're a big brand you have big money to spend. When you're a small brand you need to outsmart if you can’t outspend. And that’s exactly what Jebbia has always done. You see whilst everyone is talking about ‘community building’ today Supreme has been doing it for decades. The brand’s first store, on Layfreet Street, was the epicentre for two important communities; art & skateboarding. And Jebba leveraged these communities to great effect.
Ref #1: Supreme’s first store on Layfreet Street was at the heart of two communities art & skateboarding.
What did Jebbia do? Well, he leveraged community members as media. He would enable artists such as Mark Gonzales to showcase their latest work on Supreme clothing. And he would give away clothing to the most popular skateboarders in the local community.
Ref #2: Supreme’s earliest clothes were crafted by local artists & worn by popular skateboarders.
This was smart for two reasons. First partnering with popular artists & skateboarders created hype for the Supreme brand. It created ‘social proof’ for the brand as it was worn by the most influential people in the area. Second, it took advantage of the changing media landscape. You see in 1994 journalism was rapidly changing. The growth in digital cameras and online blogging gave birth to numerous smaller & faster online media outlets. Jebbia was one of the first to truly understand this. He realized that every time a hyped artist or skateboarder wore a Supreme item of clothing, it increased the chances of the brand being photographed and shared online. He realised, before almost anyone else, that he could leverage these community members as a form of media to grow the reach & fame of his brand.
Ref #3: Supreme launched in 1994 at a time when the rapid expansion of the internet, online blogging & digital photography was changing journalism.
Supreme has leveraged this ‘members as media’ approach from its humble beginnings right up until the present day. They regularly partner with the mods of the r/supremeclothing subreddit, giving them first access to exclusive drops. They treat these mods less like fans of the brand and more like business partners. Making them feel an active part of the brand & the business. It is an approach that deepens the mods’ affinity with the brand & continually encourages them to spread the word about Supreme. And of course, they have partnered with a wide variety of celebrities over the years too.
Ref #4: Supreme has always partnered with people of influence from mods in its Reddit community to famous celebrities.
There is an important lesson here for any brand. ‘Community building’ is the latest buzzword within marketing but not everyone should try and do it. What can be far more powerful, for most brands, is to tap into & leverage existing communities.
#2 LESS IS MORE
To understand the success of Supreme I think it’s first important to understand the state of the fashion category at the time. Back then mainstream fashion was dominated by big global brands displaying big flashy logos. This trend was popular because it tapped into the yuppie culture of the late 1980s & early 1990s. You see for many wearing big brands was a reflection of success. It was a reflection that you were getting on in life.
Ref #5: By 1994 fashion was dominated by global brands with big logos.
The smartest move Supreme ever made? They didn’t try and compete with these bigger brands. They went their own way & subverted the established norms of the fashion category. Jebbia spotted a growing counter-culture that shunned big brands & obnoxious logos. A counter-culture that preferred a more unique, one-off and artistic form of clothing. You only have to look at Supreme’s first-ever T-shirt to see how simple & differentiating their product truly was.
Ref #6: Supreme subverted the fashion industry by having a very distinctive style. One that tapped into a growing counterculture.
There is an important lesson here for any brand. You shouldn’t try and replicate established brands. Instead, build a brand that is both distinctive and taps into growing cultural trends.
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#3 SCALE VIA PARTNERS
Supreme is perhaps most famous for its partnerships. Whilst these partnerships have led to some interesting ‘drops’ there is a deeper motive here. Each of their partnerships is incredibly calculated.
Ref #7: Supreme is highly calculated in the partnerships it partakes in.
Each partnership is deliberately chosen to help Supreme reach a broader audience without spending a fortune on traditional advertising. You see the brands they partner with (eg Nike, Louis Vuitton) have literally spent millions of dollars on ads. Ads that have helped these brands to become famous & top of mind. Supreme deliberately taps into the fame of these other brands, in turn growing awareness & reach for its own company. However, these partnerships are beneficial to both brands in question. Supreme benefits from broader reach & the bigger brands get the ‘street cred’ Jebbia’s company provides.
Ref #8: Supreme deliberately works with bigger brands to help grow its reach & awareness.
There is an important lesson here for any smaller brands reading. You should treat bigger brands as a potential media opportunity. Ones can help you grow your reach without having to spend millions on traditional advertising.
#4 BREAK THE INTERNET
Have you ever noticed Supreme releases some really strange products? Everything from bricks & fire extinguishers to t-shirts with Kermit the frog on? This isn’t accidental. You see Supreme are masters at understanding internet culture. They create weird & wonderful products that will grab people’s attention online. Products that will stop people scrolling & say ‘WTF is that?’. Products that will ‘break the internet’.
Ref #8: Supreme has realised a wide variety of products over the years that grab attention online.
Supreme’s intention for internet attention doesn’t stop there. Ever seen pictures of people queuing up outside one of their stores? It's not accidental. The brand deliberately adds an element of scarcity to some of its products. And Supreme knows by doing this a couple of things that will happen. First, it will increase demand and get their most loyal fans people queuing up outside the store. Second, they know that the lucky few who get their hands on a limited drop will likely post about it online. You see Supreme uses scarcity as a clever tool for growing additional reach for the brand. Scarcity ensures there will always be a queue outside the store, ready to be photographed by passing fans or journalists. And scarcity ensures that those who do get their hands on a limited edition item will share the story online.
Ref #9: Supreme uses scarcity to increase the reach of its brand.
Obviously, not everyone reading today works for a brand that can produce limited-edition fashion items. However, there is still an important lesson here. No matter the brand think of ways to grab people’s attention online whether via impfactual product design, content or perhaps even creating a sense of scarcity
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No matter whether you are a startup, scaleup or challenger brand I think we can all learn some important lessons from Supreme. First, not every brand needs to build its own community but it should look for existing ones they can tap into. Second, always build a distinctive brand that taps into culture (in Supreme’s case ‘less is more’). Third, think of partnerships as a way to scale & reach new audiences. Fourth, think about how your brand can ‘break the internet’ and grab attention online.
So what do you think of this breakdown? I would love to hear your feedback. Hit the comments button at the bottom & let me know what you think. Or perhaps let me know if there is a brand you’d like me to break down in the future.
Finally, please excuse any typ0s…I’m proudly dyslexic.
Co-Founder | Strategy Partner