How Away Shook Up the Sleepy Luggage Market With a Simple, Colorful Carry-On

Co-founder Jen Rubio shares the story behind the startup's rapid growth

Jen Rubio (pictured here) co-founded Away with Steph Korey in 2015. Photographed at Hudson Yards Loft by Justin Bettman for Adweek

Jen Rubio remembers the first time she saw a piece of Away luggage out in the world. It was February 2016, and Rubio—who founded the company with fellow Warby Parker alum Steph Korey the year before—was on a moving sidewalk in JFK’s Terminal 4. The brand had just begun shipping its first batch of 2,000 colorful, hard-shell suitcases. And suddenly, there was one of them in the hands of an ordinary traveler.

“I’ll never forget it,” recalls Rubio, seated at a conference room table at Away’s downtown Manhattan office on a recent stormy afternoon. “It was next to gate B28, and I remember trying to run after them to talk to them.” But Rubio was late for her flight to San Francisco to meet with one of Away’s VC partners. Besides, the sidewalks were moving in opposite directions. “I never found out who it was,” she says.

If there’s a conciliation for Rubio, it’s that she’s since had the opportunity to talk to other people she spots in airports pulling her products behind them—and these days, that is a lot of people.

In business less than three years, Away—the most buzzed-about player in the $630 million smart-luggage segment—has sold well north of half a million suitcases. It’s an eye-popping figure that’s by no means the only one the brand can point to. The company’s revenues surged to $12 million in its first year alone, and it was in the black by year two. According to research firm Technavio, Away grew by a staggering 500 percent between 2016 and 2017. It’s little wonder the brand was able to secure $50 million in Series C funding in June, a sum that brought Away’s total venture-capital funding to $81 million to date.

That’s a nice kitty to fund continued expansion, which continues at breakneck speed. At press time, Away had outgrown its existing office space in Manhattan’s Astor Place neighborhood and was readying for a move to 56,000 square feet of new space in SoHo. In May, Away landed $4 million in performance-based tax credits from New York state, pledging to create 249 new jobs.

“We’ve grown from four employees to nearly 200 in just over two and a half years,” Korey says. “Maintaining the culture we had in the early days can be challenging because the needs of our team, our business and our customers are always evolving.”

Away, then, has come from out of nowhere to notch triple-digit growth and, essentially overnight, shake up the sleepy luggage category, whose last big innovation was adding wheels to suitcases in the early 1970s.  How did it all happen so fast? The answer has less to do with product than you might think.

Video and Edit: John Tejada

Away’s formula is ­more about lifestyle than luggage, and it has everything to do with marketing—specifically, getting the right mix of young and influential people to work their social-media magic. It’s a strategy that’s won no shortage of admirers, even if it has others wondering if the startup darling also has staying power for the long term. How can the company, known for a product that you hope to purchase once, one that even comes with a lifetime warranty, keep growing at this pace?

A hole in the luggage market

Rubio likes to tell the story of how the idea to start Away came after her flimsy suitcase busted apart in the middle of the Zurich airport, dumping her clothes onto the floor. That was a formative event, but not compared to what followed. As Rubio shopped around for a replacement bag, she discovered a hole bigger than the one in her suitcase—this one in the luggage category itself. There was the super high end (say, the $970 Rimowa aluminum classic), the low end (your $49 cheapo spinner at TJ Maxx) and precious little in between. Not only was luggage a “super fragmented market,” Rubio says, it had “very little brand loyalty.”

Co-founder and CEO Steph Korey
Photo: Masha Maltsava

Away’s cases fill that middle-market space as neatly as they fit into the overhead compartment. For $225, the company will ship you a 22-inch-tall “unbreakable” polycarbonate shell carry-on (in a choice of nine colors) with a TSA-approved combination lock, YKK zippers, Hinomoto wheels and removable 37-watt lithium-ion battery for recharging your cellphone, all of it with a 100-day free trial and a lifetime warranty. Away has also diversified its product offerings to include an “Everywhere Bag,” a dopp kit and a backpack. More accessories are in the works.

But there is more to the Away brand that just a product line, as Rubio hastens to explain.  “We have a lifetime warranty, a 100-day trial—all of that,” she says. “But the difference between a good product and a good brand is emotion, and we’ve always gone into this knowing that no matter how much work we put into creating an amazing product, that’s just table stakes. Any big player can replicate it overnight—and they have.”

In other words, Away might be selling luggage, but it’s promising something more: the feelings of romance, sophistication and success that come with travel. Away customers don’t just get a wheeled suitcase or a shoulder bag; they get a feeling of being part of a savvy, upwardly mobile clique. And intangibles like that cannot be delivered in a shipping box. They’re delivered by the marketing, specifically by a league of smartphone-toting travelers in an Instagram world where the palm trees sway, the cocktails look as good as they taste and the Away bags appear in every selfie.

Influencer-generated content has propelled Away’s strategy from the beginning. It was an approach born of necessity. Just before the brand’s November 2015 launch, Korey and Rubio realized their first production run of cases wouldn’t be ready in time for the holiday season. Instead of offering a pre-order, they decided on a socially savvy incentive. Recruiting a coterie of 40 photographers, artists and travel writers to contribute articles, Korey and Rubio produced a hardcover, gift-worthy book titled The Places We Return To. (Contents included society florist Lisa Przystup reflecting on Naples and National Geographic Explorer Shah Selbe holding forth on Okavango.)

The duo sold the press run of 2,000 copies, shrewdly including a gift card for a free suitcase. The collector books found their way into the hands of sophisticated, influential consumers—and so did the suitcases. “We knew that we only had one opportunity to debut the brand in a meaningful way,” Rubio recalls.

It worked—perhaps too well. “In Away’s first year, we definitely grew faster than either Steph or I had expected,” Rubio says. “Even though we constantly adjusted our monthly projections, it was challenging to keep up with the demand.”

Since then, the company has gotten its supply chain up to speed and assembled a trusted stable of young, well-traveled Instagrammers. The company does not pay for posts; influencers receive a free suitcase and the rest appears to take care of itself.

A missed connection

And this is where Away spotted another missed opportunity among its competitors. Historically, luggage marketing “was about the wheels, the zippers, the functionality,” Rubio says. “The marketing was really bad. There was really no storytelling in a place that was ripe for storytelling.” Away’s luggage appears in photos of customers’ actual lives. Someone’s French bulldog lounges in an open case; a handsome guy in Ray Bans rests his foot on a suitcase while he waits for his flight; a young lady sits atop her Away case on a Paris sidewalk, and so on. It’s an approach that effectively personifies the suitcases, making it more than just a vehicle for clothing and travel-size toothpaste.

What do Away’s competitors think of this approach? Coralie Lindvay, director of marketing for Delsey USA, said that Away “seem[s] to have hit a very niche market—urban millennials. Delsey’s approach is quite different.” Rather than focusing its energy on courting young cosmopolitans, Lindvay says, Delsey focuses on range. It’s “dedicated to creating luggage for everyone,” tailoring each collection to a different demographic and, hence, establishing its brand with a broader array of the traveling public.

And while that strategy might not be as sexy as partnering with influencers, it’s hard to argue with it. Delsey holds the third-highest market share in the luggage category, second only to Louis Vuitton’s parent LVMH and Samsonite, which together command over 22 percent of the market, per Euromonitor data.

That said, digital strategist and influencer consultant Shane Barker believes Away’s method is wise. “What they’ve done that’s different is they took time to build a community,” he says. “They went out of their way to talk about their product and be specific about their content.” What’s more, Barker adds, the influencers’ photos succeed in creating a world that viewers want to join, as opposed to simply touting a suitcase you can buy. Away, he says, “is selling luggage—but they’re not. They’re selling the lifestyle of travel.”

Away blew up some of its better influencer pics and made mega billboards from them in Times Square.

And according to Guy Avigdor, it’s working very well. Avigdor is the COO of influencer-marketing software firm Klear, which crunched some of Away’s social-marketing numbers for this story and proclaimed Away’s effort “phenomenal.” Taking a sample of 167 posts from the past few months, Klear counted nearly 623,000 engagements and a reach of 5.7 million people. The estimated media value of that kind of exposure: $4 million. Not a bad return for sending out a bunch of free suitcases.

Do influencer strategies have staying power?

No brand executive can argue with amazing traction, but Away’s approach does raise a few questions. Among these: Is the fantasy world conjured via Instagram durable enough for the long term? How can the brand attract millennial consumers without alienating others? And perhaps most elemental: If Away is selling products that will last a lifetime, how can it continue to grow?

First, the social-media realm. Consider the spectacle of Instagram posts tagged with #Away: A mélange of millennials, beautiful, tanned and smiling as they whisk their Away luggage off to Palm Beach and Jakarta. There are breezy captions (“So much to love in Málaga… Next stop, Grenada”) and nary a suggestion of the lives of average millennials—sinking under student-loan debt, living with two roommates and lucky to get a week of paid vacation in the first place. So, who are these influencers? And is it wise to build a brand around their rarified world?

Rubio concedes that “the people who are posting glamour shots on Instagram are not completely representative of everybody who owns an Away bag.” Social media was never an accurate gauge of reality, Rubio argues, and she uses herself as an example. “As far as everyone is concerned, I’m on a beach right now because that’s the last thing I posted,” she says. “But it’s pouring rain in New York, and we’re in a conference room.”

Rubio noticed that luggage was a “super fragmented market.”
Photographed at Hudson Yards Loft by Justin Bettman for Adweek

Barker points out that Away’s stripe of Instagram marketing might not be realistic but counters by asking if any marketing is realistic. The point, he says, is that creating this kind of fantasy works because of its associative power—that aspirational stuff C-suite execs love to talk about.

“You have to realize that most of [Away’s] audience is impressionable,” Barker explains. “This is marketing at its finest: ‘If I get this product, my life will be better.’ Maybe you can’t go on a trip today, but you can buy the luggage and be a step closer.”

Travel expert Mark Murphy adds that, while Away luggage’s pastel colors and sleek styling make it desirable for younger consumers, the prices make the travel fantasy accessible, too. “It’s about making a statement when you travel, and trying to be cool and hip when you travel,” he says, “and they’re playing to that.”

But Away’s relentless focus on millennial consumers also begs the question of whether it’s limiting the brand’s appeal with the over-40 set. If so, it’s leaving money on the table. While millennial travelers lead the pack in terms of money spent on travel—an average of $6,802 a year, according to a 2017 AARP survey—boomers are very close behind with an average of $6,395. What’s more, according to an Allianz survey from last year, Gen Xers on summertime vacations spend double what millennials do.

So while targeting millennials makes sense, it might also be shortsighted. Rubio concedes that “you can’t build a long-lasting brand if you’re only looking at millennials in coastal cities.” She points out that Away has fans among “the retired crowd” and has made overtures to older customers by “testing pretty heavily in TV” in markets between the coasts. “We’re very aware that we’re not going to become like a billion-dollar brand just by catering to this millennial audience,” she says.

Though Away does most of its business online, it recently began opening brick-and-mortar stores.

In fact, Away has already diversified its outreach to customers. It’s rented billboards in Times Square, kicked off a podcast called “Airplane Mode,” released a quarterly travel magazine, and started building brick-and-mortar stores, which appear more likely to draw older shoppers who prefer to test-drive products before they buy.

And last year, Away furnished the luggage for Marie Claire’s Power Trip, which flies 100 female CEOs from New York to San Francisco for 36 hours of high-level networking. Rubio “put the product into the hands of the most well-traveled, influential professional women,” recalls the magazine’s vp and publisher, Nancy Berger. “Most were being introduced to the product for the first time. If you multiply those people, there’s a real amplification. They’ve been very smart at sending product to the right people.”

Does Away’s success have a lifetime guarantee?

No matter how many people get turned on to Away’s suitcases, the problem remains that suitcases—even Away’s nifty models with their hideaway laundry bag and interior compression system—aren’t terribly tough to build or replicate. And this, observes Allen Adamson, founder of consultancy Brand Simple, could prove to be a liability in the future for a startup brand like Away.

“While they’ve had a big splash in the market, just because you have a hot product and are catching trends doesn’t mean you’ll be around tomorrow,” he says. “Once every luggage looks the same and has the same millennial toys built in, product differentiation will go away.” Newcomers like G-Ro and Arlo Skye also make smart luggage, and established players including Delsey and Samsonite now offer digitally enabled bags.

Away has a stable of writers and photographers who contribute travel essays to its custom publication, Here.

Then there’s the challenge of stoking repeat business with a product that lasts a lifetime. Away is pushing the idea of the “travel uniform”—multiple suitcases and carry-ons for different lengths of trips. And co-founder Korey says she has already envisioned the day when Away surpasses luggage entirely.

“We started with luggage, but we’ve always kept our options open in terms of what element of the travel experience we might be able to fix next,” Korey says. “Our goal is to create the one perfect version of everything people need to travel more seamlessly. Beyond luggage, we’ve already expanded into travel accessories, and we’re continuing to listen to our customers to let them help us determine what to do next.”

What might that be? If it’s related to travel, there’s a fair chance Rubio and Korey have at least considered it. Travel services? Booking? Tour groups? More pop-up hotels like the one Away did in Paris last year? Maybe. “Because we’ve built this brand the way we have, it allows us to test into so many different things,” Rubio says. “We have all these learnings from ourselves and our customers that will pretty much drive how we expand the brand in the future.”

This story first appeared in the September 24, 2018, issue of Brandweek.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.