Does the world need a company that peddles $12 socks? That wasn’t the question that Bombas founder Randy Goldberg initially asked himself. It was, rather: “How can we solve a societal problem?” Socks are the most-requested item at homeless shelters across the country, yet those same facilities can’t accept used socks as donations (it’s a hygiene issue).
After nearly two years of developing a dark-colored, reinforced, antimicrobial-treated sock specifically for the homeless population, Bombas launched its business with the goal of giving one custom-designed pair to the needy for every pair sold to a consumer. The startup celebrated its 10 millionth donation in December with an eye-catching campaign dubbed “The Greatest Sock Never Sold.” The work, from agency Humanaut, treated the cozy foot warmers (made exclusively for the homeless) like haute couture, gave them a counter-intuitive “don’t buy now” button online and used their unattainable status as a storytelling hook.
To add a tangible reward to the built-in intrinsic one for consumers, Bombas recently debuted a “Laundry Back Guarantee” that replaces those socks that mysteriously go missing in the wash.
Goldberg, who now reports 12 million donations to date, will take the stage as one of the speakers at Challenger Brands: A Brandweek Event, Feb. 6-7, in New York.
Ahead of that gathering—which will feature C-suite executives from IHOP, Casper, Allbirds, Organic Valley, Skinnygirl and other companies—Goldberg spoke with Adweek about opening brick-and-mortar retail locations, diving into apparel without experience in the category and cultivating a rabid fan base.
Adweek: What do you see as your most significant marketing challenge of 2019?
Randy Goldberg: First, I’d say every year, the biggest challenge is scaling spend while maintaining or improving our KPIs. CPMs are rising, and the marketplace for DTC brands is maturing. The environment is tougher. We put the pressure on our creative team to continually raise the bar in telling our story. If our marketing isn’t performing well, we take the onus on creative. A second challenge is diversifying our marketing mix and finding places to scale spend efficiently. Lastly, I’d say attribution is a big topic for us this year, as spend scales and our marketing mix gets more and more diverse.
Many startups and DTC brands are headed to traditional retail. Would that make sense for you? Is it in your future?
We started wholesaling Bombas very selectively last year, and that has been a success in an eye-opening way. It was five years before we even considered that, because that is not the world that we came from, and because of the relationship we have with our customers. As for retail, we plan to open up select Bombas stores at some point. We have a concept that we’re working on that we’re really excited about. We feel our stores can have a big impact on the communities where they open.
How do you differentiate yourself from the growing list of brands with purpose?
In the same way that we’re not actively trying to differentiate ourselves from other sock brands, we’re not actively trying to differentiate ourselves from other brands with purpose. We are focused on our product, our mission, our core values, our employees, our customers and how that mission impacts the communities where we all work and live. We try not to think too hard about competition. We hope that every brand with purpose does well, and we also are open to helping other purpose-driven brands succeed.
What kind of advantage did you have coming from outside the apparel world? What were the biggest hurdles?
The big advantage coming from outside the world of apparel was not being dissuaded by hurdles and limitations that industry insiders might have taken as bad signs. Maybe that’s naïveté, but it really helped us. We had several people with lots of experience in apparel (and even socks!) tell us that we were crazy to do what we’re doing. They asked questions that would have gotten us bogged down in distracting details. Having blinders and a sense of purpose really helped us push forward.
Was there a misstep along the way, maybe in the early stages of the company, that taught you a particularly valuable lesson?
When we made customer-facing mistakes early on, we made a decision to be honest early and overcorrect—to over-communicate with customers that we affected and do everything to make things right. It’s painful going public with mistakes, but the result has been an incredibly loyal customer base. Learning to be really honest early was a foundational step in building a customer service-oriented company where our customers are treated with respect and love. Recognizing missteps early and being honest about them is a big part of how we operate.
What’s the toughest aspect of being a challenger brand?
I guess we don’t think of Bombas as a challenger brand. We are honored that we’re in that category, but it’s not what drives our strategy or mindset. Our goal is to be a brand that will be around for a long time. To build an amazing place to work, to empower our employees, to make the most comfortable socks in the history of feet, to be profitable and financially healthy. And, of course, to give back to our community. It’s not tough for us to be a challenger brand because that wasn’t a conscious decision. We built this business the only way we knew how.