Go Ahead, Buy It. I Dare You.

Brand promises are usually designed to provide some sort of comfort and reassurance: Bring your business to us and your life will in some way be made easier, happier, or better. Chrome Industries, on the other hand, projects a brand promise that sounds more like a challenge or a dare: go ahead. Try to destroy one of our signature messenger bags or backpacks. Chances are you’ll destroy yourself first.

Chrome is part of a generational shift in the outdoor industry, which is opening up to new voices. The once-dominant trinity of camping, fishing, and hunting is giving way to a much more diverse landscape, including activities in the concrete jungle—and to brands like Chrome that speak to an urban audience more comfortable in that concrete jungle than in the great wide open. “Millennials view the outdoors differently than the traditional Boomer market, and that’s driving much of the change,” says Christie Hickman, vice president of market and consumer insights for the Outdoor Industry Association. “It’s not a destination activity—packing up the gear and getting into the car. They want outdoor experiences that fit seamlessly into their life.”

Launched in 1995, Chrome started out making signature, self-proclaimed “bomb-proof” gear most likely to be used by bike messengers. Now Chrome has a broader reach for an upscale, active urban audience who may bike to work or hike through wintry slush to commuter train platforms. At the core of Chrome’s growth and success is a willingness to balance attitude and challenge with a deep commitment to direct engagement with customers. That balance also pits lengthy, laid-back sales conversations against a brusque value proposition. “We can be militaristic in tone: ‘This is it. This product does X, Y, and Z. You decide whether you want to use it or not, that’s up to you,’” says Kyle Duford, Chrome’s director of e-commerce.

Together in “The Nest”

Chrome’s commitment to direct engagement starts with Ben McCosh’s product design team, which operates literally within earshot of Chrome’s core customers. The company’s corporate headquarters and flagship retail store are in the same San Francisco location, and Mc- Cosh’s team takes full advantage by working in “The Nest,” a loft space above the retail floor. “We listen to the way our customers interact with the sales staff and incorporate their feedback into our designs,” says McCosh, Chrome Industries’ product director. “We’re hearing how they’ll respond to products they don’t even know exist yet.”

Because Chrome offers lifetime guarantees on core products, solid design is not just good policy, but also impeccable business sense. “In other companies a lot of the time quality concerns only pop up when they become significant to the bottom dollar,” McCosh says. “To us, the smallest thing is passed along, which helps us improve the product.”

Listening to customers also guides the company’s forays into new products. But its reputation for durability and utility keeps Chrome deliberate about entering new markets; for example, customers asked for rugged camera bags for years before the company found the right design. Still, Chrome won’t shy away from opportunities to turn road rash into revenue.

A recent decision to diversify from a bicycle-heavy culture into the motorcycle market came directly from customer testimonials. Growing numbers of Chrome buyers shared tales and photos of gnarly collisions in which rider and Chrome gear both walked away in good condition. At the same time the company realized that motorcycle enthusiasts were organically experimenting with its durable, weather-resistant products. That gave McCosh and company all the inspiration they needed to dial up hardcore motorcycle enthusiasts for design help and get a toehold in the market. “Unfortunately, some people will get hit by a car or get in an accident and slide out, but we would hear stories about people wearing our bags and coming out relatively unscathed, with the bag still looking pristine,” he says. “So we wondered, ‘What if we were to make one of our bags specifically for the motorcycle market?’”

Standing behind a product with a lifetime guarantee requires confidence, and Chrome isn’t afraid to let domain expertise guide its decisions. In addition to working with the voice of the customer, Chrome engages with professional cyclists, skaters, messengers, photographers, and other urban rogues to design and field-test its products.

“We listen to what they need, because they’re using our products on such an extreme level that if we can solve problems for them, the product will work for everybody,” McCosh says. “When our products are tested against expert advice, we can explain to customers, [for example,] that a bag’s pockets are designed in a particular way for a reason.”

In the Hub

Although Chrome sells through a variety of specialty and outdoor retailers, its five corporate-owned stores, dubbed “Hubs,” are clearly the jewel in the sales crown. Chrome’s positioning of the Hubs is one of the best manifestations of the brand’s laissez-faire, take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Each store’s Web page invites customers to “come in, hang out, talk shop with the crew, and buy something if you feel like it.”

Gaurav Pant, principal analyst at EKN Research, says the direct retail model is successful in streetwear and outdoor sports because it promotes an edgy atmosphere. “It’s almost like [needing] a secret handshake to get in—it helps the brand seem exclusive, and helps build the community,” he says.

The custom sewing and construction stations found in each Chrome retail store are more than just value-added ways to send customers home with personalized bags. Chrome’s “makers” (on-site manufacturing professionals) are a conduit for the voice of the customer, as well. “We hear about what’s made at our custom sewing stations and decide if it’s something more customers would like, or if it needs more work,” McCosh says.

It doesn’t hurt that custom purchasers are also more likely to be brand advocates. “Spending time creating something makes it very personal,” Pant says. “‘I will love to wear it and I will like to share it with others. It becomes a piece of me and helps me be part of a branded community.’”

In addition to the five permanent locations, Chrome has established “pop-up” Hubs in cities such as Berlin and Los Angeles in recent years. Chrome and contemporaries score not only sales revenue, but also brand-building buzz when a pop-up store succeeds, and, once again, the voice of the customer calls the shots. “Social media is changing this game immensely,” says Nikki Baird, managing partner at RSR Research. “Put a geographic filter on the places where people are talking about your brand, and you immediately have two strategies at your disposal: go where the noise is, or go where there ought to be noise but isn’t.”

In the ether

Chrome’s Hubs may be where elite cyclists rub elbows, but much of the business of attracting and retaining customers worldwide is done online. Born at the dawn of ecommerce, Chrome’s digital communications strategy has changed significantly as consumers’ preferences, tastes, and tolerances have evolved. “A few years ago if I told an employer that I wanted to send email at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, I would have been fired,” says Chrome’s Duford. “Now, open rates vary across the board, and it’s not just about getting in front of people at their desks on Monday or Tuesday morning.”

Designing email campaigns that selectively send to customers based on historic time-of-day opening patterns is one way Duford aims to stay ahead of calcified, static approaches and keep customer conversations dynamic. “How many newsletters do you delete from your inbox every morning?” he asks. “Those are the brands that are going to lose.”

Ad retargeting based on search and social behavior has proved fruitful in recent months, particularly social retargeting. “Everyone is seeing a huge uplift with Facebook retargeting, and we’re no exception. When I’m able to give you a Facebook newsfeed story based on a Chrome page or product you’ve previously visited on our site, that’s gold,” Duford says. “Those [retargeted] click-through spaces are so valuable I’ll buy them every day, and buying that space is cheap. You run out of people who have visited your site long before you run out of ad space.”

Duford is careful to design retargeting and search engine marketing campaigns that are device-sensitive, initiating relevant conversations based on the clues. “When you serve up a mobile ad you can typically bank on that person price-shopping, comparing, or showrooming, and can immediately serve up the notion, ‘There are other places to shop, and here’s how we can help you,’” Duford says.

Once visitors reach the Chrome website, the brand wants to keep them engaged and ideally close a sale. Working with A/B testing vendor Optimizely, Duford found that content and presentation were far more important than offers and promotions when it comes to converting visitors. The Chrome site has a static, three-box display for secondary stories that don’t make the main interactive carousel. Wanting to understand why certain stories outperformed in clickthrough rates, Duford heavily tested the boxes with sales incentives, images, and color. “It didn’t matter what we did or what the call-to-action was, whatever was in the center won, always,” he says.

This behavioral quirk freed Duford from the burden of devising sales and percent-off strategies, enabling him to emphasize compelling content, not bleed out coupons: “Optimizely allowed us to take the BS out, and focus on telling the story instead of running a promotion.”

Online, in-store, and on the street, direct marketing has given Chrome tight control over its destiny, and forged strong bonds with customers who could pay one tenth the price for a bag that simply gets their belongings from point A to point B. “We’re lucky to have a strong direct-to-consumer business. When your main business is having to worry about what the wholesaler wants, the product that ends up on the shelf is the one that sells—it doesn’t matter how good it is,” Chrome’s McCosh says. “At Chrome, we decide what goes onto the shelves, and are able to push the envelope with products that would not otherwise have a market for retail.”

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