We live in a time where marketing and brand identity are just as important as the product itself. Without these principles, major brands are going to flex their resources and undercut newcomers. Among these major brands, Amazon may be the biggest culprit and the most likely to try to steal customers from emerging brands.
In 2019 Amazon was selling the 206 Collective Wool sneaker. This shoe was clearly inspired by the design of the Allbirds brand, particularly their Everyday Running shoes. Both were made of wool, machine washable, and designed to be comfortable for daily wear.
206 Collective copied a lot from Allbirds, but they didn’t copy one thing: they weren’t sustainable. Part of Allbirds’s identity is their eco-friendly practices. When co-founder and co-CEO Joey Zwillinger saw the Amazon product he responded in the most tasteful and brand-conscious way possible.
What Does Allbirds Stand For?
When you dive into the Allbirds brand you will find two messages echoed: sustainability and responsibly sourced materials.
Products seem to highlight these two aspects before they even discuss the shoes themselves. Allbirds will tell you what materials are being used, how the company obtains them, and how the environment will be impacted. It’s not uncommon to see them talk about carbon emissions and explain them in a fashion that’s easily digestable.
Then the brand focuses on wearability. If you’ve ever worn Allbirds shoes, you’ll know they’re seriously comfortable. Wearing their Runners is akin to feeling of wearing a slipper, but they have the appearance of a sneaker. Of course, the brand does have it’s own unique style, but the shoe isn’t a social faux pas like other comfort-driven brands (like Crocs maybe). The wool material is designed for all weather and can be washed, allowing wearers to be go barefoot inside the shoe if they’d like.
The brand seems to market their shoes in that order. Sustainability first, comfort second.
Joey Zwillinger Responds to Amazon
When Amazon started to imitate the Allbirds design, the brand took notice. In 2019 Zwillinger wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos and Amazon on Medium. Seeing an imitation product wasn't a shocker, and any popular item is going to be replicated by similar off-brand products. It’s really a matter of responding in the correct fashion.
Zwillinger took this opportunity to highlight Allbirds’s sustainable approach when he responded to the 206 Collective shoes:
We are flattered at the similarities that your private label shoe shares with ours, but hoped the commonalities would include these environmentally-friendly materials as well.
This is a subtle jab, and one the benefits Allbirds. Yes, Zwillinger acknowledge the lower prices on Amazon. He also emphasized the benefits of shopping on-brand and paying the premium for real Allbirds.
Zwillinger also offered to work with Bezos to implement methods of obtaining materials with sustainable technologies. Rather than file a lawsuit against Bezos or Amazon for selling products in the likeness of Allbirds, the message was centered on the mission of Allbirds.
Since the initial note to Bezos, there does not seem to be any changes. 206 Collective still exists, and the Allbirds knockoffs are still available. This was hardly a loss for Allbirds, who are the victims in this case. Rather, it gave them great publicity and demonstrated how smaller brands can take the higher grounds.
Authenticity: The Approach That Works
Zwillinger closes his note with the most important line:
Please steal our approach to sustainability.
In this simple message, Allbirds became a brand for the anti-Amazon consumer. While they’re not necessarily a small brand, they certainly don’t have the power to undercut Amazon. This also allows them to connect with customers at a more personal level.
Thanks to this messaging, I decided Allbirds were worth the investment. A year later, my pair is still in great condition and as comfortable as ever. I made the purchase because I believed in the brand and their approach to addressing copycats. I continue to support the brand because their product lives up to expectations. Would the Amazon pair maintain the same quality? Probably not, but if you view this style of sneaker as a passing fad they probably would have served you just fine. However, it’s not a purchase anyone would be proud to make.
Allbirds is a shining example of a strong brand identity because they know their mission and use it to address immatators. Any time a product does well they will face imposters, but authenticity cannot be replicated on a budget. By keeping their message firmly focused on sustainability, they’ve found the area where Amazon cannot compete. They’ve appealed to the human side of their customers, and shopper know Allbirds is a company focused on the people who built their reputation. When wool sneakers are a thing of the past, Allbirds will retain their fans. Their customers are fans because of their mission, not just because of the shoes.