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Photo: AYR
Photo: AYR

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Can Men's Brands Conquer the Women's Market, and Vice Versa?

There's a rising category of startups that launch catering to one gender, and then choose to expand by way of selling to the other.

AYR, the sophisticated female counterpart to men's e-commerce apparel brand Bonobos, has been on the market for nine months now and co-founder Maggie Winter admits that sometimes it feels like they're in second place.

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Yes, AYR's managed to accrue an impressive following, particularly because of its kick-ass coats, and the brand confirmed to Racked that it just hit its first million dollars in sales. But it's still hard for AYR not to live in Bonobos's shadow.

"It's a little bit like being a younger sister to an accomplished older brother," she tells Racked. "Bonobos got their [brick-and-mortar] Guideshop when they reached $20 million in sales—we don't want to wait until we have 20 million to open a shop. They are always two steps ahead of us, and we want what they have immediately—that's our biggest challenge."

Parent company Bonobos Inc. is part of a rising category of startups that launch catering to one gender, and then choose to expand by way of selling to the other. Essentially doubling your consumer base makes sense from a numbers perspective, but as companies like One Kings Lane can attest, biting off more than you can chew can be a risky move.

For AYR, it was crucial to create a completely separate brand; there was no interest in creating a "Bonobos for Her." That meant establishing different creative teams, drawing up a different logo, employing different marketing tactics—and selling at a very different price point. While Bonobos is known for well-fitting men's clothing with prices similar to J.Crew, AYR focuses on basics made special, which the company believes its female customers are more likely to invest in, thus the steeper Rag & Bone-like price tag.

A photo posted by AYR (@ayr) on

"It's important for a brand to have its own voice and identity," Winter says. "We wanted to preserve everything that is successful about Bonobos—they have a very specific men's shopping experience and we didn't want to disrupt that. You have to be sensitive to the different audiences. Our male shoppers don't want to feel like they are shopping at a woman's company."

Founded in 2007, Bonobos raised another $55 million in funding earlier this summer. They have a significant fanbase, with nearly half a million Facebook likes. So yes, it would been convenient for AYR to lean on its success and launch under the Bonobos umbrella, but that also would have hurt AYR's chances of reaching its ideal shopper.

"Our audience is a girl who is interested in something really well-made and elevated," Winter adds. "They don't cross over with the customer who is going to buy checkered shirts year after year, because they know what color pants have their moment and are then gone. You can't apply the same aesthetic to both brands and make an inverse of men's to women's or your point of reference is pretty limited. We didn't want to feel like we had to be a preppy, American women's brand."

But even with entirely different branding, AYR often gets associated with Bonobos, says Winter—and while that might be good for its reputation, it confuses customers.

"From our survey research," she explains, "we saw that people who found us through Bonobos didn't have a clear idea of what AYR was, versus if they found us on their own. We have to do a better job solidifying our brand. We have our work cut out for us."

Photo: Birchbox

Beauty startup Birchbox employed the opposite approach when it introduced Birchbox Man in 2012, two years after the company first launched. Brad Lande, the vice president of Birchbox Man, says that given the success of its women's business, there was no way the men's offering would have launched with a different name—especially when there were no other competitors back then.

"The name had so much brand equity and explosive growth," he says. "We knew the initial growth would come from our women's business. The name stood for beauty, so all we had to do was create a men's experience that guys could relate to."

Birchbox items vary quite a bit based on gender. While the women's products are almost exclusively beauty-related, Birchbox Man includes grooming items in addition to gadgets, games, socks, and underwear. Another difference: You won't find the company's signature pink anywhere near the men's boxes.

"Other than the color though, we felt like the box, delivery, method, and user experience didn't need to change," explains Lande. "From a psychographic point of view, the two audiences are actually very similar: They are both open to discovery and it's easier to use the same brand platform."

Starting a new brand from scratch is much more difficult than broadening your startup's original offer, Lande concedes. Still, there are issues Birchbox had to navigate when it took the next step. For one, it was important for Birchbox Man to not just duplicate moves that worked for its female-focused predecessor.

"Sometimes it's easy to shortcut and say, 'This worked really well, let's do the same thing,'" he explains. "You have to be really careful because that's a challenge that will come up, and that's why you need to have individual teams who can identify that conflict."

A photo posted by Birchbox Man (@birchboxman) on

Harry's, the men's shaving startup launched by Warby Parker's Jeffrey Raider and Andy Katz-Mayfield, has considered started a women's line for some time now. The company has conducted multiple focus groups and surveys, talking to female customers and would-be customers about what they want. Still, vice president of product development Brittania Boey emphasizes that no matter how enticing a doubled profit margin seems, pace and development is everything. She believes startups need to polish their original product 100 percent before they move on—something Harry's is still working on.

"For our women's line, it's not a question of if but when," she says. "But we want to make sure we feel good about what we are doing for men first. Once we lock it down and feel good about the quality, then it will be something to work on."

Boey believes a lot of companies make the mistake of expanding too quickly—Birchbox's Lande noted entrepreneurs have eyes that are twice as big as their stomachs—and attributes success to "knowing that it's not about what you do, but what you choose not to do."

"It's important to get the product right and give something to customers they really love," she continues. "A lot of big companies within a year or two will find that their portfolio proliferated too quickly and they have to evaluate products that don't do too well."

Despite the risks, in today's competitive market, many companies simply can't afford to miss out selling to half the population. The women's apparel market reached $116.4 billion last year—that's profit that Bonobos couldn't touch without AYR. The men's grooming industry is similarly booming: It's currently valued at $6 billion and is expected to grow six percent this year—an increase Birchbox is primed to capitalize on.

"There's so much opportunity to go narrow," says Winter. "That said, a good business leader is always thinking about growth."


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