Smartwool’s early growth was fueled by word-of-mouth among outdoor enthusiasts who valued the brand’s dedication to helping them venture outside longer. Denise Anderson, Smartwool’s head of global marketing and creative, highlights how relevant digital advertising has fueled the company’s continued success.
Smartwool has experienced immense growth over the years, but our brand essence has never changed: We are all about creating and fostering authentic customer connections.
The key to maintaining these authentic customer relationships at scale hinges on relevance. Against the backdrop of a changing digital ads ecosystem, it’s more important than ever for Smartwool to deliver a personal touch in every interaction.
The true north for Smartwool is relevance
To nurture strong customer relationships, my team and I work hard to ensure that each marketing touchpoint — every interaction, image, headline, and message — carries relevance.
Understanding what would be helpful or relevant for our customers requires a deep, evergreen understanding of people’s needs at any given time. That’s why at Smartwool, we focus on a strategic-alliance framework that sets us up for growth with new audiences, what we call our “aspirational” customers, while maintaining a connection to our core audience — our “buying targets.”
The aspirational cohort reflects our core customers — those who share our love of staying outdoors longer and who need the right products to help them do so. Our founders, two ski instructors who wanted to ski longer but suffered from cold toes when wearing cotton socks, built the company on this same passion for the outdoors. They discovered that Merino wool kept their feet dry, comfortable, and warm, helping them enjoy the outdoors longer. The aspirational audience inspires everything we do, from how we design our products and build our creative campaigns to how we create our brand personality — helping people enjoy the outdoors longer and more comfortably.
If we do our jobs right, consumers let us know by engaging with our media. That’s a powerful advantage of digital.
Buying targets, on the other hand, are demographic- and purchase intent-based. They help us understand exactly who purchases Smartwool apparel, what they are looking for, and when. For example, we found that runners go through socks faster than we had originally assumed. This insight informs our replenishment strategy and tells us when we should suggest new running socks to these customers. We’re just getting started here and plan to expand this strategy to other product lines.
Our two-pronged audience strategy has helped Smartwool forge deep connections with our customers, recommending the right products and experiences for each one. If we do our jobs right, consumers let us know right away by engaging with our media. That’s a powerful advantage of digital.
Taking personalized marketing to new heights
While the total addressable market for outdoors products is very large, Smartwool is still a small brand. We have to be strategic in our marketing investment and not try to reach everyone. That’s why we’ve increased our focus on paid media, which gives us the best return on our investment, and view online advertising as critical to our future success rather than a burden.
By building custom creative and messaging relevant to each interaction, we’ve been able to improve conversion rates by 28%.
Before we can reach the right folks, however, we have to find them. Here’s the approach our teams take.
We start by prospecting for new customers through campaigns that draw from a range of demographics and interests to reach people passionate about the outdoors. Despite growing privacy restrictions, digital continues to offer many ways to help us identify audiences. One powerful example is affinity segments in Google Ads, which help raise awareness and drive consideration among people who have a strong interest in your products.
We use affinity segments to reach groups of Smartwool customers, such as Running Enthusiasts and Cycling Enthusiasts, based on their specific interests. By showing these segments eye-catching ads that are relevant to their lifestyles, we're able to grow brand awareness, spark interest among the right people, and turn many of them into Smartwool customers.
Then, to connect with these consumers throughout their purchase journeys, we home in on their specific needs, such as finding breathable socks for running, warm and light base layers for skiing, or durable mountain biking gear. By building custom creative and messaging relevant to each interaction, we’ve been able to improve conversion rates by 28%.
The trail ahead for Smartwool’s growth
My team and I now spend a great deal of time and effort on what we call a “consumer permission path strategy,” underpinned by a centralized customer data platform. Our goal is to roll out new products that our existing customers will find relevant, while also continuing to attract and delight new ones.
As part of this effort, we’re testing a range of marketing ideas, such as whether certain consumers are likely to replace items like running socks twice a year and whether we can encourage ski-sock buyers to broaden their purchases to include base layers.
Our journey serves as a reminder of the timeless principle of creating authentic connections built on personalized marketing.
Once we’ve nailed that, we plan to adopt a multichannel approach that includes email, text messaging, and paid media, creating a tapestry of touchpoints, offers, and creative tailored to each individual. We’re also designing customized consumer journeys for our website, crafting unique experiences for new and returning customers with messages and product suggestions guided by customer data.
It’s my hope that the strategies outlined above provide a sense of Smartwool’s dedication to relevant advertising, even amid the clamor around data and privacy. Our journey serves as a reminder of the timeless principle of creating authentic connections built on personalized marketing.