For Comfort Brand Allbirds, An Entry Into China Has Meant Being a Bit … Uncomfortable

Allbirds is trying something different — sort of.

For the past nine months, the direct-to-consumer footwear brand whose sustainably crafted wool sneakers have staked their claim as a tech-industry staple, has been working with Chinese e-tail behemoth Alibaba to chart its entry (and expansion) into the Chinese market.

And, even for an inherently disruptive force like Allbirds, the process has meant stepping outside of its comfort zone.

For one, the partnership with Alibaba’s Tmall marks the first time the brand, which has been unrelenting in its philosophy of staying close to consumers via a DTC model, hasn’t owned the distribution channel for its products.

And, perhaps more significantly, it marks an unprecedented moment for the company to attempt to sell its core sustainability message to an arguably tougher crowd.

Generally, in the West, Generation Z and millennial consumers have embraced and even advocated for the notion of sustainable fashion — even if they’re not buying it in droves just yet. Meanwhile, in China, experts say the messaging around green fashion has been slower to catch on among mainstream consumers.

Even so, according to Eric Haskell, president of international for Allbirds, who admits it’s been a challenge to sell the sustainability message to Chinese consumers, the brand isn’t willing to relinquish its identity to tap into the multibillion-dollar potential of the China market.

Instead, the company is striking a balance.

“We don’t back away from the sustainability messaging, we just play it a little different in China. We play an educational role,” he said. “I spend a lot of my time in front of consumers, on a grassroots level, educating them about the crisis we face and how fashion plays a role in that and how brands like Allbirds can be part of the solution.”

Indeed, the brand’s ability to get in front of consumers — to share its message of comfort, design and sustainability — has been critical. Haskell says Allbirds faced a significant brand awareness hurdle upon entering the market, which ultimately became a key driver of its decision to partner with Tmall.

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The Allbirds Tmall “storefront.”
CREDIT: Courtesy

Still, Haskell is adamant that this sort of relationship isn’t one the company will replicate elsewhere. Allbirds’ sparring with U.S.-based e-commerce behemoth Amazon is well documented.

“Unlike other platforms, which I won’t mention, Tmall gives us the flexibility to control the brand experience, educate the consumers and let the product show up the way [we want it to],” Haskell explained. “Our decision was very much a function of the fact that Tmall allows you to present the brand the way you want to and tell your brand story in the same way we would in our own channels.”

As more and more U.S. brands aim to enter the valuable Chinese market, Christina Fontana, head of fashion and luxury for Tmall’s luxury division, said Allbirds’ approach is exactly what’s necessary to facilitate a crossover.

“One of the biggest mistakes brands make is not studying and understanding the Chinese consumer: Brands need to understand this market and understand that their competitors in this market might be a little different from the competitors they’re used to facing,” explained Fontana. “You also need to communicate the core value of your brand to Chinese consumers. And never underestimate how much communication is necessary to do that. We had 100 million new consumers last year on our platform, that’s a lot of people who maybe haven’t heard about some of the brands we’re used to hearing about.”

What’s more, noted Fontana, fashion purveyors that want to leverage the Tmall platform to market their wares in China have to do their due diligence to tap into all of its resources.

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Allbirds 11.11 limited-edition shoes.
CREDIT: Courtesy

“Another big mistake brands make is thinking Tmall is an e-commerce platform,” Fontana said. “We always say ‘we’re a technology company, let us build technology.’ Brands build brands and that’s what they’re fantastic at doing. Let them keep their focus. Let us keep our focus on helping brands build their businesses, online and offline.”

Since Tmall, says Fontana, boasts “a series of technologies that help brands drive consumers into their stores,” it also aided Allbirds as it opened four stores in China in the first six months of the partnership. Digitally native, it has recently started to develop a burgeoning portfolio of brick-and-mortar stores with a total of 14 doors to date.

“When I was putting the strategy to launch Allbirds in China, physical retail was really important to me because of the nature of our product. I wanted consumers to be able to go in and touch and feel the product if they wanted to,” said Haskell.

Allbirds has also taken advantage of Tmall’s live streaming capabilities and launched exclusive products during Alibaba’s wildly popular Singles Day. Haskell said the brand has also utilized data along with consumer feedback from the platform to inform changes to the “look and feel” of its product and marketing “multiple” times.

“At Tmall and Alibaba, we’re doing pretty well,” Fontana noted. “We don’t need one more brand; we need one more brand that makes a successful entry into China.”

Tmall.com, formerly Taobao Mall, is a business-to-consumer online retail website. It spun off from Taobao, which is operated in China by Alibaba Group.

Allbirds, FN’s 2018 Brand of the Year, was co-founded by Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger and launched its first style in 2016.

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