Passion Brands: Creating Experiences that People Fall in Love With

A passionate customer is a loyal one. More than that, they’ll evangelize a favorite brand to all of their friends, family and colleagues. Does passion just happen? Or is it created?

At a recent Merchant to Merchant (M2M) meeting, SD Chief Commerce Officer, Phillip Jackson spoke with a panel of four brands that are doing amazing things, from product development to community engagement. These leaders shared their strategies for stoking passion amongst their customers, along with tactics to standout in their specific product categories and marketing spaces.

Meet our panelists:

Aman Advani
Ministry Of Supply

“We’re based in Boston and founded in 2012. We were born at the intersection of form and function. We took everything we love about engineering and applied it to fashion. Take your least favorite dress clothes and give them a bit of a facelift with performance technology. Our clothes are super soft and comfortable, stretch, machine washable, no ironing. We create pieces that you actually look forward to everyday.”

Caroline Leed
Smiling Button

“We’re a children’s lifestyle apparel brand. We dress children newborn to 10 years. We do very classic silhouettes that traditionally would be dry clean only but in really fun, playful prints that are washable and fun play-wear. Everything is made in Massachusetts, our office is in Back Bay. We do 90% wholesale.”

Laura Hnatow
Director of E-commerce and Marketing
Sea Bags

“We’re a sustainability brand, founded 20 years ago, recycling sails that have had a full and useful life on the water, but were bound for the landfill. We decided to rescue them and turn them into totes and accessories. All of our products are made in the USA, we are based in Portland, Maine. Our products are manufactured on the last commercial wharf still open to the public.”

Matt Taylor
Founder & CEO

“Launched five years ago, we create men’s and women’s track apparel and accessories that are deeply rooted in the sport of running. We offer a community space that we offer to other groups, we host our own runs from here.”

Highlights of the discussion:

Interested in hearing the entire conversation? Click here to listen to the M2M podcast.

Phillip: Each of your brands compete in a very crowded space, yet you have very passionate customer response, people say very nice things about you online. Why is that?

Caroline: Our clothes just jump out of the closet. The prints — with twirling elephants or little hearts — are something that make the child smile, and silhouettes resonate the parents, or the grandparents who purchase it because they feel like it’s something they wore when they were children. And our clothes can be worn on the playground or country club, then in the wash.

Aman: I think for Smiling Button and all the brands up here, the competition isn’t the incumbent brand. It’s the other exciting new brands who are doing something different, not brands that offer the same old stuffy clothes.

For us Ministry of Supply, we get people excited by doing something that is dramatically different. We’re wearing the same clothes as our grandparents wear, with the same silhouettes and fabric. We asked ourselves, how can we use our engineering background to make something that feels different from what people are used to and will get excited about. We decided to use all performance material.

Laura: Our company was founded on three tenets that guide everything we do: We’re green in product and practice, we make all of our products in the USA, and we give back to our community generously. These tenets resonate with everybody, and it justifies our cost. Besides, the totes are washable, and last a long time. They durable products that serve a purpose and people are proud to carry them.

Matt: We’re in a unique category in that our customers participate in the activity for which we make the clothing. People buy our products to run marathons all over the world. This means there’s already an existing community around running. The incumbents are at the two ends of the spectrum: uber elite brands made for Olympic athletes, or lower end, kind of get off the couch and start running. We serve the middle, who happen to be this passionate and dedicated consumer who wasn’t being addressed by the two ends of the spectrum. We built a community around these runners by doing things like organizing training runs 100 days out prior to a marathon. We serve breakfast on the runs, provide water, have pacers, and and so on.

Phillip: What are some of the challenges you face connecting with new customers? How are you reaching them?

Caroline: We’re mostly wholesale and we have two facilities where we can reach most of our wholesale customers. We also work with over 100 boutiques, and a lot of resorts, like the Four Seasons Group, and department stores, like Saks, Neimans and Bergdorf. Now we’re looking to pivot more to direct to consumer because it’s totally untapped for us, and a huge opportunity. We’ll probably reach them via Instagram and a lot of mommy bloggers.

When we first started, we had a pop up store and everything was at eye level for the kids, so we could see what they were pulling from the racks. It was as if every day was a focus group. We’ve continued this by doing events in the department stores that sell our clothes, and talk to them about what they like.

Aman: We don’t really have the community that Matt has. Our customers are united in two ways — they got to work, and they buy our stuff. Our word of mouth has to come through reviews, press, peer to peer connections on posts. We stand out from the other brands in that we have a ton of humans who can tell you that our products are genuinely exactly what we said they were. This is the only way to differentiate.

Matt: I think we’ll see a shift away from digital spend because the barrier to entry there has become so low for brands, and it has become so cluttered and noisy, which is why we feel so good about having this community aspect to the brand. It allows us to activate in a way that feels really authentic.

Laura: Storytelling is really important. The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last five to ten years. Content marketing is important. There’s a certain level of authenticity customers need to feel. This is real, this is feeding me stuff about your brand, and I’m not just being sold.


This post barely touches on the amazing insights that came out of this panel discussion. Each of these brands are transforming their sectors — and the brand-customer relationship — in interesting and creative ways. Click here to listen to the full M2M podcast for some ideas that are redefining what retail can be.

Eda Gumusay

Eda was bit by the travel bug long ago so when she’s not at SD she’s probably out exploring a new place. When she’s not adventuring, Eda is a huge foodie and loves trying new things!