How Greats Brand Turned Social-Media Savvy Into Sneaker Sales

In the direct-to-consumer world, the Greats Brand has found better fortune than many of its start-up peers.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based e-commerce brand has managed to find its niche in the highly competitive sneaker world by producing high-quality, low-cost footwear that appeals to a wide social audience.

And inspired by companies with similar DTC models, such as Everlane and Warby Parker, the sneaker label has built its business by crafting a marketing strategy that resonates with a millennial audience.

CEO Ryan Babenzien, who founded Greats in 2013, said the brand relies on a combination of press and digital marketing — but most of all social media.

Ryan Babenzien
Ryan Babenzien, CEO of Greats Brand.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

“Our Instagram following alone has 80,000 followers,” he said. “Since our 100 percent millennial audience spends most of their time on mobile, this has been a fantastic channel for discovery and awareness. And there’s not really any cost involved.”

A quick scroll through the company’s Instagram account shows a mix of Italian pride (as all the shoes are manufactured in Italy), product news and updates, along with a blend of lifestyle commentary. Greats uses this social strategy to craft a story that can ultimately lead to a purchase. That also helps it avoid the cost of buying digital ad space.

Media coverage is another major component of Greats’ marketing strategy. The company updates the color, material or style of a few select sneakers every other week, which allows the brand to remain in the press.

“That type of schedule keeps us top of mind for the press across the board, from the business journals to GQ,” said Babenzien, adding that he plans to continue that business model going forward.

Greats Brand
The Royale laceup from Greats Brand.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

However, Greats’ rapid growth has put pressure on its operation. “We’ve created this mindshare in the millennial audience that’s far bigger than our brand,” said Babenzien. “Our biggest challenge to date has been keeping up with that demand and being able to make stuff fast enough. That’s what is pulling us forward. People are aware of [the brand], people are buying it, and we’re trying to keep up with that.”

The CEO noted that the solution to its problem is adequate resources. The company is planning to initiate a Series B round of venture capital fundraising this summer, with a target goal of $10 million to $15 million.

Another challenge includes building a world-class team that reflects the brand’s growth. At the moment, Greats employs 10 people, which Babenzien called incredibly lean, seeing as business grew more than 300 percent last year, though he declined to give specific figures. (He claimed the growth could have reached 500 percent had the brand had more inventory.)

Greats Brand
An image from the Greats Brand lookbook.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand.

Babenzien emphasized that much of the brand’s success is thanks to the team’s awareness about the marketplace. And that starts with the CEO, whose brother, Brendon Babenzien, is a well-known figure in the streetwear industry as the former creative director of Supreme. Greats will team up in June with Brendon’s latest venture, Noah, for a collaboration.

Still, even after having success on a release last year with Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch — which sold out in under an hour — Greats is careful to team up only with brands that are complementary to its identity and are strong in their categories.

One of its most anticipated unions is with menswear label Death to Tennis, championed by style influencers such as Nick Wooster and Opening Ceremony. That collab is due out this month.

Babenzien explained that collaborating is more of an art than a science and when done correctly can be a powerful way to elevate the brand.

This goes along with Greats’ central design thesis. “We believe in staying narrow and neat,” said Babenzien. “We believe we have the right silhouettes to stay evergreen with color and material, and not necessarily change the styling of the silhouette itself. Last year was about identifying the best-selling styles, so now we’re focusing more on the styling.”

Greats Brand
The Wooster slip-on from Greats Brand was named for style icon Nick Wooster.

Tastemakers in the industry approve of the brand’s approach.

Stylist Kesha McLeod, who works with celebrity and athlete clients including Serena Williams, James Harden and Chris Bosh, told Footwear News, “I love that Greats not only provides options for clients with larger shoe sizes, but has a nice aesthetic that makes their brand suitable for casual and business settings.”

As for the label’s future growth, Greats is preparing a move into brick-and-mortar retail. Just as Warby Parker first found a happy home in New York’s Soho shopping district, Babenzien said his brand is looking at real estate in the Big Apple and is aiming to open a location later this year.

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