4 Lessons in Building a Brand; Lessons on How to Build a Successful Brand from Popular Snowboarding Company Neff Headwear

Love it or hate it, your success this year and beyond depends on your ability to shape a brand: your career’s, product’s, department’s, or company’s.
Here are some counterintuitive lessons from a man who built a popular snowboarding brand as a college sophomore, knowing little about his industry, marketing, or business.Shaun Neff, founder and CEO of Neff Headwear, now has his products in 3,500 stores in 40 countries, and his gear is sported on ski slopes and streets, by celebrities from Holly Madison to Lil’ Wayne.
I got a chance to sit down with Neff, to learn how he did it and, more importantly, what we can extract from his success to help us build whatever brands we are working on.
(You can watch the 15-minute interview segment on “The Outthinker: Shaun Neff” here.)
Here are four lessons on building a brand from Shaun Neff:
We hold this fantasy about great entrepreneurs being oracles who somehow recognize and move on new opportunities more quickly than others. But my research for The Way of Innovation showed that they actually make a commitment before the opportunity arises and so are poised to step into it when an opening appears.
Neff knew he wanted to start a brand long before college. He noticed what brands people wore and was fascinated by their power. His drive stemmed not from a calculated market view, but from an internal personal passion. When you choose a pre-existing commitment, it becomes an always-there, always-searching filter through which you scan for opportunities.
What pre-existing commitment are you willing to pursue, regardless of when the market offers you a profitable opportunity to do so?
The term “brand” brings up thoughts of logos, colors, and products. But when I asked Neff what a brand was, he spoke of none of these things. He said a brand is “a loyal fan base.” When you think of a brand as something to be looked at, when you admire it, you turn your back on what really matters: your fan base. Instead, think of your would-be fans: who are they, what are their passions, where do they spend their time?
If you thought of your brand as your fan base, rather than its elements and colors and meanings, what would you do differently?
Shaun said that lots of brands “get stuck in one product: If you are a footwear company, you are always selling footwear. If you are an eyewear company, you’re always in eyewear.” A product-defined brand is inherently limiting. Neff Headgear has top-selling watches, sunglasses, and snowboard gloves. When they think of expanding into a new product they ask two questions: (a) do our retailers know how to sell this and (b) does our “gut” tell us this fits.
If your brand were not defined by your product or category, what would it stand for?
With your pre-existing commitment in your heart and your fan base in mind, find your opening. If one angle doesn’t work, back up and try again, then again, until you find a way through.
Neff started out selling T-shirts. He’d paste stickers on signs, win over local taste-makers, and seek out the coolest snowboard shops. This created a small ecosystem in which his brand started selling. But he wanted to replicate this on a larger scale. For that he needed nationally known snowboarders to wear Neff gear. But he quickly learned that the best snowboarders were prevented by current sponsors from wearing other people’s shirts.
So Shaun studied their contracts one night and realized, “These apparel deals said nothing about the head!” Snowboarders couldn’t wear Neff T-shirts, but they could wear Neff headwear.
Unfortunately, Neff didn’t make headwear. So he went to the local dollar store, bought a stack of beanies, removed their labels, and wrote his last name with a black marker on each one. At the next tournament he convinced several competitors to wear his Neff hat. When two of them stood on the medal podium, “Neff” inscribed prominently over their heads, he knew he had found his opening. “The heavens opened … I am no longer Neff clothing; I’m Neff Headwear.”
Are you stuck pursuing just one “opening”? If so, think of three more you can try this month.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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