Richard Kirshenbaum of SWAT Equity Partners: “Diversity and inclusion are more important than ever”

Diversity and inclusion are more important than ever. America is a big, beautiful melting pot of ethnicities, cultures, sizes, and identities. Any brand that wants to last has to take this wonderfully diverse landscape into account and have it reflected on their teams, in their product development and in their engagement with customers. At SWAT […]

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Diversity and inclusion are more important than ever. America is a big, beautiful melting pot of ethnicities, cultures, sizes, and identities. Any brand that wants to last has to take this wonderfully diverse landscape into account and have it reflected on their teams, in their product development and in their engagement with customers. At SWAT by Kirshenbaum and SWAT Equity Partners, we pay particular attention to diversity and inclusion when evaluating or advising on a brand’s potential.

As part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Kirshenbaum.

With over 30 years of experience as a leading figure in the advertising industry, Richard Kirshenbaum is CEO of SWAT by Kirshenbaum, a creative brand studio, and a Founding Partner of SWAT Equity Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early-stage consumer brands. Prior to that, Richard was a co-founder of famed Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, which pioneered marketing concepts such as the pop-up store, sidewalk advertising and other forms of high-visibility guerrilla marketing. Over his illustrious career, Richard has worked with numerous celebrities, big brands and emerging entrepreneurs, and was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2000.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

A true New Yorker, I grew up with my parents on Long Island. We loved going to the movies — I hold a particular soft spot for Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year — and we’d visit comedy clubs together. My entire family was eccentric and funny. It was a great environment for a creative kid to grow up in, and my parents always supported that creativity. I remember as an 11-year-old boy, I liked the feel of a typewriter beneath my fingertips, and I’d think, “here I am, this is right for me.”

My father had a particular influence on me. He didn’t have many opportunities growing up, but later in life, he became interested in investing, and he taught me a lot about leadership, what kind of companies to invest in and what he thought was the recipe for success. He was also a man ahead of his times — a futurist with a past as I like to say. In the 1960s and 70s, he did yoga and juicing, supported equal rights, the decriminalization of certain drugs, and was always seeking to invest in future-oriented companies. His forward-thinking lens really rubbed off on me, and it’s how I see the world as well.

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

Everyone in my family has a good sense of humor. In fact, one of my first gigs was selling jokes to Joan Rivers for 8 dollars. Realizing I’d never be able to support myself on just 8 dollars a joke, I had to get creative about achieving my dreams and making a living. Writing jokes is good training for advertising — and I got really good at crafting punchy one-liners that grabbed people’s attention. Sitting at that manual typewriter when I was a kid ultimately led me to creating my first company — the advertising and branding agency — Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, that I sold in 2011.

I started thinking about what to do next and decided to start two different businesses: SWAT by Kirshenbaum, which turns the traditional advertising agency on its head, and venture capital firm SWAT Equity Partners, where I can apply my branding and marketing expertise to identifying and investing in early-stage consumer companies, helping build them into the next big household names.

At SWAT Equity, my partners — Mark Hauser and Sarah Foley — and I are all about thinking ahead to the future. What are the new emerging trends that no one else is seeing? What will excite consumers? Building new brands is truly one of my passions, and I have my father to thank for that.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners I was in my early 20s. We were all young and there was little to no office protocol. We were a bunch of creative people all having fun together. One or two people liked to rollerblade through the office, which we thought was hysterical. One day, our largest client came to visit and the office rollerblader bashed into the client and sent him toppling. Needless to say, he did not think it was funny as we did. I thought, “lesson learned. It’s great to have fun in the office, but not at the expense of your business or clients.”

Now I always tell company founders: don’t do things that you think are great at the expense of your client, and always look where you’re going. Especially companies whose business relies so heavily on brand identity — always keep looking five steps ahead.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’ve always admired Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks for going against the grain and truly developing their own voices. Maybe it’s my childhood and how much my parents encouraged creativity and originality, but I place a high value on wit and owning your own voice. Plus, their songs are gorgeous and it’s time well spent listening to their music. Having your own voice is critical for the work I do and that resonates.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My father always told me, “do what you love and love what you do.” After I sold my first business, I decided I was going to do just that — more of the things I love in more of the places I love to be, as opposed to doing things just for the business. If you do more of what you love, you’ll be good at it, if you’re good at it, you’ll be successful, and if you’re successful money comes in the end.

How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?

I’ve seen a real change in the industry when it comes to brand creation, and it seems that now more than ever, everyone wants to be a lifestyle brand. But the most important thing about having a lifestyle brand is that you actually have to have a unique lifestyle that people want for themselves.

In terms of the gold standard, I thank that hands down belongs to Ralph Lauren — the lifestyle brand pioneer. He invented the idea of letting people into his life in a genuine way and it made people aspire to his lifestyle, so they bought Ralph Lauren clothes and products. That’s what separates a lifestyle brand from any other type of brand — consumers have to want both the lifestyle and the products that are a part of that lifestyle.

Not every brand should strive to be a lifestyle brand — there are opportunities in both. Think about Doritos. People purchase Doritos out of necessity (or hunger), but there’s not a lifestyle associated with Doritos, which is owned by the much larger brand, Frito-Lay, a subsidiary of PepsiCo. Yet, Doritos is a ubiquitous product. People want it and it sells.

What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?

Through my work with people who have created successful lifestyle brands, I found that one of the main benefits they see is bringing their passions to the world and then giving back to the communities and people who shaped this lifestyle. At SWAT by Kirshenbaum, we recently worked with a brand called Bona Fortuna. Their success has enabled the founders to give back to their ancestral homeland of Sicily, to provide jobs and be real philanthropic leaders in the community where their lifestyle was born.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved Lifestyle Brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Some of SWAT Equity Partners’ portfolio companies have done an exceptional job of creating lifestyle-based brands. We invested in NAADAM, a direct-to-consumer company that offers fine cashmere products at a reasonable price, specifically targeting millennials.

The founders have done an incredible job building a community around them and communicating the brand in a modern way. In fact, the NAADAM team went to Mongolia and connected with herding communities to shorten the supply chain. They work with these herding communities to source environmentally sustainable cashmere and established the Gobi Revival Fund that supports 1,000 nomadic herding families and provides veterinary care to hundreds of thousands of goats.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

When it comes to creating successful lifestyle brands, there has to be an actual lifestyle, a good product and a good vision that people want to buy into. In order for people to be crazy about your lifestyle brand, it has to be something unique that didn’t exist before and there has to be some sort of dream factor that people want for themselves.

Take Chanel, for example. Her brand was created in the 1920s and in many ways was a pioneer when it came to liberating women through fashion. She brought the trouser to market for women, she was one of the first people to do costume jewelry, and she wanted her designs to be free-flowing and comfortable. Even though she’s no longer alive, her vision for what she thought women should be, should have, and should be able to do still lives on through her brand whenever anyone sees those interlocking Cs.

A lifestyle brand that I’d like to see is Harry Styles. He’s someone that people are “crazy about” with his own views on masculinity, great style (and music obviously) and a massive, devoted following. He’d have people clamoring for his products if he ever chose to start a brand.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think the most common mistakes arise when people underestimate how expensive it is to maintain a luxury lifestyle. Luxury is luxury for a reason and without deep pockets, it’s hard to create a long-term lifestyle luxury brand.

Another huge mistake comes in discounting the product and not putting the work into making quality products. In the end, a lifestyle brand has to sell something if it’s going to actually be a company and not just a lifestyle. If the product isn’t good, well-sourced or quality, it’s going to fail. People really just want a great product at a great price, and it has to be worth the money. So, my advice is put in the hard work to make stellar products that people will want to buy.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a lifestyle brand that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

It’s all about consumer feedback, so my first step would be to find people in your target audience and host a mini focus group and talk to them about the product. Second, I’d develop a sample and see how it turns out, let your target audience try it and give their thoughts. At this point, you’ll be able to see if it’s something people really want and are willing to spend money on.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  • Know that your lifestyle is interesting and aspirational. Everyone wants a lifestyle brand, but you have to have a lifestyle to have a lifestyle brand. What about your life is interesting and something that others would aspire to? It has to be genuine. No one wants a fake lifestyle. People crave truth and authenticity. My advice is to be yourself, but also not everyone can have a lifestyle brand because not everyone has a unique vision.
  • Know your consumer inside and out. Supreme has done a great job of really knowing their consumer. They’re a more modern brand, but there is a level of prestige and a cool factor that the Supreme logo brings to generations young and old. They know exactly what their audience wants, whether it’s a Supreme-branded metro card or a collaboration with Louis Vuitton.
  • Know you’re providing something new to the marketplace. One of SWAT Equity Partners’ first investments was Supergoop. When we invested, we felt that they really understood their customers, and their products were just so unique in the beauty market. After years of working with the Avons, Revlons and Jergens of the world, I saw Supergoop’s sunless tanning spray-lotion mousse and thought, “what a standout product!” They’ve done a great job of shining bright in a saturated industry both through their products and their messaging.
  • Know people will be willing to buy the product. There are trademark identifying elements to a brand. For example, when some present an aqua blue colored Tiffany box, it carries weight because it symbolizes a lifestyle of luxury. There’s an emotion to seeing that color before you even open the box. You can’t go wrong with Tiffany because it’s something people want to be a part of — a lifestyle they want for themselves. Tiffany has proven its brand value time and time again, no matter the price point.
  • Know there’s an ability to expand the offerings. Can the product line grow and encompass more of the lifestyle? The answer should always be yes. You have to be able to provide consumers with something new. Urban legend has it that Ralph Lauren started as a tie company, rapidly expanding from there, and we all know how the rest of the story goes.
  • Diversity and inclusion are more important than ever. America is a big, beautiful melting pot of ethnicities, cultures, sizes, and identities. Any brand that wants to last has to take this wonderfully diverse landscape into account and have it reflected on their teams, in their product development and in their engagement with customers. At SWAT by Kirshenbaum and SWAT Equity Partners, we pay particular attention to diversity and inclusion when evaluating or advising on a brand’s potential.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Given the current pandemic, I’d like to create a social movement focused on mask-wearing and empowering COVID-19 vaccinations. There’s much work to be done to reduce public skepticism. While marketing and advertising around this issue — celebrities and world leaders publicly showing their vaccinations — is a great way to increase public confidence, there is certainly lots more to be done overall.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have interacted with fascinating people in my life, and I’ve always wanted to meet Queen Elizabeth. Her ability to endure and dedicate her whole life to the monarchy is thrilling. In many ways, the monarchy isn’t simply an institution, it’s a lifestyle brand. People really want to hear what she has to say — she’s a beacon of hope. When it comes to someone having a true lifestyle, it’s definitely the Queen. There’s such an allure to royalty because they’re truly living the lifestyle they embody.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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