Growth

Interview: Bonobos' Micky Onvural on Pandemic Lessons and Consumer Consciousness

The DTC menswear CEO talks about the brand's pivot during the past year and the role of brick-and-mortar stores.

Welcome to Direct-to-Conversation, a recurring interview feature from DTC Magazine. These conversations highlight insights, advice, and innovation strategies from leading thinkers in the DTC, eCommerce, and retail space. Our most recent interview was with Ariel Kaye, the founder and CEO of Parachute, the DTC luxury bedding and home goods brand.

In this Direct-to-Conversation, we catch up with Micky Onvural, the CEO of Bonobos, the DTC menswear powerhouse.


DTC  Magazine: Between food, beauty, real estate, and now fashion, you've run the gamut of industries in your career. In what ways are the approaches to marketing similar across each space?

Micky Onvural: In my experience the fundamentals of marketing are the same across industries: deep customer understanding, clarity around the problem you’re trying to solve, knowing how you’re unique and different, and then building a plan to reach that customer where they are, with a message that speaks to both the head and the heart.

Put like that it sounds very simple. The principles really are, the sophistication comes from everything that you learn, optimize and execute within each of those areas.

[While the pandemic] was stressful as we saw our business change overnight, it gave us permission to try new things, innovate and learn what worked and what didn’t. That was the fun part.

DTC: Obviously, some of the major Bonobos staples were deemphasized as the pandemic kept millions out of the office and in sweatpants. What was it like to craft strategy in such a volatile environment?

MO: I would say it was both stressful and fun. I have said before that "necessity is the mother of innovation." The pandemic caused us to move fast to create new products and new go-to-market strategies. Whilst it was stressful as we saw our business change overnight, it gave us permission to try new things, innovate and learn what worked and what didn’t. That was the fun part.  

I would say that the strategy emerged from us trying so much - including launching new E-Waist pant programs and redeploying our talented Guideshop employees to handle eCommerce customer questions - and learning that customers want comfort and versatility in their clothing, as well as a high-level of service from us.

It is more important than ever that brands are clear about what they stand for, and where they stand on issues, and reflect that not just in what they say, but in everything they do, internally and externally.

DTC: What have you learned about your customers over the past year?

MO: The shift to conscious consumerism has been underway for several years. However, between the pandemic, the continued awakening of the impact of the apparel industry on the environment, and the increased (and long overdue) momentum in the Black Lives Matter and #StopAsianHate movement, I believe this has become something that brands ignore at their own peril. It is more important than ever that brands are clear about what they stand for, and where they stand on issues, and reflect that not just in what they say, but in everything they do, internally and externally.

Our mission is to “Create a world where we all fit.” This has increased in resonance for our customers and employees this past year and we are more committed than ever to play our part in the drive for equity.

DTC: As a DTC, Bonobos' initial venture into brick-and-mortar stores felt monumental for the industry. How do you envision their role in a post-pandemic world?  

MO: I believe that physical locations will always have a role to play in the retail experience, but that role has changed. Our focus is on these locations as “service hubs.” They provide an opportunity for customers to experience our stellar service, whether being styled for a wedding or a job interview or simply returning an item.

We also believe that service does not have to be constrained to the four walls of the store, hence transitioning our in-store Guides to assist with online shopping, creating ‘Guides on Chat.’ This new feature has allowed us to continue providing our customers with the expertise in fit, fashion, and function that consumers know and trust us to deliver. We’ve since expanded to video chats with our Guides where we can service individuals or groups at the same time.  

In a heavily saturated market, you have to continually track consumers’ buying habits and identify what can be combined, or created to solve their problems, offering consumers something they didn’t know they needed until you created it.

DTC: Without giving away any trade secrets, what advice would you have for someone aspiring to navigate the higher levels of the eCommerce world?

MO: Innovation and disruption have kept us thriving to date and I believe it is what will continue to make us relevant in the future. In a heavily saturated market, you have to continually track consumers’ buying habits and identify what can be combined, or created to solve their problems, offering consumers something they didn’t know they needed until you created it.

As with many things, this requires interrogating the data - both quantitative and qualitative - but also requires a healthy dose of intuition and a level of comfort with risk. Not everything will work out as planned, but you’ll learn as much from what doesn’t, as you will reap the rewards of what did.