2020 Brand of the Year: Knix finds its voice

The intimate apparel brand's inclusive approach is a byproduct of putting its customers at the centre of everything it does.

08122020_SLP_Lifestyle_WebReady_2 copy

This week, strategy is rolling out profiles of the 2020 Brands of the Year. To read about the long-term plans and build-building strategies behind the rest of this year’s winners, click here.

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of strategy.

Joanna Griffiths is a bit of a cybernaut. She likes to study conversations online as though she’s some sort of digital anthropologist, trying to understand what makes people (or in her case, women) tick.

Griffiths has discovered a lot about the female psyche from her fieldwork. One of her biggest findings was in 2013 when she’d visit forums and observe women lament about period spills and the fact that there weren’t many good solutions to protect their underwear from Aunt Flow.

Like any good listener, Griffiths asked questions and took notes. “I gained their trust and got them to complete surveys about what they wanted from a product. From there, I came up with Knix.”

Seven years have passed since she invented the high-tech, leak-proof underwear and Griffiths is still listening and watching.

Most marketers like to say they’re focused on the consumer; Griffiths is positively obsessed. “We put the customer at the epicentre of everything we do,” she says. As a result, the Toronto entrepreneur’s brand has become a mirror image of them.

Look at any ad for Knix products and you’ll see every skin tone, age, body shape and size under the sun. Its inclusive model shots weren’t by design, says Griffiths, but rather a byproduct of that obsession with consumers. Knix doesn’t chase or promote to a bulls-eye audience (namely stick-thin models who are more male fantasy than real woman) like so many intimate apparel brands that came before it.

KNIX_002_Lifestyle_07312019_5 copy“We’re a multi-generational brand, so we’ll often find that someone will buy for themselves, or maybe for their teen daughter, or they’ll get their mom hooked on it,” she says. “So as our customer has been evolving, our marketing has evolved. One would say that every step that we take, we become more and more inclusive. That’s simply because we’re listening to our customer.”

It seems so simple. Look at who makes up your audience and reflect their every colour and curve in your advertising. Yet so many brands continue to be out of sync and produce marketing that 70% of women feel do not represent them, according to a Dove report. What’s more, 67% of women want companies to step up and take responsibility for the imagery they use.

Knix makes it look so easy. When Griffiths first launched the brand, she hustled to get shelf space in Hudson’s Bay and other retailers. The company was well on its way to having 800 locations when seemingly suddenly, she pulled out of wholesale and went wholly direct-to-consumer online. Griffiths says that while Knix was marketing size-inclusivity in ads, a lot of its partner retailers weren’t interested in carrying sizes above the industry’s average.

“We ended up having this disconnect between what we were saying and the customer experience,” she says. “People would drive to a store to buy the product only to be turned away because it only carried a small or medium.”

So Griffiths took half of the company’s revenue and started all over again online, where she could offer the brand’s entire inventory to consumers of every shape and size. “One of the best and most daunting decisions we made came down to making sure that we were walking the walk and not just talking the talk.”

According to Griffiths, the now 85-person company grew 4,000% in the three years following, at times growing so fast that it was hard to keep up. She says tightening the relationship with customers by cutting out the middleman was a critical moment for Knix, and for her as an entrepreneur. It taught her to use her instincts when it comes to other aspects like marketing, which is done in-house and mostly lives on digital with about 80% of the brand’s spend.

Working with director Soleil Denault, the brand recently launched the “Age Doesn’t Matter” campaign, featuring 14 women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s in power poses, set to Demi Lavato’s “What’s wrong with being confident” and the tag “50 is the new… who gives a f*ck.” The goal of the music video-style commercial was to create a ripple effect on other brand advertising that turns a blind eye to the mostly unrepresented audience, she says.

KNIX_002_Lifestyle_01212020_WebReady_2 copy“As a 56 yr old woman I have been and felt invisible for so many years,” a viewer wrote to Knix, echoing Griffiths. “Women are incredible at every age, it doesn’t stop because we turn a certain number.”

Having produced the spot in early 2020 to be debuted during the SuperBowl, Knix was one of the lucky ones to have fresh creative going into the lockdown. Its entry into loungewear at the end of 2019 was also fortuitous at a time when people were holed up indoors. And with many work-from-homers ditching underwire bras, Knix was able to make a case for people to try its more comfortable wire-free garments. Griffiths says she even saw sales gains for its sports bra, which had been a slow mover for the last three years, as people shifted to exercising from home.

Company sales are on pace to be up 60% year-over-year as Knix hits over one million customers, with expected sales of two milllion items in 2020, she says. More than half of its revenue comes from the U.S, one of its two major markets. It’s also expanding with more SKUs, recently debuting its first leggings in a “Papaya Box” that contains Knix items curated by body-positive influencer and long-time consultant to the brand Sarah Nicole. The box sold out within 30 minutes of it being released, with 30,000 people signing up for the waitlist.

“We started out as this hero product brand and evolved to be a larger category player,” says Griffiths. But now it’s seeing another evolution from the point of view of its marketing. “For a long time, it was all about aspiration… which was just about liking yourself. But now I think what we’re seeing in 2020 is this shift from aspirational to inspirational.”

She says Knix is evolving to become a movement brand that gets behind even bigger issues and causes. “We started out by combating problems that were traditionally quite taboo,” she says of conversations the brand has ignited around menstruation, fertility, and postpartum among its community of Knixers. “So we’ve always kind of gone to the places people don’t want to go.”

Having that history of tackling conversations that happen in the shadows sets Knix up for being able to approach even more challenging issues, like intersectionality. She says that one of the most important decisions it’s made since launching was removing the word “women” from its mission statement. And beyond donating $100,000 to Black Lives Matter, Knix is making a concerted effort to give its platforms to BIPOC in order to share their stories.

“Everyday, we’re finding our voice,” she says. “We’re still in the first year of megaphone mode. But I think one of the interesting things about being inclusive and customer-centric is that, as every month passes, our voices in the echo chamber get louder and prouder.”

To think – after everything Knix has done around diversity, inclusion and community – that was just the beginning.