Rise Of The Indie Brand

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The art of marketing is a fascinating beast.

Last week, I had the pleasure of delivering the opening keynote address at The Art of Marketing in Toronto. With over 1500 business professionals in attendance, I shared the stage with people like Martin Lindstrom (author of Brandwashed, Buyology, etc…), Randi Zuckerberg (former head of marketing at Facebook and brother of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg), Scooter Braun (music industry professional and the person who discovered and manages Justin Bieber) and many others. The day long, sold out event featured seven top-of-their-game speakers and marketing professionals, but one individual stole the show. Eric Ryan is the co-founder and Chief Brand Architect of Method. Along with his business partner, Adam Lowry, Method is on a mission to change the consumer packaged goods business, as we have known it to date. Their cleaning supplies are green, non-toxic and are so aesthetically pleasing that people display them with pride, instead of hiding them under their sinks. They brand the company as “people against dirty” and leverage their indie brand street cred to push the envelope with everything from how they recruit (they give potential employees homework assignments), to their marketing (very clever and inventive uses of media with lots of humor), to their innovative product lines (check out their laundry detergent – it requires only a couple of squirts per load). How well has it worked out for Method? Check out their best-selling business book, The Method Method – Seven Obsessions That Helped Our Scrappy Start-up Turn an Industry Upside Down (Portfolio 2011), which Ryan and Lowry co-wrote along with Lucas Conley.

How does an independent brand like Method rise in a business world where 800-pound gorillas like Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson roam the jungle?

The answer is both complex and simple. The simple part is that our world has changed. Technology (and, more importantly, the Internet) has not only connected us all, but it has opened up many new channels to better understand the nuanced needs of the modern consumer. The complexity comes is breaking down what all of this means. We now live in a world where online platforms like Kickstarter (a website that enables individuals to post their independent business ideas and have them funded by individuals interested in buying what these businesses are selling) are now funding more businesses in the creative space than the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States (I also Blogged about Kickstarter here: Kickstart Your Own Economy). We’re quickly moving into a DIY (do it yourself) culture, where businesses can, literally, do everything and anything because of the power of the Internet – from sourcing production facilities to securing funding to cheap and effective direct to consumer marketing. All of this is giving rise to more individuals who are opting for entrepreneurship over the grind of nine to five.

The rise of the indie brand.

The rise of independent companies developing and growing into world-class brands became a topic that fascinated Amsterdam-based communications professional, Anneloes van Gaalen. For the past three years, van Gaalen has been researching the rise of independent brands on a global scale and just last week published her findings in a book called, Indie Brands – 30 Independent Brands That Inspire and Tell a Story (BIS Publishers 2012). “The term ‘indie brand’ means a lot of different things to different people,” said van Gaalen via Skype last Friday. “To me, this is about brands that are started by entrepreneurs that are independently funded and they have an independent spirit. These are the brands that go left when everyone is turning right. These are brands that make use of storytelling as their primary form of marketing… not advertising. They also make smart use of the available marketing channels. The brands that are in this book are people who started a business out of pure passion and they tend to opt for the road less travelled. This usually makes for an interesting story, and this case we published thirty of these interesting stories.”

What an indie brand looks like.

Riffing on the indie band movement, van Gaalen tells the story of thirty brands that manage to tell a very different narrative. From companies like OAT Shoes (the world’s first fully biodegradable sneaker that has seeds embedded in the tongue of the shoes, so when they are worn out, they can be buried and plants will grow) to Montreal’s own Yellow Bird Project (an organization that collaborates with indie bands to raise money for various charities. They have also published two best-selling books – The Indie Rock Coloring Book and The Indie Rock Poster Book). “We built this company from the ground up, without having to get any upfront investment,” said Casey Cohen, who along with Matthew Stotland founded Yellow Bird Project in 2006. “This means that we’re able to run this company on our own terms. We don’t have partners to answer to, so any decisions that we make are final. This gives us the freedom to explore new directions, or even turn down opportunities that we think are not a good fit. At the end of the day, we spent so much time developing our brand that we’re in a very fortunate position now to have complete control over it. Our charities and bands trust us, so we know that to them it just wouldn’t feel right to be putting their trust into the hands of other people.”

This is a very different business world.

The brands that wins are the brands that not only have a story to tell, but they’re the brands that are transparent, credible and have something unique and different for their consumers. Indie brands are born and bred on these values and principles, so it’s no surprise that the major corporations who dominate Wall Street are now trying to figure out how to act more like Method, OAT Shoes and the Yellow Bird Project.

Indie is the new big.

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. That looks like an interesting book so thanks for bringing it to everyone’s attention Mitch. I think that one of the key themes of contemporary business is that businesses are no longer inhibited by the lack of their scale. In fact, an argument could be made that the smaller the scale the better, for it is not the size but the speed at which businesses operate that really matters. It’s no longer the biggest players who will win the game, but the fastest ones, a development that will no doubt shake up the competitive landscape considerably going forward.

  2. If Indie is the new big, how do you scale indie? Once a small company becomes a certain size, the ability to connect with customers and remain close to the client becomes difficult at best. How does one grow and still remain personally connected to their consumer?

  3. Thanks, that was a great post. Ordered the book, checked out Method’s ads, etc. – it’s a great topic, and it greatly reminds me of the DIY ethic of the Punk/HC and zine subcultures. Inspiring!

  4. Always enjoy your post. great article in the Gazette on “Method to their madness”. I like the term INDIE – can anyone use this label if they subscribe to being transparent, credible and have something unique for their clients? Our recruiting company has been born and bred on these values and principles. We want our clients to test potential candidates, we also test before we send anyone out the door for an interview, check and double check their work/resume/portfolio and want different types of interviews to happen before a hire. We are wanting all candidates to do Skype interviews to test their social media/presentation skills. We have been in the recruiting field for over 18yrs specializing in the arena of communications. So, being a consulting industry of people would that count as an indie brand?

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