Last year, Jason Hairston, one of the founders of SitkaGear, a hunting apparel and gear company, embarked on a new venture. Naming this new brand KUIU (pronounced koo-yoo) after an island in a southeastern Alaskan archipelago, Hairston set out to develop innovative, premium-quality apparel and backpacking gear designed specifically for western mountain hunting. The best way to ensure product excellence and affordability for target customers was to sell directly through the Internet, eliminating most of the traditional retail channel costs. Despite a sudden loss of fabric and product supply after the devastating Japanese tsunami that led to dramatic stock-outs, the company prevailed and closed its first eventful year positioned to flourish.
KUIU's model is well defined: best-in-class materials, minimalist design, ultra lightweight, collaborative product development, and transparency in product design and content. Another variable in the value equation is the accessibility of the owner and staff to customers through the website. Comments, suggestions and questions are also pitched in a forum and shared among customers. Visitors to the website have access to the full guidance and expertise of the KUIU.com community.
A trusted mechanism of customer communication
Unfailingly polite and genuinely cordial in his blog responses, Hairston and his stewardship style are grounded in optimism and a belief in transparency. Few companies lay bare every detail about their products, their sources and their suppliers in the way that KUIU does. Even inventory availability is openly discussed. When the company faced shortages of some products, staff members set up a structured program to ensure regular blog users and past customers could access what they needed for their upcoming hunting excursions.
Demonstration videos and descriptions posted on the website (as well as on YouTube) help customers to learn how an expert assembles a pack or evaluates the build of a hunting jacket. This is all for the benefit of an educated customer who can form his own opinion about the value within the brand philosophy. The products then sell themselves, without persuasive rhetoric or marketing tricks.
KUIU.com draws on the collective wisdom of its customers through a blog-based product development process. Complete with advancing prototype photos, the company website solicits and considers suggestions for specific solutions and features. Many customer opinions are founded in years of mountain trekking experience, thus advancing the integrity of the refinement process. Customers who contribute ideas and comments hold a stake in the success of the product and company, thereby reinforcing their desire to buy, use and recommend the products. An early issue with hat sizing being too small for some customers quickly led to a double sizing system for new inventory. Sizing remains a significant conundrum for any apparel company, and KUIU is no exception.
Drawing from his personal experience in designing camouflage, Hairston developed a proprietary camo pattern for hunters and filled out the apparel line with solid colors in grey, brown and green, useful in the field and acceptable for lifestyle wear as well. Initial products included waterproof outerwear, Merino wool layers, and sewn accessories such as gloves, hats, and neck gaiters. Pack systems built on carbon fiber frames are as strong and lightweight as they are ingenious. Other items supporting the brand include hats with variations of the company's sheep logo.
Building the products from the materials up
KUIU's central goal is to reduce pack weight, so every nuance of a pack's function is considered. The company conducted a global search with extensive testing that led designers to Primeflex, a premium lightweight fabric for outdoor apparel applications. One of KUIU's primary products, the Attack pant, weighs 18.75 ounces, which is 40 percent less than a comparable pant. Primeflex, a fabrication from Japanese company Toray, embeds unique spiraling yarns in a double weave that allow four-way stretch and recovery without adding excessive weight.
What's more, the coiled yarn weave promotes dimensional stability for free movement while maintaining the fit. Customer testimonials attest to the durable waterproof finish (Toray's Kudos DWR) with the application of Bemis seam tape that is proving itself in the field. A guide glove made of Pittard's Oiltac leather with Primeflex is an outstanding product that performed exceptionally well in rugged field tests last year.
Precision in cutting and assembly of outerwear is trusted to the fine needle at Tamoda Apparel, Inc., with its state-of-the-art production facility in Vancouver. For consistent access to highest quality, woolens are sourced directly from growers in South Africa, Australia, South America, and New Zealand through New Zealand-based The Merino Company. Hairston believes that wool is the most appropriate fiber for his applications. After testing its numerous benefits over synthetic fibers, wool was selected for its antimicrobial odor resistance, moisture wicking and thermal maintenance.
"My overall product vision is to take our customers as close to being a part of their environment as possible," said Hairston. "Instead of a barrier, I want the products I design to allow our customers to become a part of their surrounding, to feel enabled and free, no restrictions. I want our customers to forget they are wearing KUIU so they can focus on their stalk, their hunt, their climb, their view, the mountains and the experience of all of it."
Less is more
Looking at KUIU in the context of its competition, two things really stand out: its unity in design across products and its rejection of unnecessary features. Among comparable products in the market, current hunting gear is suffering from "featuritis" in excessive logos, tags, closures and other tricks intended to contrive perceived value and steer the customer's attention in a retail setting. KUIU's ideology of defined purpose avoids the weight and cost of unnecessary features, furthering its mission of enabling customer experience. The company's sheep's head logo is discreet, while necessary interior labeling is designed to be easily removed. "I believe great product design is stripping away everything until you have exactly and only what you need," explained Hairston. As the company grows, it intends to expand its range of new products and "truly push the boundaries of innovation," he added.
Brand definition is ongoing
As a brand exists in a psychological space within an individual's mind and across a population, brand managers must continually chisel and polish that territory to maintain a fresh perspective and relevancy in their customers' lives. Every blog entry, every product, every video and photo contributes to the customer's perception of what the KUIU story represents. "It is very easy to get pulled in many different directions, something I learned at Sitka and it can take its toll on products and the brand," said Hairston.
KUIU's disruptive model finds itself forging through an extraordinary confluence of brand development, product development and company development. The organization's greatest challenge for 2013 is simply, according to Hairston, "demand exceeding supply."
Heidi Scheller is a contributing writer for Apparel.