A new relationship with nature
When Jeremy Moon founded Icebreaker, he was twenty-four, broke and had absolutely no idea what he was doing. He was driven by a passion for what he saw was possible, and a belief that he could make it happen. That ambition was ignited in a meeting with a merino sheep farmer.
“Across the dining table, he threw me a t-shirt made from merino wool fabric he’d designed himself. It felt soft and sensuous and nothing like regular wool. The shirt could be washed in the washing machine rather than by hand; it was silky and soft rather than itchy, and it felt light instead of heavy. I thought, ‘Wow! This is an amazingly beautiful, practical, natural material. This is a product I could sell around the world."
With a mantra at the time of “this will work if I don’t screw it up”, Moon used a paper he had written for his master’s degree at the University of Otago titled “Why Businesses Fail”, to work out how “not to screw it up”.
“I remember three things: one they ran out of capital; two — they didn’t have sufficient management experience; and three — they had an undifferentiated product and ended up having to compete just on price.
“I raised $200,000 from eight investors to ensure we had the initial capital that we needed — enough to get us going but not too much to make me lazy or feel like the business was a success before the right was earned.
“Secondly, I set up a board of directors as I had no management experience, limited life experience and needed some grey hair around me to balance my passion and testosterone. They taught me how to think long-term, how to plan, how to build teams, and helped me sharpen my decision-making.
“The third area was the choice of how we invested the capital. I invested over half into the design of the brand and the rest into the design of the product.”
Moon’s investments paid off: customers returned for more of the long-lasting, comfortable, durable and distinctive products that could justify the premium price tags as “merino isn’t cheap”.
“For me, I’m not interested in just making and selling clothes. I want to create meaning that is based on truth and is executed to a high standard. My training originally was in cultural anthropology and my obsession is around the meaning that we as humans give to objects. As humans we are meaning machines, we attach meaning to everything, and the objects that we bring into our lives are congruent with our sense of self and reflect either who we are or who we want to be.
“When I launched Icebreaker in the mid- 90s we targeted the snow sports, outdoor and adventure clothing market. The brands that were dominant then were all telling variations of the same story — ‘sweaty men climbing mountains as quickly as possible’. We did the opposite. We made it about men and women, and we made it about kinship with nature, rather than conquering it. And then we offered the choice — wearing nature in nature instead of synthetics made from petrochemicals, which defined the outdoor clothing industry. We zigged when they were zagging. That instantly made us different and intriguing, we had a product that could back it up and a true story of a fibre born in the mountains.
“It seemed counterintuitive at the time, but I was using the same super fine merino wool that was in a $3000 Italian suit to make thermal underwear for people to sweat in. The price of Icebreaker was twice the price of competitor products made from cheap synthetics. Therefore a premium brand and a differentiated story was critical, not only to differentiate us but also to earn the price point we required. The brand had to be seductive and engage on an emotional level, and my bet was that the ‘born in nature worn in nature’ meaning would connect with people at an intrinsic level; because as we all huddle in cities and get progressively disconnected from nature, the metaphor of wearing nature everyday helps to close that gap.”
The commitment at Icebreaker to make things of quality and something to be proud of has resulted in the details of every aspect of their products being laboured over.
An example is when we were creating our packaging system for our base layer product. The packaging has gone on to win major design awards and looks elegant, beautiful and simple, but it took fourteen iterations before I gave it my final approval. Sometimes my perfectionism around these little issues can drive our design team a little crazy, but my stand is to create fully resolved products for our customers. Quest for perfectionism is what defines a design-led company and a leader of a market segment.”
The respect and love of the outdoors is inherent in the Icebreaker products to the staff that work there. Icebreaker’s enthusiasm in bridging the gap between nature and people is contagious when customers buy the products.
“The original meaning of Icebreaker is about ice breaking between people and between people and nature — it’s about new relationships. This is unlimited territory and relates to the whole meaning of life so we’re not going to run out of inspiring stories to tell. It’s really about how we tell them and how our clothing reflects these true stories.
“We receive endless comments through our social media channels on how our merino clothing has changed their lives. People want to share their experiences with us. We received a hilarious email from a guy in Scotland who wore one of our t-shirts in Egypt for seven days, after losing his luggage. On his return, his top blew off the washing line at home and he was devastated but his conclusion was: ‘What have I learnt? Advertising hype isn’t always hype. Icebreaker merino is weird sh!t. I need to start a fund for a new top as unfortunately weird sh!t does not come cheap.”
Working hard to ensure that Icebreaker products justify the use of such an expensive material has allowed the company to steadily grow and sell the brand in more than 3,000 outdoor and sport stores across forty-four countries; however, this level of success comes with a new set of challenges.
“I am sometimes frustrated with how our brand is presented in these stores, compared with the vision that we have and the story that we know is there. That’s why, over the last three years, we have made a deep commitment to grow our own retail and online business in addition to our wholesale business. We also now have a thriving online business globally. This is very exciting for us, as we now have a direct conversation path to our customers.”
While many companies are beginning to replicate the Icebreaker business model, a direct relationship with customers seems vital for the company to successfully communicate its purpose with clarity.
“We are working together collaboratively to chisel back what has made Icebreaker great in the past and take that into the future with our online, retail and wholesale businesses. I feel the next wave of Icebreaker is being born right now. We have a transparent supply chain and the highest environmental, ethical and social standards. Our objective is profitable sustainability.”
The impact that Icebreaker has on people when they encounter their products or stories is what will continue the appeal of a natural choice in an age of synthetics. This is where the passion began and what will continue to motivate Moon in the future.
“Early on someone said to me that when you’re setting up a small business you have more highs and lows in one month than most people have in a year, and that was certainly true. It made me feel hugely alive being challenged on every level — a start-up demands 100% from every cell in your body. It’s relentless and exhausting but worth it, and only the strongest survive. I admire all entrepreneurs who have won or who have failed.”