Right now, select direct-to-consumer fashion brands are experimenting with limited or invite-only access to products. While it may seem like a counter-intuitive approach that limits a brand’s potential customer base, a few retailers are seeing success by choosing to go this route as a form of beta testing that also builds initial brand interest at the same time.
What seems to be most effective is the fact that it calls upon the allure of exclusivity while also helping brands build strong relationships with a foundational customer base, thus improving the overall customer experience. This is a wise move, considering PwC data shows that customers are willing to pay a price premium of 13-18% for luxury items that include a stellar customer experience.
So which companies are experimenting with this approach? Brooklyn-based footwear company Atoms Shoes is one example. The brand currently only sells its tennis shoes via invite-only access. To gain access, a potential buyer is asked to submit his or her email address on the brand’s homepage to get an invite. So far, over 40,000 people have done just that. “The invite-only approach allowed us to dial in how we delivered the experience in a way that made customers feel like they were part of something special,” said Waqas Ali, CEO of Atoms. “We wanted to establish deep relationships with our customers, especially our earliest ones. The invite-only approach allowed us to learn what people want from Atoms.”
Aside from the ability to focus on customer relationships, Ali went on to explain that the invite-only approach has helped the brand develop a rich customer experience, all while validating product interest and demand.
“This strategy has helped us build excitement around the brand and develop an incredible understanding of our customers’ needs. Because of the focused scale, we’ve been able to incorporate customer feedback on an accelerated timetable,” he said.
But Atoms isn’t the only retailer using the invite-only model to build brand buzz. Luxury activewear company WONE largely uses a similar approach that focuses on word-of-mouth referrals and building high-touch relationships with customers. Founded in Portland in 2017, in its earliest days, interested buyers could only gain access to WONE’s products by reaching out to the brand directly. Today, WONE is expanding access to its product line a bit to include a retail partnership with a few Barneys locations across the US.
For WONE founder Kristin Hildebrand, it was Paul Graham’s Y Combinator article “Do Things That Don’t Scale” that sparked the idea to use a limited access model. She decided to build a company that was focused on prioritizing its best customers rather than mass audiences and sales numbers.
“If the product is amazing, word-of-mouth spreads—and that’s what we’re focusing on. Our current approach is also extremely high-touch: Customers have direct access to me and my team and I do our best to really go above and beyond for them,” she said. “We give priority to people who are interested in what we’re doing, and have made a deliberate decision to move away from the traditional marketing strategy.”
So far, this approach is working. Despite the fact that WONE has run zero paid marketing campaigns, the brand’s products are selling out, and customers are impressed with the highly personalized approach to customer relationships.
“When I asked to exchange the bra I’d ordered from WONE for a different size a while back, instead of processing the order like a normal transaction, I was able to speak with Kristin directly,” said Aly Berry, a WONE customer. “She personally sent me a brand new bra in the correct size as a ‘congrats on the baby’ gift. The fact she remembered I was pregnant and nursing was incredible. I was really impressed, to say the least.”
From a business perspective, the invite-only model or limited access to products presents a unique opportunity for brands to leverage social currency. Yet, it’s only effective if there’s sufficient demand for products and allure to the brand itself.
“Since the entire model revolves around having control over access to products, it has to be done in a way that advances the business and brand objectives. It doesn’t make sense to control access to products that no one wants; the model works only if it has some form of social currency to offer,” said Ana Andjelic, an executive brand consultant.
Andjelic went on to explain that social currency is often the result of the strength of brand equity or the cultural capital, both of which moderate demand beyond a product. This means that brands that want to be invite-only have to focus their strategy on creating a strong brand. They need to give consumers a reason to want to be invited. This reason can be either to belong to an exclusive community – a niche, or a subculture. It can also be desire to be at the forefront of the zeitgeist. Either way, the reason is not the product alone.
As for longevity, it appears that the invite-only approach often works best in the early stages of a brand launch, helping build a foundational customer base, building interest around the brand, and generating buzz around these exclusive products. So while it may not make sense for a long-term business model, we may see this approach used in a different context.
“In the future, we may see the invite-only approach become more popular as a way to diversify current retail business models,” said Andjelic. “I think key is to mix it in with all-access products, in the same way VIP programs work. That differentiation needs to be clearly communicated, otherwise brands who use invite-only in the everyone-is-invited scenario will be dealing with reverse network.”