The closer we get to nature, the less likely we are to find people wearing something natural.
This simple observation was behind the creation of the first
truly new category in outdoor clothing in the past decade. Jeremy
Moon, founder and CEO of Wellington-based Icebreaker Nature
Clothing realised the opportunity presented by this paradox when he
first saw finely woven merino wool. "It felt like nothing I'd ever
touched - silky soft, warm and natural yet it could be thrown in
the washing machine."
Moon tested his hunch that this fabric could be a breakthrough
in outdoor clothing by giving merino clothing to two of New
Zealand's greatest adventurers. Sir Peter Blake wore Icebreaker for
43 days non-stop on the Southern Ocean leg of his round-the-world
sailing venture in 1995 and it remained warm when wet and
odour-free. Graham Dingle MBE also proved its performance, testing
Icebreaker in the Arctic circle, Southern Alps and Antarctica.
This gave Moon the confidence to quit his job, mortgage his
house and launch the Icebreaker brand.
The first step was to study existing outdoor brands. "As well as
being all synthetic based, most were telling a similar story about
men conquering mountains as quickly as possible - literal and
predictable 'hard adventure' stories. I knew that if we thought it
through there was an opportunity to create something truly
different, that bought to life the benefits of using a natural
fibre in nature."
He created that difference through design, by pulling together a
small team consisting of a brand strategist and graphic design
company. The logic was simple: He envisaged a category that could
be fundamentally differentiated from the ubiquitous
petrochemical-based synthetic outdoor clothing. In the mid 1990s,
there was no viable alternative to synthetics for those in the
If merino wool allowed the animals to thrive in the mountains,
it might do the same for humans. But it would only work for humans
if it could be transformed into a brand with a meaningful story and
values, and a clothing system that could be equally at home in the
mountains and the city.
Moon knew if he could tell a story that fundamentally distanced
merino from traditional wool and synthetics, and differentiated the
product further through world-class design, he had the basis of a
powerful commercial opportunity. He suspected it might bring people
together in nature, more naturally.
Get clear on the idea: develop your story first, product
Even before the first garment was designed, Icebreaker developed
a story with the potential to excite a global audience - the story
of a natural fibre from the mountains that could reconnect humans
Moon says a big distinction between a design-led company and
marketing-led company is in their proximity to, and understanding
of, their customers. A design-led company uses research to confirm
their intuition, not to lead their thinking, and the people within
the company 'live it'. "Design-led required an intuitive leap, not
just trying to find out what people want, because most people don't
know what they want until they see it."
Go beyond the obvious
At the most basic level, wearing a merino garment is about
staying warm. In the Icebreaker world, products are designed to
transcend the basic need for warmth and relate to the customer on a
broader level of values-based wants eg. Aspiration is important;
having adventure at the heart of the brand talks to the yearning
for adventure and excitement that is latent within many people.
Different is critical, but it must be a meaningful
You can make an underwater car that is beautiful and different
to anything else, but it's not necessarily a product that is
meaningfully different. Moon says that to be successfully
design-led, a company needs to make products that are unique, well
executed through high quality design and production, and meaningful
Have a marketing focus at the top
Any company wishing to be world class at identifying latent or
new needs requires a strong marketing focus at the top. Moon says
this will also ensure sufficient investment in design capability
and a company culture that is geared to living the brand in
everything it does. This can be achieved by having a CEO who
sponsors projects, or a direct line from design or marketing
through to the CEO. The whole culture of the company needs to
embrace these design-led principles, from the top down.
Designing the difference
Designed with a single-minded focus on the wearer achieving a
sense of oneness with nature.
Icebreaker created a new category. But, in Moon's words, if it
wasn't well executed they might as well have "just been selling
"We needed to design our story into every Icebreaker garment - a
story about relationships to nature and to each other. Everything
we do, every aspect of our design, must support this core
Hence the notion of Icebreaker, of breaking the ice between
people, between mankind and nature and between wool and skin.
Icebreaker garments are designed to capture the physicality of the
human body and a sense of the possibility of adventure, every time
they are worn.
In a world increasingly distanced from nature, the power behind
this sense of possibility is growing. "In an age that's becoming
increasingly unreal, the value of what is real goes up," says
Each year the core brand themes are reviewed and new relevant
brand themes are discussed and worked into the design execution
plan for the year. Leading through ideas ensures the product is
always relevant and fresh.
Make every aspect of your product reflect your brand
If your product design, graphic design and language work as one,
you'll have a product that's an expression of your brand values,
rather than a product with a brand stuck on it. Central to this is
the use of words - one word is the difference between success and
failure for Icebreaker. Wool. Given wool's negative connotations as
a fabric against the skin, the word "merino" distances Icebreaker
from both wool and synthetics. In doing so, it creates a new
Design maintains distance from competitors
Once a product is released, its design can be imitated
relatively easily. What can't be imitated is What is in the
Icebreaker design team's strategy - that's where the next
innovation comes from. There is a years lag between initial design
and what appears in the stores and all the while the design team is
innovating further. The further the distance between your ideas and
those of competitors, the greater the uniqueness of your product
and This results in price becoming less of a factor for
Remain narrow…….and deep
There's a $2.2 billion market in the US for outdoor clothing -
and outdoor clothing is still referred to as niche. Moon says
there's no need for a design-led New Zealand exporter to look
beyond a niche. Apart from the practical considerations of the
ability to supply a non-niche market, you're likely to spread
design resources too thinly and lose uniqueness. Allow the brand to
become too broad and it'll lose its meaning. Icebreaker's
aspiration is not to create the greatest outdoor brand in the
world, it's to create the greatest merino outdoor brand. "The
moment we step outside merino we'll be eaten," Moon says.
Let your people be your eyes and ears
Because your people live your brand, there's a natural fit
between their values and the values of their customers.
Icebreaker's sales team is the eyes and ears for ideas about future
design needs and opportunities.
Be disciplined in the scope of your design
Moon says Icebreaker could design a fabulous synthetic jacket,
but at the cost of becoming just another outdoor brand and losing
its merino-based uniqueness. The Icebreaker design team always
asks: will a new design step add excitement or confusion?
The design dividend
Expansion to more than 1,000 stores internationally through
constant design innovation and close relationships with partners
right along the supply chain - from merino growers to
Icebreaker is the world's leading brand in the merino outdoor
clothing category. The brand is now sold in more than 2000 stores
in 24 countries.
Ongoing design innovation and close relationships with partners
right along the supply chain means the brand is actively sought by
distributors. This, in turn, creates strong presence at the point
of sale and makes Icebreaker an anchor brand for many retailers.
Most significantly, it has positioned Icebreaker at the top in the
global outdoor apparel market. Merino clothing is the first major
clothing innovation in that market in more than a decade.
The brand's story is integrated and consistent, from sheep's
backs in the high country to the clothes rack in an increasing
number of locations internationally. Achieving the design dividend,
though, requires both constant change and constant constancy.
Change, because most of what Icebreaker creates is not
patentable and can be mimicked over time by competitors. Constancy
because, as the originator of the category and with a powerfully
conceived and executed story, Icebreaker has a series of core brand
and product values that will never yield to fashion.
Know what you're good at
Finite resources are a reality for any business. Moon says it's
critical to decide where resources are best applied. Icebreaker,
for example, will never own a factory. Their competitive advantage
is built on New Zealand design and New Zealand merino. Icebreaker
garments are manufactured in New Zealand, Australia, Asia and
Europe to give the capacity and scalability to meet customers'
needs. Where the fabric or product is made is not part of the
Integrate your design with your production, no matter where it
Icebreaker's product designs are now communicated to mills
digitally, which means garments can be made by a number of mills
worldwide at short notice, limiting the chance of capacity
Being niche is not about being small
Moon says he used to think that being niche was about staying
small. "Now I know it means staying focused and being the best you
can in a tightly defined playing field."
Icebreaker chooses to be stocked in only 72 of 250 outdoor and
snowsports stores in New Zealand. For those 72 stores it's a point
of difference that brings them customer traffic that their
competitors do not get - and ensures Icebreaker has significant
Make your inputs as much a story as your outputs
The Icebreaker supply chain starts with 60 hand-picked high
country merino stations covering two million acres which supplies
over 500,000kg of pure merino every year. That forms a major part
of the Icebreaker story and the way the company designs its
The design process
No two businesses approach the design process in exactly the
same way. What they do share, however, is a structure that ensures
the right people are engaged at the right time, and that
responsibilities for specific outcomes are clear at each step. The
Icebreaker design process:
Develop the brand story
To control the design outcome Icebreaker needed, from the
outset, to detail the various components of the brand and present
these as a detailed blue print.
A brand blueprint, a brief to determine the look and feel of all
design outcomes. This is effectively a brand palate covering
everything from the essence of the story, to the style of the story
telling, to use of fonts and colours. Together, the various parts
needed to create a story that was different - and looked different
- from anything else, creating a want or a need among consumers
they may not have even recognized themselves
Developing the marketing system
Bringing the brand story and the brand alive in the store. Even
before Icebreaker had products to sell, it needed to understand how
they would be presented at the point-of-purchase
Collateral that would make the brand live and breathe. This was
the design phase for all the executional elements of the marketing,
from swing tags, neck labels, catalogues, product tags, instore
posters and display systems to the web presence
- Now inhouse
Creating the clothing range
The end goal, the basis of the Icebreaker business
A range of clothing based on, and consistent with, the brand
story and the marketing system
Originally outsourced to clothing designers, now inhouse
Marketing system - demand creation
Develop and refine demand creation devices, advertising and
The brand story translated into paid and unpaid media