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Brand-building with authenticity: A chat with Stephen Sullivan of Stio

March 22, 2023

Brand-building with authenticity: A chat with Stephen Sullivan of Stio

Stephen Sullivan

Founder & CEO of Stio

The Walker Webcast recently featured Stephen Sullivan, of Stio, who discussed the importance of building an authentic brand.

Stephen “Sully” Sullivan is an entrepreneur and expert in the outdoor, snow sport, and fly fishing markets. In addition to being an avid angler, skier, trail runner, cyclist, and rancher, he is the founder and CEO of Stio, an outdoor apparel brand that will exceed $100 million in revenue this year.

I recently had the chance to chat with Sully about how his love of mountain life has translated into building an authentic brand.

Building the Stio brand

When Sully launched Stio in 2012, he had a great combination of both the experience of working in a retail setting and launching Cloudveil, an apparel brand that preceded Stio.

Perhaps more importantly, however, he had a real love of mountain life that dates back to his childhood. That love is the foundation for Sully’s vision and Stio’s mission.

When Cloudveil was acquired by another company, Sully realized that the acquisition was all about segmentation for the acquiring brand. He wanted Stio to be about something much different.

Wholesale vs. retail: Embracing a customer mindset

Sully realized that being in a wholesale business distances a company from its ultimate customers, and he did not want that for Stio. He noted: “When you’re in the wholesale business, you have middle men between you and the customers. You sell eight months before you deliver the product to the real customer. That means you may not get feedback on your products for over a year.”

In a retail setting, he noticed that customers were buying much more interesting, differentiated products. He wanted to build a brand that allows customers to decide what they really want. He knew that is where Stio would shine.

He found that wholesalers and big box retailers were looking to buy items that gave consumers another choice in the hardshell, softshell, fleece, and base layer categories. This meant he would need to take a different approach to distribution if Stio was to sell truly differentiated products.

Retail locations and catalogs form a foundation

Sully set out to launch a more creative product line that encompasses the totality of mountain life and that gives customers an opportunity to really decide what they want. He knew he needed brick and mortar locations to do that.

Building a strong customer base via retail locations solidified the brand in a way that online channels only simply would not. Online distribution is a fast and easy way for the consumer to shop, but it lacks the personality and haptic nature of touching a piece of clothing or catalog. That’s why Stio has continued to regularly publish catalogs and open up retail locations in key locations where outdoor enthusiasts flock.

Authenticity: It’s all about the mountain

The outdoor apparel industry is very competitive, with independently owned brands such as Stio competing with giants in the space such as The North Face, Patagonia, Helly Hansen, and more, some of which are owned by large international conglomerates.

Unlike many of its competitors that are based on coastal towns, Stio is based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, one of the largest ski towns in the U.S. Stio is a true mountain company. The entire foundation of the business is built around mountain life. Sully revealed that many of Stio’s employees (including himself) ski on nearby mountains 80-100+ days per year, in Stio gear, of course.

Sully believes that is the key to Stio’s continued success. He noted: “That perspective of having this inherent authenticity of literally living this lifestyle every day really resonates with our customers. We live this in our daily lives. All those things of being involved in that mountain community makes for an authentic experience. You can’t fake real.”

The brand stays true to its mountain roots in product choice and design. For example, when asked why Stio has not moved into offering hunting products as so many of its competitors do, Sully replied: “We haven’t moved into hunting because we could not be authentic in that market. It’s not what we’re about.”

Staying competitive in a crowded field

Stio has been able to stay competitive in such a tight market by building a brand with inherent authenticity, and that authenticity figures prominently in every business decision. In an industry where the direct-to-consumer model is very challenging, Stio has cultivated lasting relationships with its customer base, allowing direct-to-consumer to remain a large portion of its distribution.

Sully observed: “We can compete with big guys because we have built a brand of inherent authenticity and people are resonating with that. We’ll have north of $100M in revenue this year. By extending our category range, staying ahead by innovating new products, keeping our distribution tight, and continuing to be extremely good at direct-to-consumer marketing, we will continue to grow.“

Read Transcript

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