Since the Medici, we have had the merchant. And presumably long before. Smell the cardamom at a bazaar in Morocco, and picture a woman selling rugs. Or crushed grapes, and a woman selling wine. She was a merchant long before you or I were born, long before laid rail, paved streets, strip malls, and smart phones.
In the early days, people would ask: Who is your merchant?
What is that? We used wonder.
Make a pant, sell a pant. Simple as can be. Not sure who these merchants are, or what they do, but things seem to be going just fine without them.
Then we got stuck. Growth slowed. Pants were not enough. We needed product two. We needed shirts.
So we hired one of those merchants.
Six years and more than ten times sales later, we are humbled by what little we knew then. Now we know exactly what a merchant is.
Tony Hsieh once said that “a great brand is a great story that never stops unfolding.” That story is revealed product by product by your merchant and their team. Jenny did it at Old Navy. Steve did it at Apple. Brad does it with us. First pants. Then shirts. Then suits. Now underpants.
From your pants to your underpants, this is how we do it, say the merchants.
The merchants do it by bringing the team together: your designers, your sourcerers, your planners. The merchant is the hub of the wheel. They spin in the middle, divining what the customers wants, conjuring what the customer doesn’t even know they need, and creating the magic born of collaboration and experimentation.
A great merchant delivers both joy and profit. Then profit gets reinvested in more joy. One day the great merchants are gone, or tired and uninspired. The good news leaves the building, the company’s shareholders pound the table, and then the outlet stores start opening, one by one.
Unless the story doesn’t stop. Unless it’s a great story. That story unfolds, chapter by chapter, book by book, piece by piece, SKU by SKU, product by product.
But who is going to tell the story?
The story of the merchant is told by the marketer. They need each other, and if they get along, it’s peanut butter and jelly. If they don’t, it’s oil and water. For ordinary or commodity brands, people buy what the brand makes. Need a paper towel, buy a paper towel. For the great brands, it’s different.
A wise man once said this to me, and the missed opportunity in what we were doing hit me like a lightning bolt:
People don’t buy what you make. People buy what you believe.
From Nike, we buy victory. From Under Armour, we buy protection. From Lululemon, we buy zen. From Patagonia, we buy conservation. From BMW, we buy performance. From Tesla, we buy a future without smog in their air and missiles flying in the Middle East.
At Bonobos we believe in the future of men. Paradoxically that’s why we hired a woman named Micky. She is beginning a conversation, which can never end and which must never end, about what it means, in this day and age, to be a man.
It reminds me of a poem written by an owl.
The internet accelerates this marriage of the merchant and the marketer. The boundary blurs, as the smartphone obliterates, quickly and slowly, the advantage of the physical imposition by real estate of a brand’s story. The stores don’t go away, but the story begins to becomes as important as the store. Then the story becomes more important. The e at the end of stor- changes to a y. The stores that will survive are the ones where that story gets told. The stores that will survive are those that become a showcase for the story. The inventory moves up into a cloud. Great brands become castles in the sky.
Like the bards of old, the only stories that pass down for generations are the stories that matter. That brands that matter become the ones that have something to say.
Everything on the internet is hidden, except for the truly great things that are in plain sight every day. They cross millions of people’s lips and hit millions of people’s ears all the time. What used to be an alliance of two functions becomes one.
With digital brands, the two disciplines dance so closely that you can’t tell the difference.
Now people ask me a different question.
Do you know any great CMOs?
What kind do you mean?
A Chief Merchandising Officer, or our Chief Marketing Officer?
Nowadays maybe it’s both.
The marchant is born.