image of models for bonobos role model campaign
Bonobos' marketing campaign, "Role Models, not Male Models,” was designed to promote its message of inclusivity, reflecting the mission to “Make fit happen for every body.” — Bonobos

“Consumers are kings and queens,” declared Micky Onvural, the recently appointed CEO of Bonobos, the menswear brand that was acquired by Walmart for $310 million in 2017.

Bonobos launched in 2007 as a direct-to-consumer brand on a quest to end “khaki diaper butt,” with men’s pants that offered the promise of a custom-made feel.

Twelve years on, Onvural is making the case for why she — a woman who spent two years as the company’s chief marketing officer — is best suited to make the leap to lead Bonobos on a path to continued growth.

“Within an organization, who really knows the customer deeply?” Onvural asked. “Who really knows the brand and the story of the brand and can bring that forth? Very often, it's the marketer,” she said.

Onvural explained that, in addition to her marketing and communication skills, she believes her objectivity as a woman working for a menswear brand is what brings the brand’s story forward. Prior to landing at Bonobos, Onvural led marketing efforts for the likes of Trulia, eBay, Kellogg’s and L’Oreal, among others.

It also shouldn’t be surprising that she landed the top spot, she said. That’s because Onvural was appointed by the company’s co-founder, Andy Dunn, who named the menswear brand Bonobos precisely because that species of chimpanzees is matriarchal, and as a nod to his upbringing surrounded by strong women.

If I can bring in 60% to 70% of my traffic through direct or organic search, all of a sudden my cost for acquisition at a blended rate goes down dramatically.

Micky Onvural, CEO, Bonobos

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An unconventional path to the corner office

Hers was not a conventional path to the corner office. A recent study published in Harvard Business Review suggests that most CEOs come from business development, operations or finance roles before they take the reins. Yet Onvural maintained that the move from her marketing background makes perfect sense.

“It allows me to step back and have some objective distance from the conversation at hand,” she said.

Onvural is referring to the chatter about “evolving masculinity” that Bonobos unwittingly sparked with a video ad campaign launched in 2017 that she spearheaded. Making the leap to the top spot with a marketing background also affords her perspective on a larger cultural conversation started by this campaign, she said. A CEO who came from finance or business development might never have known how to leverage that into brand growth.

The marketing campaign, "Role Models, not Male Models,” was designed to promote its message of inclusivity, reflecting Bonobos’ mission to “Make fit happen for every body,” she said.

It showcased men like a transgender athlete who challenged traditional stereotypes, piggybacking on the way women’s apparel and beauty brands from Dove to Aerie have been featuring “real women” rather than waiflike airbrushed models in their ads.

Onvural also spearheaded #EvolvetheDefinition in 2018. The 90-second documentary was Bonobos’ first national television spot that was accompanied by a social media and online campaign, which aimed to further the conversation on what masculinity really means. This video set YouTube alight with criticism and got over 10 million views with more than twice the number of thumbs down and hundreds of hateful comments.

Amid the onslaught, Onvural made sure the staff were still tracking with Bonobos’ mission to “Make fit happen for every body.”

Externally, this further reinforced another one of Onvural’s core beliefs: that people buy what you sell, not what you make. Although the ads are no longer being shown on television, the videos, which are still available on YouTube, “continue to be something that get engagement and gets us talked about,” she said. Despite the backlash, the fact that the conversation is continuing is key, Onvural believes. ”For me, that is hard to put a cost on, obviously,” she said.

Practically speaking, Onvural is looking at customer acquisition through the lens of a marketer, too. “If I can bring in 60% to 70% of my traffic through direct or organic search, all of a sudden my cost for acquisition at a blended rate goes down dramatically.”

 Micky Onvural headshot
Micky Onvural, CEO of Bonobos — Bonobos

The Walmart factor

Onvural maintained that Walmart has allowed Bonobos to operate fairly autonomously since the acquisition. She said that although e-commerce continues to dominate its sales, it operates 62 standalone stores and a small but valued relationship with Nordstrom. There are plans to further expand into brick and mortar, but the retailer isn’t tying that goal to a specific number. Rather, Onvural said, the market will determine where and when Bonobos will open more locations.

Parent company Walmart doesn’t report financial figures separately for each of its brands, but data from Edison Trends found that after a dip at the time of the acquisition, Bonobos has continued on a steady path to growth. The biggest bump came in November 2018, with a 43% increase in estimated revenue over last year.

This is no easy feat according to Sucharita Kodali, an analyst at Forrester who specializes in e-commerce and omnichannel retail trends. “Digitally native brands all face scale challenges especially in a narrow category like menswear,” she told CO—. “It’s interesting for Walmart because the natural synergies to the stores don’t exist because the [higher] price point is more aligned with Nordstrom which is where it’s actually sold.”

Although Kodali noted that it’s impossible to know whether the brand is successful, she believes Bonobos should be profitable. And if its profitability is higher than Walmart’s overall, “that is a success,” she added.

When Onvural thinks about how to best motivate an entire organization to achieve a goal, it is through storytelling that inspires individual staffers to engage with the customer through the brand. That role, she underscored, also often falls to the executive marketer.

“We have a really magnetic brand,” Onvural said, “And we're continuing to build that magnetic brand. It makes business sense. It makes everything else that much more cost effective.”

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Published July 16, 2019