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How Brandon Blackwood Avoided Being a One-Hit Wonder

The designer, whose viral “End Systemic Racism” bags helped him build a cult following, is now turning his attention to building a full-fledged brand beyond his signature totes.
Brandon Blackwood advertisement in Chinatown pedestrians crossing street
Brandon Blackwood's first billboard advertising campaign, as seen in New York's Chinatown neighbourhood. Courtesy.

For his first billboard advertising campaign, Brandon Blackwood took a moment to call out those who doubted him.

A billboard hung in New York’s Chinatown neighbourhood reads “Barney’s said our brand has no direction,” a nod to the legendary and now largely-defunct New York department store (sans apostrophe). The store, which closed in early 2020 after a bankruptcy filing, is now owned by Authentic Brands Group, which did not respond to requests for comment.

The billboard was an instant hit online, drawing hundreds of comments from Instagram users who oscillated between schadenfreude and elation over the ad’s intentional pettiness.

After the brand’s “End Systemic Racism” tote bags propelled the brand toward virality in the wake of the worldwide protests that followed George Floyd’s murder, marketing moments like the billboards have helped keep Blackwood in the zeitgeist and avoid being a one-hit wonder.

Reacting in real-time to memes and handling much of the brand’s social media himself helps foster a sense of closeness between his brand and its customers. As a result, the brand expects it will net $30 million in revenue by the end of this year, up from $3 million in 2020, not bad for a brand with “no direction.”

“We’ve cut out all the BS and we’re like, ‘hey, this is me,’” Blackwood said. “We’re a little bit more authentic in our positioning and how we market and how we sell things.”

Doing It For The Culture

Blackwood launched his brand in 2015 but it was in 2019 that the label attracted attention from fashion insiders and influencers. Shoppers followed en masse in Spring 2020 when the call to end police brutality became a global rallying cry. At the time, Blackwood produced totes stamped with the phrase “End Systemic Racism.” The bag went viral after being spotted on a number of celebrities — including Kim Kardashian — and quickly sold out.

Much of the brand’s success after that initial bump may be attributed to effective marketing in both traditional channels as well as on social media. That has included its products, which are priced typically between $250 to $400, appearing in a McDonald’s campaign with American rap artists Saweetie, on Issa Rae’s character in the HBO show “Insecure” and in the “Sex and the City” reboot, as well as on stylist Law Roach in a Paper Magazine editorial. Each appearance has helped keep the brand in the consumer consciousness.

But it’s the brand’s social media that is one of its most valuable assets. Will Cooper, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of women’s shoes, handbags and accessories at Saks said it discovered the Blackwood brand on TikTok. Brandon Blackwood’s official Instagram page has grown over the past year from 38,600 to 460,000 followers.

Maegan Gibson, buyer for Nordstrom x Nike, a curated selection of brands housed within Nordstrom said Blackwood’s “genius” social media marketing around its product drops “gives the brand a sense of exclusivity that’s really resonated with our Nordstrom x Nike boutique customers.”

On Blackwood’s Instagram page, followers will find everything from spoofs on Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” album cover art to memes of US Senator Bernie Sanders carrying the “End Systemic Racism” tote. But what’s most appealing to many followers is the direct line of communication they say they have with Blackwood, who talks to them like friends and family — he calls his Instagram followers “cousins” and frequently replies to their comments — rather than thinking of them in terms of lifetime value or customers to be acquired.

“If I’m on Instagram and I see a Brandon Blackwood post, I’m leaving a comment, there will be exclamation points, there’s a ‘yes!’ or ‘I’m screaming!’” said Kelly Augustine, a stylist and content creator who helped put the ESR totes on the map. “I am happy to be enthusiastic about his brand because she is enthusiastic about me.”

That enthusiasm was also seen in the location choice for Blackwood’s first out-of-home advertising campaign. He opted for billboards in traditionally Black neighbourhoods Harlem and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, where luxury brand advertisements are scarce but his fans are abundant.

Blackwood also brought the friendly relationship he shares with his consumers to the campaign itself. One billboard reads “Hey, Cousins” alongside the brand’s black leather and gold bamboo tote, a nod to his nickname for his followers.

Beyond the Tote

As the brand has grown, Blackwood has expanded its number of wholesale partners to include Kith, Selfridges, Bloomingdales and The Lobby in markets spanning Chicago to Tokyo, while maintaining its earliest relationships, such as the one with Shopbop. In May, Blackwood dropped its first collection of Saks Fifth Avenue-exclusive styles with the retailer.

At Saks, the brand’s mini-Kendrick bag — a trunk-style tote sold in various colours and materials — is among its top performers, adding “something new and unique to our assortment by offering an elevated, designer aesthetic to a more accessible price point,” said Cooper.

As customers have embraced Blackwood’s brand beyond its viral product, he’s eyeing expansion, with plans to eventually launch a full ready-to-wear line, one that would lead to magazine editorials that are styled in full Blackwood looks, Blackwood said. To that end, in October, the label posted a digital runway show featuring a collection of outerwear, including feather-trimmed leather trenches and floor-length faux furs, that is only available for purchase by appointment and will otherwise not go into production.

When it comes to his peers, Blackwood and others, like Augustine, reject comparisons to the accessories brand Telfar, which are made frequently online by customers eagerly awaiting “drops” from both brands. Both brands are New York-based, Black-owned and offer accessibly-priced accessories, but Blackwood said the similarities end there.

“We do two completely different things,” Blackwood said of the aesthetics of his brand and Telfar Clemens’ brand. “You’re not comparing Peter Do to Phillip Lim, right? You’re not comparing Ralph Lauren to Marc Jacobs … It’s such an easy and lazy comparison because we are two Black people right now that are really successful in accessories.”

Still, both Blackwood and Clemens have managed to corral customers, turning them from followers into fans with direct, candid communication that helps humanise a brand.

“When someone’s making the decision to spend their hard-earned money on something … it makes you press ‘yes’ to the cart a little quicker when you’re like, ‘Oh, I like this guy,’” Blackwood said.

Related Articles:

Why Telfar Is Launching a Television Channel

Can Brands Make Billboards Go Viral?

Inside Balmain’s Entertainment Marketing Strategy

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