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Extraordinary bags from the Swiss design brothers

In 1993, Markus and Daniel Freitag brothers first created their own brand of recycled products, Freitag, using Tarpaulins, inner tubes from bicycles and automobile seatbelts. Freitag brothers have seen commercial success in the global market; yet at the same time, they are in constant pursuit of sustainable business cycle.

The Freitag brothers defy the stereotype that creative minds cannot be also commercial. In 1993, the two college graphic design students had an idea for a product. Twenty-one years later they have a flourishing company with retail locations all over the world, their own manufacturing plant, and hundreds of employees. Their products are displayed in the design museum in Switzerland and MoMA New York.  They shared how their personal story informed their brand identity and the success of their business with the Berlin School of Creative Leadership.

They admit they didn’t have any real business skills or experience when they started. They just had creativity and a philosophy oriented from their story. The brothers grew up in environmentally-conscious Switzerland, paid attention to marketing ads at a young age, and lived in a student flat located right next to a freeway. Many Europeans biked to decrease their carbon footprint, but no one had a useful travel bag for biking cities in unpredictable weather conditions. The combination of these points led them to create bike-able bags made from recycled semitrailer truck tarpaulin.They started with one simple design: durable recycled one-of-a-kind items that were easy to carry on a bike.

How has such specificity lead to wider success? Never mind the fact that they tapped into an unsaturated market at the right time. They have seen many competitors enter the market, but their business continues to expand with loyal customers and new products because they stay true to the personal philosophy that emerged from their story. Their products are always eco-conscious, always individual, always made from durable truck tarpaulin, and always bike-able. They shared how their personal story influences these products. From their visit to the Berlin School, here are three tips that other business brand managers can take away from the Freitag narrative-oriented philosophy:

1. Narrative gives you a firm foundation in which to root your brand identity and your business mission.

A series of life events led the Freitag brothers to a certain business mission. In their presentation they talk about having a holistic approach, meaning “to think from the beginning to the end and once back again,” to their company. To build a brand with a holistic perspective, you must know your values. Brand identity emerges from those values, but often the values are rooted in personal experiences.

For example, growing up in a green-minded atmosphere made the Freitag brothers value recycled materials and decreased car use. These values show themselves in Freitag’s product made from recycled materials for people who don’t drive cars. The brothers communicate that one’s product must be good, but business isn’t just about the product—“it’s about the world around the product.” And the world around the product is fixed in the story of creating the product.

In short: What happened? What do you value in light of what happened? What products exude those values? That’s your brand identity. That identity fuels the company mission.

2. Narrative provides ways to expand your product into other areas while staying true to your values.

Freitag started with bike messenger bags. Now they have several collections of bags with a wide range from functional to fashionable. They also sell other bike-able accessories, allow people to design their own bags online, and house a flagship store that lets customers view the freeway from the same location where the brothers created the first bag. In each expansion, Freitag adds value to their product line without sacrificing their product identity. New products are grounded in the Freitag story—different items all carrying a single identity. Knowing and staying true to a narrative allows a business to expand products (and perhaps revenues) without coming to market with items that don’t represent its values. (i.e. products that are prone to fail under the brand identity.)

3. Narrative gives customers a loyalty-inspiring caveat to your value proposition.

Freitag never discounts its products. Retail stores display signs that say, “Everything 50% Off (except Freitag).” The company has this luxury because its customers aren’t shopping for a price. They are shopping for a bag that they believe in. They buy Freitag because they believe in using recycled materials, in having one-of-a-kind products, in having a durable bag that will last for years. They are buying more than the bag: they are buying the story surrounding the bag. They believe this dynamic creates loyal customers who won’t run to competitors when their prices are lower.

Freitag continues to communicate its narrative and personal philosophy to employees and customers. The most loyal Freitag customers compete in design competitions, RSVP to tarpaulin-cutting parties, and make special visits to the flagship store. They dish out time and money for Freitag products because they know the story and they believe in the values that transpire from that story.

In college, the Freitag brothers were under the assumption that building up a brand meant one needed money, a business plan, a target group, an advertising campaign and so on. What they found is that (1) all of those things can’t grow a business that doesn’t have clear narrative-focused values and (2) all those details come to fruition much easier when they stick to their story.

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