Shinola, the ambassador of Detroit’s quality

15 August 2017

In our Brand Profile Series, we take a closer look at surging brands across the world. For this tenth article of the series, we had a look at Shinola, a Detroit based watch company!

A quick rise

What if we told you that Detroit is now a symbolic place to buy your watch? After the rise and fall of its music and automotive industry, the city now has a specialist in watches. Launched in 2011 by Tom Kartsotis, the man who also cofounded the accessories brand Fossil, Shinola has quickly established itself as “the” American watchmaker. Proud of its hand assembled luxury watches, it also offers bicycles and enlists other manufacturing companies that specialise in creating journals, leather goods and other elegant accessories. Shinola now has more than 50 shops in the US and in Europe, and its success even lead the brand to pass the bar of $100m in revenue in 2015. Only 4 years after its creation…

Make Detroit great again

As the brand put it themselves, they believe in the beauty of the industry. Their quality midrange watches somehow remind of brands like Georg Jensens and offer an alternative to high range swiss watches. Although the US watch market was pretty much competitor free for Shinola, it wasn’t on an international level. To stand out, the brand needed a special brand story to earn a spot. And that story based itself on the post crisis situation in Detroit, a city associated with the fall of America. Just like a phoenix that rises from its ashes, Shinola placed itself as the ambassador of Detroit’s lost quality industry. Those two elements are the context and trigger of Shinola’s brand story telling, a process we explained in this article. And not only did Shinola help the city rise again, it also created job opportunities (they employed over 300 people in the headquarters) and restored a long lost sense of confidence for the city. In the words of Trump: Make America great again!


Vintage meets industrial

Shinola stores are a perfect mix of classic and vintage aesthetics, with leather furniture and wooden shelves on bare brick walls. Its retro industrial look, clearly inspired by Detroit’s landscapes, was perfectly timed and reflected what hipsters were fond of back in 2011. This nostalgic touch also shows in the watches themselves. The general atmosphere also seems quite masculine, a sort of “cool dad” vibe that is characteristic of the brand. Shinola’s nostalgic identity can also be traced back to their choice of name: the company purchased its name from a 1920s shoe-polish brand called Shinola and hardly changed the logo nor the font. This choice of an older name to benefit from a nostalgic cachet has been used by many brands, for instance by Jean-Claude Biver, who purchased the name Blancpain 10 years after the brand last produced anything, or even Moleskine, a brand that built itself on the legendary black notebooks artists have praised since 1800 and that was produced by a small French bookbinder.

A diplomatic offering

Shinola also offers the possibility to build your very own unique watch. The program is named after one of the founders of the original 1920s Shinola, Willard Bixby. It allows you to choose a case style and watch strap according to your personal taste, which makes you feel part of the great adventure that is Shinola Detroit.
The brand’s willingness to impose itself as a national product also got honoured as Barack Obama, who wears a Shinola watch himself, offered one to David Cameron on a visit to the UK. The ex-President declared Shinola a symbol of American manufacturing and praised its aim to bring jobs back to the US. And Obama isn’t the only politician who fell for Shinola’s story: Bill Clinton was spotted wearing a Shinola Runwell in 2015 as well. Quite a good record for a brand that had only been on the market for a couple of years.

A change of focus

But Shinola isn’t stopping there. Their current project is a massive hotel in Detroit, a collaboration with the local real estate firm Bedrock. This 16,000 square feet hotel should be finished in fall 2018.
Those first 6 years have been quite busy and successful for Shinola – however, one cannot help but ask themselves how timeless the stand of “making Detroit great again” can be. The brand might need to develop its narrative into something more specific and timeless, for instance by presenting a new take on the opposition between human craftsmanship and machines in a world of constant automatisation. A way to make Detroit great – forever.

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Image credit: © Shinola

Brand Storytelling, Consumer goods, Luxury