By: Brianna Valleskey
Jen Rubio is my hero. She’s the co-founder of Away, a lifestyle travel brand that makes thoughtfully designed luggage, but also a super sharp entrepreneur, marketer and commerce expert. Jen used to run social media at Warby Parker, where employees would tweet video responses to questions about the product (while wearing Warby Parker glasses, of course) ― a visual branding strategy ahead of its time.
So when I found out Jen had a spotlight session at INBOUND this year, I was ridiculously pumped. She spoke about creating a brand with emotional appeal, building a product that actually helps people and marketing to a mass customer base (while also finding ways to specialize). Check out my summary of her insights below.
The Principles of Building a Brand People Love
1. Birthing an innovative brand ≠ reinventing a business model.
Not every entrepreneur has to reinvent the wheel. Or, as Jen put it, reinvent an existing business model. Warby Parker wasn’t the first business to sell glasses online. Away isn’t the first luggage company. But Jen knows this. How you can differentiate your business, she explained, is by creating an incredible brand that consumers want to interact with.
Every brand has an origin story (a founding myth), and Away’s story starts with a piece of broken luggage. Frequent travelers have likely noticed that the same few luggage brands always show up in airports. You assume it’s because those brands make quality luggage. Why else would people buy it, right?
Then Jen’s luggage broke. She went online and asked her travel-savvy friends what kind of luggage to get. The answers that came back surprised her: “I don’t know, but don’t get what I have.” Most people had inherited their luggage, received it as some sort of parting gift from a former job, or simply didn’t like it.
“There was just no overwhelming sense of brand affinity for luggage,” Jen said. “Travel is something that everyone does. It’s something that excites people. But why wasn’t there a travel brand that people were excited about?”
So she set off to make an awesome luggage brand that resonates with people, and for a reasonable price: All of their bags sell for under $300. Similar bags would cost anywhere from $600-900 in retail stores. But part of Away’s mission was to create quality-to-price value.
2. Design intention must equal customer perception.
Before creating the first prototype, Away did research. A lot of research. They started by sending out surveys where people were asked to check off the boxes of each feature they wanted in their luggage. All of the boxes would be checked off. When asked which features people wanted to pay for, none of the boxes were checked. So the Away team switched to field research.
“I cannot tell you how many hours we spent watching people pack,” She laughed. “We’d visit our friends and extended networks with coffee and bagels simply to watch them pack.”
Those hours were worth it. The team uncovered insights that helped them understand what to design for: People don’t like their shoes to touch their clothes. People snatch plastic bags from hotels to store wet clothes and dirty laundry.
“People are so used to having a crappy experience packing their luggage. They didn’t know how to describe what they needed,” Jen explained. “We had to witness them doing the act.”
Away iterated on their product hundreds of times to create its minimalist design. The more people use it, however, the more they realize why certain features are in place. Take the two zippers on each bag ― they create a distinct set of clicks when you clip them into the (TSA-approved) lock. You get both the satisfaction of a packing job well done, as well as the assurance that the bag is firmly shut.
Another part of good design is just making sure that what your design intention is equals the customer’s perception. Away’s luggage is made from polycarbonate (the same material used to make fighter jets), but they wanted the suitcase to have a little give in case it was ever dropped on the ground. So a flexible prototype was made and tested with a focus group. The result? The focus group assumed that the material was cheap and flimsy.
“We’re lucky that we had that group,” Jen said. “If we had gone out to the market with that, we couldn’t have been there to explain to every customer the thinking, intention and design behind what they perceive as cheap material.”
Those are the tiny details that make people obsessed with the product, Jen said. Customers frequently write in to thank Away for making them better packers.
3. The delta between good design and brand is emotion.
Jen loves to travel. She’s been to ~60 countries and all seven continents on the planet. The core of Away, as a company, is to create a beautiful, thoughtfully designed suitcase. But, she explained, you can have things that are beautiful and well-designed, and you still don’t feel a sense of connection with that product or that company. What makes something a brand is the emotional connection you feel with it.
“If we can inspire our community of people to look at a map and feel like all of it is in reach, then we’ll have done our job,” Jen said. “I know that seems like a lofty statement for someone who makes a suitcase, but the small things count.”
If that’s not creating an emotional connection to a brand, then I don’t know what is. Away’s secret sauce is to mix that emotion with phenomenal design. The brand identity for their luggage is very minimal: clean and simple, but not austere. It’s meant to attract a large market (i.e. people who travel). The company appeals heavily to specific market segments, however, by frequently collaborating with different brands. Away has worked with companies like West Elm and celebs like Rashida Jones to reach new audiences and go all out on various designs. Each collaboration has its own soul and spirit. (As I’m writing this, Away is featuring a gorgeous piece of luggage made in collaboration with Amastan Paris on its website).
“It’s easy to say your product targets people between the ages of 16 and 60 who travel, but you probably aren’t going to make anything exciting,” Jen said.
As a brand, Away is definitely exciting. But it’s also down to earth. Jen mentioned that Away isn’t meant to be like that person you follow in Instagram who takes all these amazing trips you’ll never be able to afford. Instead, Away is the person who you see travel somewhere and think to yourself, “I’m adding that destination to my list.”
4. Telling people about your product < Demonstrating what it enables them to do.
The experience of traveling is the essence Away’s brand. A key part of traveling, your luggage can really make or break a trip. Jen believes that packing and unpacking doesn’t have to be the worst part of it. That’s why Away exists as a travel lifestyle brand that monetizes by selling suitcases.
“A lot of luggage brands use their product pages to talk about the tech specs, materials and dimensions,” she said. “We do that, but a large majority of our product page is showing the bag in action: being packed, being stored under your bed, etc.”
Away’s store in NoHo (NYC) doesn’t sell luggage. It sells the experience of travel. One corner of the store is dedicated to the suitcase, where shoppers can move it around. Pack it. Play with it. But another corner is a cafe filled with travel books, magazines and city guides. It has shelves filled with things that you bring with you on a trip (like a sleep mask and headphones).
“If you’re not telling the story of what your product can enable something to do, then you’re just a company that sells things,” Jen said. “You’re not a brand.”
What I loved most about Jen’s approach is how she integrates seamlessly product design with brand storytelling. I’m looking forward to see what Jen and her luggage company do next. You can follower her on Instagram and Twitter at @jennifer.
P.S. I hope Jen writes a book someday. In the meantime. here are some great books on branding ...
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.