A (Mis)Match for Tough Times

Last Updated Nov 10, 2009 11:55 AM EST

The idea began as a joke: a few
friends amusing themselves one night in 2003 by dreaming up ever more hopeless
startup strategies. But something about the crazy notion stuck with Jonah Staw
long after the chuckles had subsided. Lying awake a few nights later, Staw saw
more than a lonely sock in search of a mate. He saw a character — “LittleMissMatched” — who granted girls permission to express

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LittleMissMatched Founder Jonah Staw

Fortunately, Staw had learned to
trust his own instincts on branding. He had tested those instincts as director
of corporate development at Frog Design, an innovative Web shop in San
Francisco, while working on creative strategies for companies such as Target
and DaimlerChrysler. Now, as Staw contemplated his own vision of mismatched
socks, his gut kind of took over.

“I knew it was a good
idea because you can’t not smile when you hear about it,”
says Staw, now 34, the co-founder and CEO of LittleMissMatched Inc. “I
knew that if there’s an emotional reaction, it’s a good

That was back in 2003. A year
later, the first LittleMissMatched merchandise appeared at Linens ‘n
Things and Nordstroms across the country: a pack of six mismatched socks for
eight dollars. The company’s Web site, href="http://www.littlemissmatched.com">littlemissmatched.com, launched a
few months after the socks. The next year, LittleMissMatched was offering
pajamas, pencil pouches, books, bedding, flip-flops, furniture — and, of course, socks — in boutiques and specialty stores, among them
FAO Schwartz. By Christmas 2008, the products were in more than 80 Macy’s
stores nationwide, and retail sales hit $32 million for the year, a 30 percent
increase over the year before. Never mind the Great Recession.

LittleMissMatched fans parade down New York's Fifth Avenue.

LittleMissMatched fans parade down New York's Fifth Avenue.

The first of four permanent
LittleMissMatched stores opened in May 2009, in New York’s Grand
Central Terminal. That was followed a month later by outlets in Downtown Disney
in Anaheim and Myrtle Beach, S.C. When the
company opened its store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, in August of
this year, some 500 fans — median
age 10 going on 11 — paraded
down America’s favorite shopping street in gloriously mismatched

So what can you learn from an
offbeat retailer born in a late-night bull session?

Staw says a lot depended on
faith in the fundamental concept. He encouraged potential partners to dream
with him. “We’ve always pretended we’re bigger
than we are,” says Staw. “We were always trying to present
the brand in the best possible light and allow future partners to imagine where
LittleMissMatched could go, rather than where it was at the moment.”

Inside the LittleMissMatched store.

Inside the LittleMissMatched store.

The brand vision was Staw’s
guiding light. As the mismatched socks caught on, the company forged ahead with
new products emphasizing a kind of measured individuality, allowing each girl
to stand out, but not too much. All the company’s products — from the stocks to the flip-flops to the
bedding — are designed to be
fun but not aggressively different. The patterns don’t match, but
they kind of do, too. And they provide nearly endless opportunity to
customize. There are 384 possible design combinations associated with one
LittleMissMatched bed, so a girl can redecorate her room every day, without
repeating, for more than a year.

Staw stuck with the vision, even
when outside marketing experts questioned whether it could really be pushed as
far as he wanted. They wondered whether LittleMissMatched wouldn’t
be better off concentrating on socks. They wondered whether the customer could
be defined a bit more conventionally. After all, the nonconformist might be a
pretty tough customer to target. “I said no,” Staw recalls.
“We’re about inspiring emotion. We’re selling
creativity, fun. And we are reinventing categories.”

The next challenge was the more
daunting. How to get the message — and
the merchandise — to the

Where Staw had favored
simplicity and daring in the branding scheme, he leaned toward complexity in
marketing and distribution. The result is that LittleMissMatched today has a
presence in five different markets: e-commerce; independent retailers (more
than 2,000 nationwide), established chains (Macy’s and JCPenney),
licensing, and the LittleMissMatched retail stores. “All of our
revenue channels are equal,” says Staw.

The varied distribution efforts
benefit from a cohesive marketing program, with heavy emphasis on word of
mouth, or word of Web, or both. LittleMissMatched is active on href="http://www.myspace.com/littlemissmatchedsocks">MySpace, href="http://twitter.com/littlemissmatch">Twitter and href="http://www.facebook.com/LittleMissMatched">Facebook, but supplements
those networking efforts with real live promotional stunts, notably ice cream
carts festooned with socks and banners that read “matching is
overrated.” When a new store opens, the company distributes
"Lost Sock" posters. The posters direct customers to a Web site, href="http://www.missmatchedfun.com/lost_my_sock.html">lostmysock.com,
where they get a coupon for free socks that can be redeemed only at the new
LittleMissMatched store.

Staw’s marketing
strategy gets an A-plus from href="http://www.bnet.com/2403-13241_23-351380.html">David Bell, an
associate professor of marketing at Wharton. “First and foremost, it’s
a cute brand that flips the conventional on its head, he says. “It’s
quirky and unconventional in a fun way, and it’s highly

Bell applauds the distribution
strategy, as well. He believes that a variety of distribution channels can
complement each other, and that companies are unwise to rely heavily on just
one. “The way people buy products on the Internet interacts with
their physical location,” Bell suggests. Stores work great in cities,
where the sheer variety of retail outlets ensures that the target customer will
have access to the merchandise. “But if you live in Bakersfield,
California, where you have fewer offline options, then a Web site is more

Bell believes that
brick-and-mortar stores help communicate cultural values, as well. “It’s
why href="http://questmeansbusiness.blogs.cnn.com/2009/10/21/why-is-apple-so-successful/">Apple has stores; they’re selling a whole experience and lifestyle, and
having a physical retail presence is a big deal.”

LittleMissMatched was a startup
that did a lot of things right, from Bell’s point of view:

  • Be true to your brand. Differentiate your product, then stick with the

  • Know your customer. Know
    exactly what the customer wants to buy (in the case of LittleMissMatched,
    different but not too different), and make sure your marketing and
    design efforts connect with those values.

  • When it comes to distribution, be careful about putting all your eggs in one basket. Recognize that you may
    need to reach Customer A with strategy A and Customer B with strategy B.

And finally, never get
complacent. “Customers love our brand, but in this economy, mom will
only spend so much,” Staw says. “Major retailers are
marking down their prices. Our biggest challenge is figuring out the right
product mix.”

Of course, that’s a
challenge for anyone these days. Judging by his track record, though, Staw
should be more than a match for it.

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