Mark Kohlenberg is the CEO and founder of Moral Code, an exclusively eCommerce DTC brand selling premium men’s leather footwear and accessories. Launched in 2017 they now fast approaching $5m per year in sales. This year they are working on a total relaunch of the business including product, target customer, website, and embracing sustainability. The new version doesn’t go live until August – so I’m chatting with Mark about how they’ve made these big decisions, and the complexity of making it all happen in a big business.
Mark jokes that he got involved in eCommerce before it existed. His history in footwear and accessories spans 15+ years and his joint venture with Allen Edmunds, one of the leading men footwear brands in the United States has informed much of his experience.
He launched his own brand in the early 2000’s and eventually sold to the Waco group who focus on the mid-tier footwear market. Mark then worked for the Waco group for several years, but eventually grew bored and decided to go out on his own again—this time exclusively as an eCommerce brand.
The product of that endeavor is the footwear and accessories company, Moral Code. Their parent company is WDM Footwear (Well Dressed Man).
About the Business
- Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Sells in the US and Canada
- Moral Code has launched in Japan
- Looking to expand to Europe and the UK
- Custom Website
- Vertically Integrated
Does the Shoe Fit?
Shoes are one of the most challenging things you can sell in an eCommerce environment, partly because of all the colors and styles, but mostly because fit is a critically difficult obstacle.
Fit is subjective to a point and the return rates can be quite high. Mark says that if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be easy to get in trouble with shoes. To add to the fit problem, returns are tricky in footwear generally. Unlike clothing, If someone wears a shoe for too long and returns it that product can’t be reconditioned and sold again and the business will have to absorb the cost.
While the Moral Code team has largely worked through much of this, Mark says he still prefers the accessories side of the business which is quite a bit easier.
Men’s shift from typical business wear like suits, ties and traditional footwear to casual streetwear—even in some of the most traditional jobs—has forced Moral Code to do a huge pivot. They are re-imagining and re-launching the entire brand later this year with a whole new website, product line and sustainability component.
Mark says that their brand name has become an unexpectedly powerful element as they shift their brand to resonate with new markets. The decisions to make big changes were not taken lightly and Mark says he and his team have been talking about transforming the brand for about a year. In the business of fashion, he says, you need to keep moving forward all the time. They recognized that their customers were getting younger and their brand offering was’t keeping up with them.
According to Mark, it’s crucial to pay attention to what’s going on everywhere and apply what you can where you can. When they were really honest, the team realized that the casual work trend wasn’t going away anytime soon.
With their existing brand and architecture, Mark says that they could probably keep everything the same and continue to do all right, but would be missing out on massive opportunities. The decision to evolve will allow them to keep up the new casual workplace, create products for all genders.
A Move Towards Sustainability
One of the most important new integrations in the evolving brand is creating a more sustainable product. Today’s consumers in their late teens and early twenties are asking some really great questions. They are demanding more ecologically friendly and ethical brands.
Despite these great calls to action, footwear remains a challenging product type to make completely sustainable. Mark says that there are upwards of 80 to 90 components for every shoe that come from different suppliers to create the final product. This issue alone makes it really challenging to guarantee a sustainable product.
The team spent a good deal of time deliberating whether it was possible for them to create a compostable shoe and eventually they realized it wasn’t going to happen for their business. What they were able to do was get much much closer, and Mark is very happy with the progress they’ve made.
Being owned by the factory that produces their products gives Moral Code opportunities and abilities that most brands don’t have. That vertical integration gives them a unique competitive advantage and allows them to experiment more liberally than they might be able to under different circumstances.
The factory is a great fit for the brand and Mark says that they see and appreciate the unsung value of being in the middle. They have had to turn down opportunities to produce lower end products because they don’t have the capabilities to do so and Mark says that’s OK with him.
eCommerce Book Top Tip
- Choosing to Lead: Being Comfortable Being Uncomfortable by Harvey Kanter
eCommerce Traffic Top Tip
- PR—Mark says they still get traffic from PR done over a year ago
Tool Top Tip
- Google Data Studio
Growth Top Tip
- “Zig where everyone else Zags”
- Be Honest, be original and distill your Why.
- Seperate yourself from the competitive pack.
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