Bonobos CEO Micky Onvural isn’t the average CEO for a men’s apparel brand.
For one, she’s not a man. But she was also formerly the company’s chief marketing officer, a route she acknowledges is atypical.
Onvural took the reins from Bonobos founder Andy Dunn in September 2018. Before that, she spearheaded Bonobos’ “Evolve the Definition” campaign, which challenged men to rethink masculinity and was met with resistance in some corners of the internet.
But she’s not backing down from her vision of creating a menswear brand where everybody “fits.” She recently sat down with Business Insider to share where she sees Bonobos heading, what kind of man she wants the brand to speak to, and what it’s like running a company under the Walmart umbrella.
Evolving the brand
Business Insider: What is Bonobos now?
Micky Onvural: I would say it’s the best of the past reinvented for the future. And what I mean by that, if you think about all the things that make Bonobos great and have got us to where we have got to, you think about a really great-fitting product, great quality, accessible price points, and amazing experience in the store or online, whether it’s delivered through the guides or whether it’s delivered through the Ninjas. That’s the basic premise of the brand, and quite honestly, a really great culture and a great spirit that I think shines on the outside. That’s the best of the past.
And I think what we have realized is, though, in the 11 years since we were founded, that a lot has changed around us. You know, there are many, many other DNVBs [digitally native vertical brands] now, we coined the phrase, but there’s many, many other DNVBs around us with very similar business models to us. There’s a lot of people, whether it’s UNTUCKit or J.Crew, who are talking about fit. So the question is, how do you not stay just keeping up, but how do you stay ahead of where everyone else is at? And so for me, that is just about our focus on how we keep extending those value propositions of fit and of style and service in new ways.
So, we’re the same, but we are recognizing that the world has changed around us and we need to stay on the front foot.
BI: So what are some of those things that you’re doing to stay on the front foot?
Onvural: We started to dip our toe in the water with extended sizes, in terms of extending the size profile of our customer. We started experimenting with new shopping models in a couple of different ways. We, last summer, did the Guideship, which was essentially an RV that we took to various university campuses.
We trialed in Boston something called try-before-you-buy, which was this idea of, you shop entirely on the e-commerce platform, but you have that exact product in the exact color and size you want shipped to the store. And you essentially have an appointment to be styled and to purchase it. And then if you purchase it, you can obviously walk away with it, which you can’t do in our current Guideshop model.
I think a lot of what we’re doing in terms of building on the service is to come in the next six to 12 months.
Evolving the definition
Onvural: I think a lot of what we’ve also been doing is, “How do we make ourselves even more culturally relevant?” There is a sea of brands out there that a consumer can shop, and there’s a sea of brands out there competing for people’s share of attention or share of mind, as I think about it. So, the question is: how do you stand out above the noise, and how do you become even more culturally relevant for your target audience?
A lot of what we have been doing and continue to do is to really make a stand on culturally relevant topics. And the one that we’ve chosen is this mission of evolving the definition of masculinity. … We believe in this idea of creating a world where we all fit and moving towards more equality, whether it’s gender equality, whether it’s equality on the basis of racial equality, whether it’s across gender identities, sexual identities, et cetera.
This idea of creating a world where we all fit and making a stance and standing for something so that consumers can navigate to us is something that we started last year with the “Evolve the Definition” [campaign] and really continued into Women’s History Month last month with this whole push around our allyship and how men can help lift women up in the fight for gender equality. So that’s the other stuff that you’ll see us continue to do. It’s really about that continued evolution of the brand and continuing to evolve and innovate onto all aspects of the experience.
BI: When you started talking about masculinity, did you expect the response that you got?
Onvural: Oh, no. In the DNA of this brand is this idea of a nontraditional notion of masculinity. It was something that we wanted to bring forward. It was such a cultural flash point moment with #MeToo and Time’s Up last year, that we were lucky, I would say, to be at the nexus of what we believed in as a brand and this cultural moment. And then it became a little bit of a cultural flash point around the video.
I certainly didn’t expect it to be quite so much of a flash point. It caught me somewhat by surprise, but as Oscar Wilde says, “There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.” So, [I’d] rather have the conversation happen and be part of the conversation than people not knowing about us and not knowing how important that conversation is to us as an organization.
BI: You look online and you’re like, “Wow, there are people that do not want to be told that they are doing things wrong or could do things better.”
Onvural: Or that there’s a different way. And I think that’s our learning, to be honest with you. As we, sort of, looked back on it and said, “What could we have done even better?” And I think what we would say is that, despite the fact that it was called “Evolve the Definition,” I think people interpreted it as “Change the Definition,” and that wasn’t the point. The point was: how do you expand the definition to be inclusive of more ways of being a man and not just about rejecting?
BI: We’ve also seen brands copy you in this. Do you think that’s validating?
Onvural: I think, yes. I mean, what I would say is that I believe that brands have a responsibility to shape cultural conversation. But they cannot always do it on their own.
The more, the better, in some ways. I think what’s interesting when you look at the landscape is that people that have started the conversation or been part of the conversation — you know, a Harry’s, a Gillette, I mean, even a Nike — I would say there’s different ways to have the conversation. And I think that, for me, what’s important is to make sure that the conversation is authentic.
Authenticity is something that brands and marketers have been talking about for the last five years, and I just think that that’s really, really important. So, for me, I’m okay with other brands having the conversation. I just want to make sure that everyone is doing it authentically and in a way that does have an impact on people.
BI: So, going forward can we expect more of this kind of thing?
Onvural: Oh yes, you can expect plenty more from us. We have committed to this mission of creating a world where we all fit. I think we’ll find different ways to do that. We’ve tapped into the definition of masculinity, we’ve tapped into male allyship and gender equality. I think one of the next things you can see us expect to take on is the intersection of masculinity and gender identity and sexual identity.
BI: So now, drilling it down to the customer. What is it that you want them to take away? What do you want them to associate with the brand?
Onvural: I want them to believe that we are a brand that stands behind a very clear social mission of creating a world where we all fit and that they can find that place in the brand. And, in finding their place in the brand, they can have the confidence to be themselves. I mean, that’s the through line to the product, at the end of the day. The through line to the product is that we know that if you put on a really great-fitting pair of pants, or suit, or shirt, you feel incredibly confident. We often talk about how fit is a feeling. It’s this idea of, when you put on great-fitting clothes and you look good, you feel like you can take on the world and that you can truly express yourself.
So, great-fitting pants means self-confidence, means self-expression whoever you are, and we need, at the same time as getting the individuals in that position of confidence, to create a culture where people can truly express that in an open and inclusive way. That’s probably what to take away — that this is a brand that is helping shape a world where we all fit and gives me the confidence to be myself within that, whoever I am.
Extending the brand
BI: When we look at the product, we’ve already seen some examples of ways that thinking has shaped it, with the extended sizes. Will we see more of that?
Onvural: Yes. I’m excited about that because I think that’s very, very ownable. What we did with extended sizes that I think was really powerful is we didn’t just size up. Most other extended-size brands are thinking about coverage, so how you cover the body. What we thought about was really fit. And there’s a really good quote from Zach Miko, who is our extended-size model, where he said, “Just because I have a larger stomach doesn’t mean I have larger wrists.”
We were incredibly thoughtful around the details of the shape of the sleeve, the size of the cuff, the curve of the waist band, the cut of the seat of the pant, so that it was actually really creating great fit.
There are many dimensions, and I think most other brands are taking a one-size-fits-all approach to that. What you will see from us over the next few months is how we really are being increasingly thoughtful, off of those origins where we launched into this category — increasingly thoughtful about the fact that men’s bodies change in different ways.
BI: What has the response been from customers?
Onvural: Really positive. I mean, it’s still new to us, and so a lot of the customers still think that they have to go to a DXL or somewhere like that. But what we have found is when customers have discovered us, they’ve loved it. And they are coming back and shopping more and more. So, we’re excited about the progress we’ve made. We just need to continue to tell the story that this is a place where everyone can come, including the extended-size customer.
BI: That’s something that you hear more women’s brands talk about, where it’s more of an inclusive atmosphere.
Onvural: It’s interesting, isn’t it? So, as with many things in this world, I feel like women’s brands have taken a stance on something earlier.
I think that, again, on a less functional level, women’s brands have talked about empowerment and inclusivity and diversity much sooner than men’s brands have. And I think it’s about time that men’s brands caught up. That’s where we really started to lead the charge.
BI: Why do you think that is?
Onvural: I think it is all related back to the fact that men feel, very often, that they have to put on a tough exterior and they have to live up to a certain expectation of what it means to be a man. That means not admitting that you have a body insecurity of a certain type. That means not saying that I’m gonna live my life this way when everybody else is living their life that way. There’s been a social taboo, almost, around men talking about even physical appearance. And I think that is a new trend, that men are increasingly comfortable talking about the age-old story of, you know, a woman saying, “Does my bum look big in this?”
That is a conversation that men are feeling increasingly comfortable to have. And having conversations about their appearance.
A physical future
BI: You’ve been around for 11 years and you’ve seen this change. What trends do you think have changed in 11 years, and what do you think that you will still be riding into the future?
Onvural: Ooh, gosh, you want me to get my crystal ball out?
BI: Well, you know. It’s looking backwards and forwards.
Onvural: I generally believe that true consumer insights don’t change that much across time and geography. There’s a few consumer insights that we hold to be true here. This idea of fit is a feeling, which it’s not just about the functional fit, it’s about how you feel if you’re in great-fitting clothes and this confidence that you feel. We say that men are creatures of habit, and that to break somebody out of that pattern of where they shop, or how they shop, or what they wear often, takes some sort of external change: a new job, a new partner, weight change, et cetera, those sorts of things.
In terms of what’s changing and what’s the next wave, I think that it’s gonna be all about experience and how consumers experience brands, men and women. And how do they engage with brands, and engaging deeper and building fewer deep relationships with brands. That’s where my head is at: how do we engage with customers in a really deep and meaningful way over time as well?
This is about what we stand for and people feeling like they are part of a community when they are a part of Bonobos, so that they feel part of that and part of the brand.
BI: That sounds like physical spaces to me.
Onvural: Yeah, I think it will be. We have 62 stores right now. One of the things that we’re thinking through, and we will add more stores this year, is: how do we program those spaces? We’ve done some events at 5th Avenue, at our flagship there. We’ve done some events across the country, book readings with Michael Kaufman, who is the author of “The Time Has Come,” as part of Women’s History Month. We’re thinking more about how you can program space, create community.
We think a lot about our guides, who are the people who work in our store, and how they build local community and how they build relationships with customers. That has been one of the powers of the brand in the past and that will continue to be true.
And it’s very interesting, going to customers and consumers who have grown up with social media on their phone, one of the things that’s really interesting is they’re the segment or generation that craves human connections the most.
So I do think that that personalization and the intersection of humanization and community and how you build, essentially, a community of brand advocates is a really interesting next wave.
A CMO in a CEO world
BI: You being named CEO, what message does that send? You were the marketing, you were the brains behind “Evolve the Definition” — what do you think that means going forward for the brand?
Onvural: I would say there’s been a shift in the industry, which is the consumer is king and queen. You really need to be laser-focused on who your customer is.
I think when you think about the rise of the consumer and the rise of brands, and you think about who is leading a business, it needs to be someone who deeply understands the consumer and deeply understands the brand’s story and what it stands for. I think what it says for Bonobos is actually just intimately connected with that.
That’s our future: how do we continue to innovate for the customer and against this brand going forward.
It is not a traditional path to go from CMO to CEO, grant you, but I don’t think it will be the last time you see it.
BI: How does that work with the other brands in Walmart’s umbrella? Do you think they think of it as the same way, just as a portfolio of brands?
Onvural: [Bonobos founder and former CEO] Andy [Dunn] is my boss. Andy looks after the portfolio of brands, and what’s really interesting is he has Allswell in his purview, he has Eloquii, and he has ModCloth. And us, obviously. What’s really interesting is, actually the brand president of Allswell comes from a marketing background, too.
I do think when you talk to Andy, what’s really interesting is the way he talks. I mean, he obviously founded Bonobos out of business school. But he will say to me, “If there was any role I thought I could do, I always thought I could do the marketing job.” Because I think he is wired for the consumer, he is wired for the brand, and he’s wired for storytelling. So I think when he looks at those other brands in his portfolio, he’s also looking at them through that lens.
Life as part of Walmart
BI: How else do you think you fit into the Walmart portfolio?
Onvural: From a strategic perspective, really they want to learn how to build brands. They are recognizing the power of brand, and by having more and more brands in their portfolio, it’s a reason for a customer to come shop with them, whether that’s in-store or online.
And so, Bonobos, what does it bring to the party? It brings, with Andy in particular, an ability to build direct-to-consumer brands. And that is the role of the portfolio that Andy is building, like Allswell, or buying these direct-to-consumer brands that offer unique selection for the Walmart ecosystem. So that’s how we fit in from a 30,000-foot, strategic level.
In terms of the day-to-day of operating this business, really how it works is they support us behind the scenes. Credit-card fees, shipping fees, distribution, those kinds of things. But really from a building-a-brand and a customer-experience perspective, we run it as a stand-alone business. Because of the importance of preserving that brand, because they recognize the importance of brand.
BI: Right. Well, you are in the same office, right?
Onvural: Yes, we’ve always been here. We are still in the same spot as we’ve always been in.
Look, we’re not that fancy, are we?
[Points to a hole visible in the wall behind her.]
A hole in the wall, it’s a hole in the wall. You know, listen, we are still, at our hearts, scrappy, entrepreneurial, and true to ourselves. You know? It’s part of the magic.
BI: Do you think Walmart has gotten better with integrating — or not integrating, in this case — its portfolio brands?
Onvural: I obviously am not as intimately connected with how other brands have integrated or not, but I definitely think that, as they have acquired more, it’s gotten smoother. I think what’s also really interesting is that I’ve been at other businesses where we’ve been acquired, and this has been a really great integration process, in the sense that it has respected what makes this brand and this business special, culturally and from a brand and from a customer perspective, but leveraged support where it makes sense. And that’s not always been my experience with integrations.
BI: It sounds like the best of both worlds.
Onvural: It really is, I think, incredibly lucky that we get to build this great brand and this great team and business, and yet, where we can, we can plug in and get the help of the mothership.
A focus on innovation
BI: So, you touched on innovations, but I want to know more.
Onvural: I would say the things I think about when I think about innovation is: do you have a very clear north star and promise that you want people to innovate against in the company? Because the problem is, if you just say, “Go innovate,” you either get an idea that is useless and isn’t congruent with the brand, or you don’t get anything because people don’t have a launch pad against which to think.
And so, my number one thing of innovation is have a very clear sense of purpose that’s inspiring and motivating that people can ideate against. I think the second thing that I always think about is if you want ideas, you have to execute some. Nobody’s going to come to you with a really great idea if they don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.
And so you actually have to have executed some ideas that have come from the team and from the people, and it then becomes a virtuous cycle where people bring more ideas and they’re more encouraged and excited to share ideas because they know it’ll happen and that they can have impact on the business, et cetera. I think that you have to walk the walk.
Women’s History Month and the women’s capsule product that we launched there came from exactly that. We had done Women’s History Month a couple of years in a row, and last year, one of our designers on our team said, “I’d really like to do a women’s capsule collection for Women’s History Month.” And she flushed out the whole thing, and we said, “Okay, go for it.”
And when she was standing up presenting it to the team here, she was like, “This is really great proof of, if you have a good idea, you can make it happen.” So, that’s the second thing I think about.
And then I think about, like, space. How do you create space for new ideas? If you’re all running at a hundred million miles an hour, you don’t actually have any space to think or create.
BI: Will we see more women’s clothing?
Onvural: Not right now. We’ve got so many things that we need to still do in the menswear space and so much opportunity still ahead of us that we’re focused on that.
BI: Do you think it stretches the brand a little too far?
Onvural: People definitely think of it as a men’s brand, which is part of its magic. And then there’s the biggest irony of all that it’s a menswear brand for men, about being a man, run by a woman.
‘The biggest irony of all’
BI: What do you think about that?
Onvural: It’s sort of interesting to me. At the end of the day, many, many moons ago I worked in marketing for Kellogg’s, the cereal brand.
And I wasn’t a seven-year-old boy who was eating Frosted Flakes and going, “They’re Grrreat!” I wasn’t that, either.
I think that I was able to be successful in that role because I was able to be one step removed and look at their needs and their wants in an objective way. I think similarly, because this is not about me. This is not about me because I am not the audience. It allows me to think more objectively around customers’ needs and different segments of customers’ needs and how we build for that, as opposed to building for me.
I think there can be a danger when you think it’s just about you. And for me, it’s about our audience. And I’m able to be that. I’m able to be an observer of that audience and an investigator of that audience and lead with that.
I went to teach a group of Oxford MBA students, just a class, and it was funny — it’s a marketing class — and they were all totally fascinated by this idea of the CMO becoming the CEO.
It’s sort of fascinating, I mean, if you’d asked me two years ago I wouldn’t have said that this is what I would have been doing. I’m very happy. I love it.
BI: What did you think you would’ve been doing?
Onvural: I thought I’d still be the CMO. Which I love. Now we need to find another one.
BI: You can’t be both?
Onvural: No, turns out it’s not great.
BI: How did it happen? Did you pitch it, or did they come to you?
Onvural: No, I didn’t pitch it. We were sort of 18 months post the acquisition, and had been seeing the steady growth, but we really wanted to start to think about what’s next, and how do we continue to disrupt, not just the industry, but ourselves? And, Andy when he was thinking that through, was like, “Okay, I’m looking after this whole portfolio of brands. We really need a single leader to be thinking about those things and to be pushing that agenda forward.” And, you know, I have a reputation for being disruptive. I’ve created the most hated Bonobos ad of all time. No, I’m teasing.
So, I think it was about how do we continue to disrupt ourselves, but not just for the sake of it, but disrupt ourselves in a way that’s consistent with the brand and where the brand is going. And consistent with the audience that we have and we want to acquire. And I think that’s when it probably became clear that I was in a position to be able to do that.