The Blunt approach
(This article originally appeared December 13, 2013 - Editor)
The words high technology and umbrella don’t usually go together the same sentence.
On the face of things, the humble brolly seems a thankless commodity product.
But Auckland company Blunt has created a new, high-tension canopy design that’s doesn’t collapse and fall apart in high wind.
Its upmarket umbrellas go for between $79 and $159.
This year, it’s sold 100,000 for the first time - most of them offshore.
The US media has started to take notice.
“Structurally, the Blunt falls somewhere between suspension bridge and NASA space probe,” raved the Wall Street Journal.
“Its architectural integrity is as unbroken as the dome of St. Peter’s,” wrote Wired.
The Sydney Morning Herald put Blunt Umbrellas in its 2013 guide to luxury Chirstmas gifts. And publications from Gizmodo to Mens’ Health have also weighed in with glowing reviews.
Blunt cofounder Scott Kington tells NBR his company is now in the black.
And if its North American press is anything to go buy, it’s managed to make umbrellas cool.
Things began in clumsier fashion.
Auckland man Greig Brebner was in London in 1999 when he stepped out into a rainstorm. Brebner, who is 1.90m tall, suffered the familiar trial of being poked in the head by dozens of umbrellas, but this time had an epiphany – why not an umbrella with rounded edges? (Hence his invention's eventual name, Blunt.)
The great idea languished at the back of his brain until 2004, when he was back in NZ working at his father’s business – Proline Plastics in Otahuhu – and Kington walked in.
At the time, Kington was working in marine sciences. He’d turned up at Proline looking to discuss a new oyster tray design.
Brebner showed him the high-tension plastic umbrella frame he had been working on. The basic umbrella design hadn’t changed since 1928. Brebner reworked it around the concept that the higher the radial tension on the canopy, the sturdier the umbrella.
The marine scientist though Brebner they had breakthrough on his hands. The pair teamed up.
“Being a little naive we thought, let’s design this and take on the world. You never think it will be easy but we never thought it would be this hard, or take this long,” Kington says.
Looking at the rounded design concept, the duo decided to call their company Pointless Umbrellas.
“The whole of the umbrella industry moved to China in the 1990s,” Kington says.
So that’s where they ordered parts as they spent two years working on their design – Kington from his kitchen table, Brebner toiling in his garage until midnight.
The pair then went looking for a sales channel, and did manage to sell a decent volume of umbrellas.
But it’s fair to say the prototype was still some distance from perfection.
“We were pretty embarrassed at what we produced at that point, but it proved people would buy a $150 umbrella,” Kington says.
Pointless Umbrellas was ditched in favour of the shorter, sharper (so to speak) Blunt.
The young company also hooked up with a key contact - David Haythornthwaite, perhaps best known for his role as a foundation member of NZ Trade & Enterprise's Better by Design programme.
Haythornthwaite had worked with upmarket German umbrella brand Knirps to set up it Chinese manufacturing operation, and was able to provide advice on do's and don'ts as he came onboard. Suddenly, Blunt had the lay of the land.
“The thing about China is you can get the best product made or the most average product made. You need to know where to go. Haythornthwaite showed us,” Kington says.
The Blunt design began to take shape, with the signature taunt, aerodynamic canopy supplement by frills like a water-repellent coating.
Private investors came onboard in 2008.
“In 2009 I went full time, and did a big trip all through Europe visited biggest the biggest distributors; guys who stock two million umbrellas at a time and sell 10 million to 20 million a year,” Kington says.
But again, Blunt was knocked back.
“They liked design, but they didn’t want another brand. It was all about cost. They’d been competing with each other on price for so long they couldn’t see beyond that … But it was probably a good thing for us, because instead of marketing technology we decided to build a brand; that’s a much more powerful thing long term.”
Kington and Brebner decided to follow less traditional retail channels, and it worked.
Blunt umbrellas are now in more than 1200 stores in 27 countries.
When NBR spokes to Kington this week he had just returned from Europe, where he had signed on new distributors in the Ukraine, Poland and Russia.
In market after market, he says “We’re finding people will really pay for quality. We get a lot of comments at trade fairs that when you open a Blunt it feels solid like the door of a German car. People call us a very Germanic brand, which I take as a complement.
THE SHARPER IMAGE: Left-to-right - Blunt global brand manager Josh Page, managing director Scott Kington, design director Greig Brebner (click to zoom).
But despite the strides in Europe, “the truth is our largest market is the USA,” Kington says.
That’s in part because Blunt umbrellas – particularly the new golf designs – are now in REI, one of the largest sports store chains in North America.
And Blunt is close to finalising a contract with marquee retailer Nordstrom [UPDATE: the deal was successfully concluded].
Kington is hoping for more success on that front. He says Blunt is cheaper than umbrellas produced by high-fashion brands – which traditionally have been all about putting premium label's badge on product rather than offering a better design.
And Blunt has just shipped its first container of co-branded umbrellas for US golf brand Titleist.
Is the company profitable?
That’s a corner that’s just been turned, says Kington.
These days branding is handled by Josh Page – formerly a design consultant for celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Page concentrates efforts on social media, word of mouth, educating resellers and point-of-sale promotions, but ex Tiger Woods caddy Steve Williams has also been roped in as a poster boy (a small donation from every Blunt umbrella sold goes to the Steve Williams Foundation, which assists junior golf in NZ, and Starship Hospital).
Blunt is working on a new design for the Asian market with a focus on UV protection.
Kington also wants to reinvent corporate swag, with quality, custom designs for company giveaways.
“It’s got to be something people are proud to carry, they don’t want to do your advertising for you,” he says.
There’s scope to be like Swiss Army Knife maker Victorinox – frequently co-badged for corporate giveaways, but without the brand sliding into cheesiness.
Meanwhile, the accolades keep raining down. “Blunt is the Apple of umbrellas,” according to one Russian blogger (a quip that’s helpfully made its way to Amazon.com’s customer reviews).
That’s a pretty good place to be. But boy it’s been hard work. Did Kington and Brebner not think umbrellas would be a thankless, commodity game.
“Absolutely, and looking back on it you’d think we would have tried something easier,” he says.