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The Path to a Lifestyle Brand: Sarah Van Aken, President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios

In this week’s episode, we host Sarah Van Aken, President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios. She shares her experience across industries such as fashion, real estate, and most recently at Kathy Davis Studios, to explain how companies move beyond the product to become a lifestyle brand. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!

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Sarah Van Aken: A brand is not one product, a brand is not one person. It’s every single touch point. It’s how it’s communicated, it’s the story around it, it’s the value behind it and it’s the customers’ reaction to it that all create it. It’s not one thing, it’s a giant puzzle.

Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premiere boutique branding agency. Thank you for joining us for today’s interview with Sarah Van Aken, the President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios which as you will hear is a leading greeting card designer in the American Greetings family, 125,000 cards a day. Probably one of the brands that many of us have, perhaps without knowing much about them, interacted with and found value in over time.

Sarah’s story of her own career, which includes time in hospitality, real estate, and her own passion for the fashion business, is a fascinating tale with a lot of interesting lessons. Where she is now at Kathy Davis, the transition that they’re seeking to make into a fully expressed lifestyle brand is an interesting one and a journey many brands take. Her perspectives and insights are fascinating when we think about a path like that. Enjoy.

We are here with Sarah Van Aken, the President and COO of Kathy Davis Studios, an award-winning social entrepreneur, designer, speaker, what a career Sarah’s had. Thank you for being with us.

Sarah: Hey, thanks for having me.

Bill: It’s our pleasure and speaking of that career why don’t we start, if you wouldn’t mind taking us a bit through what has been an amazing journey for you in different industries and different experiences. Where did this start and how is this story unfolding?

Sarah: Gosh, where did it start? I had a Degree in Fine Art which really started with an approach to a Degree in Veterinary Medicine.

Bill: That’s close, I can see.

Sarah: It obviously makes a lot of sense. I begged for my first job in New York City working at an apparel company to make $26,000 a year. It was awesome. No, it was a great experience though, but I literally did have to beg to work there. They were hiring folks mostly that had done internship programs through partnerships that they had with universities. I had, other than knowing how to sew, no fashion experience, but got a job doing production and sourcing for a denim bottoms company called World Wide Apparel. Me and my boss sourced about $10 million of denim bottoms every season in about 10 or 15 countries around the world; Bangladesh, India …

Bill: Shorts?

Sarah: … Nepal. Denim jeans with embroidery and iridescent denim.

Bill: Excellent, nice.

Sarah: It was the late ‘90s and early 2000. It was great.

Bill: Put a flannel shirt on that, it’ll look perfect, yeah.

Sarah: When toggles first came onto cargo pants and Target and Walmart started doing all of their garment testing requirements and then the end of quotas and it was a very interesting experience for sure.

Bill: I could imagine.

Sarah: From there I decided that I really wanted to be an artist. I moved back to Philadelphia. I was working briefly for Galbraith & Paul Printing and briefly for Urban Outfitters and the art career was short-lived. I realized I had to get a job, I had bills to pay, so I started as an assistant manager at the Marathon Grills here in Philadelphia. I think at the time they had five restaurants.

A month later or two months later I was their general manager and a couple of months after that I was managing a couple of stores and a couple of months after that I was doing their corporate buying. All of a sudden at, I don’t know, I was 26, I had a couple of hundred employees and was their director of operations and working a bazillion hours a week making not enough money for working a couple of hundred hours a week.

Bill: Tough business, hospitality’s always on.

Sarah: Yeah, it was a really tough business front of the house and back of the house. An incredible experience of what I didn’t want to do or who I didn’t want to be in life.

I helped them open restaurants and got a lot of experience under my belt and then went now what? What do I do when I have a fashion background and a restaurant background? Naturally I started working for a real estate firm and really was just doing part-time admin and bartending. I had a life changing event, my best friend died suddenly. It made me realize life was too short to mess around and the real estate developer I was working for knew I wasn’t going to stay there and do admin work for him, so he’s like what do you want to do? I said I want to open a fashion business. He looked at me like I was nuts and said how about you get your real estate license. I said, okay, that can support me.

I started selling houses to first-time homebuyers doing a little bit of commercials, I started a residential brokerage division for him. He was doing mostly managing his own properties and doing a little bit of commercial brokerage, but I started doing brokerage for him, hired another agent. It was easy to sell houses then and everyone could get loans. Everyone my age was buying houses and I just became really good at understanding how to walk first-time homebuyers through a stressful process.

I did that as I developed my business plan for my fashion business. When I was ready to launch he became my first investor. He gave me the seed money that I needed to get my first brand Van Aken Custom Shirts off the ground and let me use our real estate office for both businesses as long as I would keep selling real estate.

That was in 2005 or ’06. I had some pretty quick success with that brand with national publications and because Philadelphia is a real small town it’s pretty easy to get clients, you just hang out or if you’re bartending or out with friends.

Bill: ‘Hey, I make shirts, too.’

Sarah: Yeah, ‘I make shirts too,’ and always knew I wanted to use that as the foundation to grow a bigger brand, but the premise was really that I wanted to have a U.S. made bespoke mens shirt for the same price as a Ralph Lauren ready to wear shirt. Inspired by my former New York investment banker boyfriend who was buying these crappy custom shirts made in Hong Kong. I was like we can do better than that.

It worked. It was great, it was a great little business and then I was at a cocktail party in the beginning of 2006, I think when Amada opened and met Alfred Portale from Gotham Bar and Grill in New York who asked me to design uniforms for his restaurant which I immediately said yes to. I think it was a $50,000 order which was for me at the time was oh, my gosh. I was making them, it was really tough at the time when they were still manufacturing in the U.S. to get anything made in small run production.

I had a guy that used to work for me in the accounting office at Marathon Grill who was the brother-in-law of a guy that I used to produce denim with at the denim company who owned a denim factory in Bangladesh. He offered to go back and get my samples made and open a garment factory. I gave him a little bit of money and gave him instructions and sent him on his way and ended up opening a garment factory in Bangladesh. Our first order was the uniform order for Gotham Bar and Grill. I shipped in fabric from Italy. I didn’t even have a bond license. It was a disaster, but it turned out that they were really great.

Then a restaurant in Boca Raton sold uniforms and asked me to make them and Aureole in New York and so on and so forth. Then had a custom uniform business called Van Aken Signature. Eventually after many trials and errors finally opened SA VA, a women’s ready to wear brand, all sustainable, locally made in Philly in 2009. I worked for the City of Philadelphia and PIDC to finance opening a garment factory and a retail store here in the city, so we sold women’s ready to wear lifestyle products, all responsibly made here and in about 100 other stores around the country.

Did that until the end of 2013 when it was time to raise money again for the third time. Had some really challenging investor issues and a lead investor who backed out at the last minute and cleared my equity table. I had the option to either go raise more money or go do something else. I chose to go do something else because what I was going to be really left with was not worth what I wanted to do. It was an incredible experience. I don’t think that there’s anything like it. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. It was absolutely amazing, but I’m glad I don’t do it anymore.

I left there knowing that I had pushed a freight train up a hill for five years. I was ready to go to the train station with my bags packed and get on the right train moving in the right direction. I was hoping that would be at least six months to a year away. It turned out to be two months when I got a call from someone who said you need to meet Kathy Davis. She’s got this really great business. Her core business is greeting cards and they want to grow into a lifestyle brand and they’re looking for a brand director.

It was really just an immediate fit in terms of me understanding her aesthetic. I really understood where the business was that they had. It was well-capitalized, they had a great strong business, but didn’t have a brand. It was a licensed business model. They had a lot of fractioned licensing partners and just really understood that I could be added value there. I’ve been there for about two years. I’m now the President and COO and that’s maybe the long version that you’ll probably edit out.

Bill: No, no, we would never. What a story of triumph and tragedy and serendipity and hard work.

Sarah: There’s a lot more in there. I tried to keep it as condensed as possible.

Bill: I appreciate you keeping it clean as well. We’ll get into Kathy Davis and the greeting card business and more in a minute. Someone who had a really strong interest in fashion and then got from a variety of perspectives to work in that business, own equity and brands in that business, what are lessons from that world if any that you’ve taken with you to every stop from here on out? What are some of the things that arrive from that?

Sarah: There’s a million lessons both successes and failures. I think the biggest one is that failure’s really just a change of plans. You’ve just got to get over it. If you’re not failing enough you’re not doing enough. I really created something out of nothing in that business, but the fundamentals of the apparel industry have changed tremendously.

No matter what industry you go to and I learned this from our former chairman who used to be the CEO of my company that there’s your core products, your bread and butter, there’s your core plus and your fashion. And that really applies to almost everything. Really understanding why you do what you do is the key to any successful business and making all of your business decisions from that place versus chasing opportunities versus trying to be all things to all people.

You really need authenticity from why you do what you do in every aspect of your business whether it’s how you make decisions about how to pay people or how to treat your customers or what to design or to make or what partnerships to have. It all resonates from why you do what you do.

Bill: Right, and to your point about having a sense of your core in terms of both values as an organization, but also an aesthetic or different lines. You obviously see people in the cross categories of businesses who may be chasing trends, who may hit it once or twice. If you don’t or even if you do, what is there to fall back on that sustains you?

What a story, so here we are with Kathy Davis, you mentioned immediately getting it. It was the right time in your career, it was a really strong connection. The Kathy Davis brand, tell us a little bit about that and you mentioned greeting cards and social expression. What makes her or anyone great at that? I think a lot of us who have been consumers and we’ve seen in different movies or TV shows that being a greeting card writer or whatever. What’s the scoop from the real world on that industry and that brand?

Sarah: If you asked me even five years ago if I was going to be working for a greeting card business I’d be like what? I’m not nice enough for that. Kathy has an amazing story. She started the business 26 years ago from the corner of her bedroom. She was really a newly divorced mom of two and everyone was like you should go back to teaching art. She wanted to follow her dream of becoming an artist and creating a life she could love and as we say that was over 400 million greeting cards ago.

Bill: Wow.

Sarah: The company sells over 125,000 greeting cards a day. It’s all licensed business, so our lead licensee is American Greetings, so we’re in over 60,000 doors. We’re both in their assortment everywhere from Rite Aid and CVS, to Target and Walmart, but we also have it branded for 4-foot section in about 10,000 doors around the country.

It’s really pretty amazing and I think in part because American Greetings is such an incredible partner that we know so much about how we do what we do, but also what made Kathy really unique is her expressive hand painted art. Primarily watercolor in combination with inspirational messaging. A lot of greeting card designers or brands are good at one or the other. It’s also all of our messages are hand lettered, so they really have this handmade feel and our customers tell us that it’s the words that they wanted to say, but didn’t know how to say themselves. The underpinning infrastructure of that, is this giant thing that is American Greetings that has incredible distribution and understanding of their point of sale results that is incredibly valuable to us in getting feedback on exactly how to hone in on what we’re best at.

Bill: Right, and in our limited exposure to the brand and putting it in front of consumers and what not and as you say the volume of greeting cards that have been sold, the size of this business versus what we’re doing, we’ll get it into a minute, where the brand goes from here is interesting. The artistry that is represented by Kathy’s own experience, but the sentiment, it seems, again testing this with consumers, putting it in front of them the degree to which these connected on various levels was so fascinating. When you all sit and think day in and day out about what are we going to do this season or whatever it is, how just in simple terms does something like this get made?

Sarah: It’s a combination of Kathy creates a vision of what we are fundamentally known for. Most of what we do is nature inspired. We certainly take trend into consideration. We seasonally build out collections of art that both serve for our greeting card business and editorial that serve our greeting card business as well as our other products. That’s the secret sauce in terms of us being who we are, but keeping it fresh every season and filling needs. Certainly greeting cards have specific needs in terms of icons like birthday cakes and cupcakes. Things like that, and hearts for Valentine’s Day that make it a little more specific.

It also is a great challenge to be you and reinvent yourself seasonally and keeping it fresh without being somebody else. We’ve gone through a whole lot of changes really to get out in front of it even within our greeting card business, so that we’re really driving it from a place of authentic creation and delivering things to American Greetings in advance of when they need them and trying to keep it as consistent but fresh and innovative as possible.

Bill: It really is the blend of inspiration and process given the volumes that we’re talking about here.

Sarah: Always, yes.

Bill: Amazing, so the brand has begun to extend its aesthetic and its values into different categories. Really in some ways the brand seems to be on the way to becoming this fully articulated lifestyle brand that’s based on a core philosophy. It’s based on an aesthetic, it’s based on a story. What can we expect moving forward as you chart the path forward for the Kathy Davis brand? What are some of the main things that are, without giving away secrets, but things that are on your mind and that the market ought to look for?

Sarah: I think the key for us is that Kathy started this business because she wanted to create a life that she could love and our mission is to inspire other people to do that. The way that we feel we do that both in our core business and can do that otherwise is by creating tools that help people create a life they love that are really authentic ways that add value to people’s lives, that help them celebrate life and share joy and nurture relationships and find value in their life. That can look like a lot of different things as long as those things are really helpful to people in their lives.

Bill: Sure, sure. Compared to other brands that have licensed heavily across categories, some that come from the fashion realm, your Tommy’s and your Ralph’s and others, some that have come from your Martha’s and your Kathy Ireland’s and your Kate Spade’s. They seem to have a signature look in a lot of ways that they then deliver across adjacent and then non-adjacent categories. Where this brand seems in many ways to be built upon a philosophy rather than, of course, there’s an aesthetic, but it’s such a rich way of looking at life. How does one manage the translation of some of these beliefs into product development and other downstream processes?

Sarah: That’s a very good question.

Bill: Thank you, that’s why we’re here.

Sarah: That’s why we’re here. We know what that formula is in greeting cards because we’ve done it for so long. We understand that it’s this combination of this expressive art, this inspirational message that fosters connection between people, that’s all hand lettered and it comes in the vehicle of a greeting card. For us it’s really about applying those same things that we know to other vehicles in a way that’s really authentic. It’s not cookie-cutter. I think what some of the brands that you mentioned have, as you would say, even earned the right to be able to slap their art on whatever product.

Inevitably regardless of how financially successful they are somewhere down the line the value of what the core brand is gets a little lost or diffused or detached when it gets spread out so much whereas we’re really trying to keep it tight and keep the sentiment there. We think that one of our key advantages is this ability to foster connection and provide value and ensuring that we’re really doing that at every level versus just getting out there and putting our art and message on whatever product is available.

Bill: We’ve seen some of the early results of this process such as the holiday bedding line that we were looking at that really creatively uses sentiment. To your point you can’t just all of a sudden put a greeting card on a pillow. It doesn’t quite work. You can’t all of a sudden just write all over everything even though sentiment is an important part of what Kathy is.

Sarah: Which is everywhere on Pinterest.

Bill: Yeah, right, exactly.

Sarah: I think that’s the key. Also, a brand is not one product, a brand is not one person. It’s every single touch point. It’s how it’s communicated, it’s the story around it, it’s the value behind it and it’s the customers’ reaction to it that all create it. It’s not one thing, it’s a giant puzzle.

Bill: Compared to some of these other brands that we mentioned who may have greater built in awareness from starting in fashion or having 30, 40 years of history or whatever. Kathy Davis, the volume speaks for itself. Millions of people have probably bought the brand without knowing it or without it necessarily logging in the way that an automotive brand or a fashion brand might. I would imagine part of it is the awakening of folks to maybe things that they’ve bought for years without knowing, but the reasons why people fall in love with Kathy Davis.

Sarah: Sure, we touch 90 million consumers every year if you think about the cards bought and then given to someone. Always when you say oh, this is what it is. They’re like oh, of course, I’ve gotten millions of these cards or they look in their card box, they’re like look at all these Kathy Davis cards I have.

Bill: No, it’s fascinating.

Sarah: It’s pretty crazy.

Bill: With regard to creating a life you love and the pillars that underlie that philosophy, as you look at different categories and evaluate different partners is there a level of accountability that everyone has to have to the idea, to know that the right decisions are being made when it comes to categories or when it comes to people to work with?

Sarah: I think 100%. Licensing in general is a really challenging model because you can’t just, when you have X amount of money to invest in new business development you can’t just rely on a manufacturer to do the job of building your brand for you. Anybody who touches a brand has to really understand and have an authentic connection to what it means. If they don’t it’s never going to work because they’ll never be able to sell it.

It’s also why I wind up traveling all over the place to sell it because I really believe in it and I know how to talk about it. When I do people respond or when we do ambassador campaigns and talk about creating a life you love there’s not one person who doesn’t say I want to create a life I love. It resonates across a wide group of consumers or almost everyone in humanity really.

Bill: Right, right. We talk about these other brands that in some ways are using licensing to spend brand equity that they’ve created elsewhere as opposed to Kathy Davis who’s using licensing it sounds like to build a fuller picture of how this philosophy gets expressed across the lifestyle which really is, ultimately, in some ways about building rather than spending great equity. It’s a fascinating trajectory.

Sarah: A tricky proposition.

Bill: Yeah, no question, and a lot for our listeners to look out for when it comes to a brand that is on the rise, a brand that has a really unique sense of self and story to tell. We got into it a little bit, but let’s close here. You’ve been so generous with your time and your insight. When you think about the road you’ve taken, choices you’ve made, choices you probably have chosen not to make, any words of wisdom for those who’ve been inspired by the SVA career path? I think we have a certain core of our listener base that may be starting out or starting over in their own careers and thinking about themselves and where they go. What would you tell someone like that?

Sarah: I’m a diehard entrepreneur even though I’m currently in-house. They hired me because I’m growing the business. It’s the path less chosen. There is no roadmap. You have to be confident. Even when you’re not confident you have to be confident.

Bill: Power poses! Right.

Sarah: You really have to trust your gut and your intuition to guide you and you have to be passionate about what you do, or at least I do. I cannot do something that I don’t fully believe in. It just does not work for me.

I also believe anything’s possible. I started a fashion business even though every single person said to me you can’t start a fashion business. You don’t know anything about fashion. I don’t care, this is what I’m doing. I believe anything is possible as long as you’re passionate about it and you’re willing to work for it.

Bill: To the point of passion is we’ve gotten to know you, we’ve gotten to know not only the passion you bring to work every day and a lot of cases every night, but your interest in yoga and how far you’ve gone with that. Perhaps somewhat challenging, but hopefully ultimately a rewarding process of restoring a house, a lot of the things that …

Sarah: All at once.

Bill: … all at once that are a part of your life seem to have as a common denominator, a level of passion. Is that how you think about the things that matter to you in life?

Sarah: Yeah, I think so. I don’t think that anything that’s worth doing you do half-assed, pardon my French.

Bill: That’s appalling on the Real-World Branding, unbelievable.

Sarah: I know, I’m not allowed to say that.

Bill: It’s such a high brow show.

Sarah: I’m definitely nothing if not authentic and transparent about things that I go through or do and I live full out all the time, painful moments, happy moments, whatever they are. It keeps it interesting that way for sure.

Bill: No doubt and that’s a great way to underline, bold and italicize and also to finish, so thank you so much for your time and your insight. This is a brand worth watching, certainly a business leader worth watching with so much in her history and so much still to come. Thanks for being with us.

Sarah: Thanks for having me.

Bill: Many, many thanks to Sarah for her insight and her interesting perspectives on, not only her own career journey, but what lies ahead at Kathy Davis Studios. Three ways as always to support us at Real-World Branding. One is to give us a rating in the app store of your choice if you believe we’ve earned it, hopefully, a positive rating. We very much appreciate the dialogue that we’ve had with our listeners on Twitter and on Facebook and beyond. The best way probably is Twitter @BillGullan or @FinchBrands. I’m certainly interested in feedback with thick skin, certainly interested in ideas for future guests and future topics.

Then lastly, to make sure you do not miss an episode and we do this weekly. Make sure you subscribe in the app store of your choice, so that each time, normally Wednesday or Thursday, depending on schedule something will flow in, something new from us. That’s it from here, home of the first place Phillies until last night’s games, but close to first place, very surprising. Philadelphia Phillies, signing off from the Cradle of Liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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