Quickly. What do you think of when you think of a swimwear ad?
Several images probably come to mind. Maybe it’s a buxom model in the bright sunlight, crawling through sand or lounging next to the ocean. Possibly, it’s a group of beautiful ladies walking together at some beach-y locale, fruity drinks in hand as they traipse through the shallow surf. Maybe it’s hunky dudes with sun-bleached hair carrying surfboards, or a co-ed game of beach volleyball.
Fayetteville-based branding agency BLKBOXLabs realized that while this may be a reality for people in certain parts of the country, there’s a whole other culture built around the water that exists in places nowhere near California, Florida, or The Caribbean.
Instead of sand and surf, there exists a culture that is built around rope swings and swimming holes in creeks, rivers, and streams. It’s a culture more about weekends at the lake with friends and family than it is about string bikinis on Miami beach.
Just a little under a year ago, the company launched a new swimwear brand called Southern Swim that so far is resonating with folks that – while no where near the coast – are far from landlocked around the lakes and streams in middle America.
BLKBOXLabs did not set out to start a swimwear company.
Founded by former Rockfish Interactive creative director Joey Nelson in December of 2012, the company began as (and still is) a place that planned to help local companies build interesting brands.
“After (Rockfish) got bought, I wanted to get back into focusing on quality and craftsmanship of work,” Nelson said. “I felt like Northwest Arknasas needed a craftsman-type shop for branding and digital work.”
The company began working for several local, regional, and national clients, creating work for recognizable local brands like Onyx Coffee Labs, Ozark Beer Company, and others.
It wasn’t long, though, before the company decided it was time to experiment with building its own brand.
“Some of the guys on the team had come from Acumen and had a background in e-commerce,” Nelson said. “We were doing all this branding for everyone else, and we thought it’d be sweet to do our own project.”
“We started throwing around ideas, and Southern Swim was born,” Nelson said.
Content before commerce
Before the first suit was sold, and even before there was a place to purchase one, the BLKBOX team started Southern Swim with unique photo and video shoots to try and capture the culture around the water in places like the Arkansas Ozarks.
The company enlisted local photographers and modeling talent, and began showcasing swimwear in some of the region’s most picturesque locations.
The idea was to create a fan base for the brand first, and then build the business around it.
“The thing about creating the content ourselves is, if you can stand out that way, you can drastically reduce the cost of acquisition,” Nelson said. “So, I don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of media for it.”
The strategy seems to be working. The result was a huge buzz and large social media following long before the online store even launched last winter.
“We didn’t start selling anything until December,” said Tarah Hill, CEO for Southern Swim. “But the beauty of online is we’re able to sell to anyone in the United States. I think it was a lot more successful than any of us anticipated.”
Now that the Southern Swim is gearing up for their first summer as a swimwear company, they are even more encouraged by the results.
“Sales are better each month over the previous month. May, June and July are really the peak of the season, so we’re really just getting into that,” Nelson said. “We’re excited to see where it goes from here.”
Swimwear for mid-America
Hill said Southern Swim tries to differentiate itself in more ways than just the locales that serve as the backdrops for their photo shoots.
She is trying to choose swimwear tailored for the people that live in this part of the country as well.
“We are very selective about what we buy and what we sell,” Hill said. “I’m want it to be for the girl that lives in the south, who is from here, and you’re not going to see her running around in a really small bathing suit.”
Hill said that the swimsuit manufacturers that she sells for notice the difference. “I had a rep in here yesterday who has been in this business for a long time, and she was very impressed with the difference in the way we portray the suits.”
In an over-sexualized business, Hill said, its a goal with Southern Swim to take that down a notch as well.
“We try to keep it classy in as much as you can do so in the swimwear industry,” Hill said. “As a woman with experience in the fashion industry, we don’t do anything that I’m ever uncomfortable with.”
Nelson said he feels that knowing who his audience is, and tailoring the business to that audience, is key.
“We want to find looks and cuts and styles that fit our demographic, and really hone in on that,” he said. “I think that’s something that’s really set us apart.
Room to grow
BlkBoxLabs and Southern Swim operate out of a pretty unique office situation. Located in a loft-like space that overlooks a 10,000 square foot airplane hanger on Drake Field, there’s plenty of room to grow as both companies continue to “take off.”
“One of our clients called Nflight Technologies leases this hanger,” he said. “Through that relationship, he came to me one day and said, “There’s some new office space coming in, would you be interested in moving out here?”
“As a creative person – it sounded like a dream come true,” he said. “I’m like – ‘You’re going to give me a 10,000 square foot warehouse to do whatever I want? Absolutely.'”
As it turns out, the airplane hanger is a perfect place for photo shoots, and there’s plenty of room for more swimsuits as Southern Swim continues to make its mark.
“Instead of one rack of bathing suits, someday there will be hundreds,” Hill said.
Nelson echoed Hill’s optimism.
“One day it’s going to be the fulfillment center for Southern Swim,” he said. “It’ll be full, and we’ll have our own robots.”