HERO Backpacks started as a college assignment to write a business plan for a social enterprise class. Fueled by the task to create a business plan that solved a personal problem, HERO Backpacks founder Alissa Lentz remembered the challenges she faced when she moved to the United States from Russia as a small child. She didn't speak any English and was too young to understand exactly why she felt different, but she knew there was a problem.
With a glance at her past, the motto for HERO Backpacks was born, "Being different should never be a problem."
While Lentz didn't launch HERO Backpacks immediately after college, she never forgot about her business plan and mission. She continually observed people to see what backpacks they used and asked about features people look for in their backpacks.
During her studies at Chapman University, Lentz majored in business marketing and earned a second degree in public relations and advertising. Over the summer of her sophomore year, she began an internship in New York City and was exposed to both fashion and entrepreneurship. Through meeting people who were developing and designing retail products, Lentz became inspired and added entrepreneurship as an emphasis to her studies, including a social enterprise course.
Lentz's call-to-action to start HERO Backpacks was in 2016.
“I saw so much divisive rhetoric on the rise — it caused me to revisit the business plan I wrote in college. Now, more than ever, I feel compelled to share the message that 'what makes you different makes you super.' I want to make anyone who might feel out of place feel like a hero instead.”
HERO Backpacks launched with a Kickstarter campaign in 2016 and is now a fully operating retail business that has found success both online and offline through pop-up shops and events.
We asked Lentz how she builds brand awareness and engages her community, as well as the surprises and challenges she has faced as a retail entrepreneur.
4 Ways HERO Backpacks Builds Brand Awareness
1. Via Word of Mouth
While social media, blogging, editorial content, influencers, cold calling, and email marketing have all been beneficial in building the HERO Backpack brand, word of mouth has been a crucial element and the most successful marketing tactic for Lentz.
"Building a great product, staying true to the story, and communicating the story authentically in all forms is my way to take care of customers," says Lentz
The handwritten notes that Lentz includes in shipments are a bonus and add a personal touch that enhances the unboxing experience.
2. One-on-One Customer Relationships
One-on-one customer relationship management is how Lentz engages with her community.
"I always meet the HERO community where they are."
Instagram is the primary platform for communication with the HERO audience.
"I’ve found Gen-Z to communicate via Instagram direct message, and their parents (Gen-X) to use Facebook messenger. I often receive requests for additional information about the products or the brand."
According to Lentz, "Gen-Z tends to ask for more details about the brand and the causes we support, while parents tend to ask more questions about the product features."
Lentz uses social media channels as an opportunity to engage directly with her audience rather than through an email blast where customers don't necessarily feel invited to interact.
3. Strategic Pop-Up Shops
Lentz has found success in building brand awareness and generating sales with niche pop-up events that capture an engaged audience and offer a unique experience or activity in addition to shopping.
"It helps if there are activities beyond just a shopping event. For example, a fitness-oriented event where participants are there to enjoy a yoga class or other fitness activities, plus shopping a curated selection of fitness-related brands."
Lentz spreads the word about upcoming shopping events with targeted emails and social media posts.
4. Partnerships with Other Brands
Partnering with other brands that identify with your mission is a great way to spread the word about your business to their community. Conversely, you'll bring value to your audience by telling them about another brand they might love. One way to do this is through collaborative giveaway campaigns.
Running a giveaway is an inexpensive promotion tactic that can help retailers boost traffic and increase engagement. Collaborating with brands that align well with your brand and mission can result in new customer acquisitions and increased engagement with existing customers. When done right, you can build brand awareness and grow your business simultaneously.
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Executing giveaways with other brands has been beneficial and helped grow the HERO Backpack brand.
"In partnering with other brands, I look for values that align with HERO’s. For example, this summer, HERO partnered with five female-founded, mission-driven brands. Our brand values are aligned, and our audiences are similar, so this set us up for success," said Lentz
Cross-promotion of a giveaway campaign is a surefire way to get your brand in front of more eyes. That's why it's so important to partner with brands that sell to the same or a similar market. Their customers may become yours and vice versa.
"Another important aspect in creating a successful giveaway is coordinating the content and posting times across the brands and channels. EACH, an ethical jewelry line, led this initiative and created engaging content for the brands involved to share via email and social media, allowing the brands involved to reach new audiences across multiple platforms."
FURTHER READING: Learn more about how to create a contest that converts.
HERO Backpacks' Customers (and Bestseller) Came As A Surprise
Your customer is not always whom you aimed for — and being open to this idea is essential as a business owner. HERO Backpacks are equally coveted by adults and children, which surprised Lentz. HERO's client base runs the gamut, from Gen-Z and their Gen-X parents to Millenials.
The way customers use a retailer’s product can also be a surprise. HERO's small backpacks get designed for children ages three to six, but adults put their spin on the product and wear HERO's small backpacks as a fashion statement rather than a utility piece.
"I was surprised when I saw my product being used in ways that I didn't think of when designing and developing. Ways that I didn't conceptualize," said Lentz
Another element that surprised Lentz was that her custom-designed prints outsell day in and day out. Initially, she was encouraged to launch with baseline colors; black, grey, navy, and more neutrals. However, HERO's Ocean Geoand Flamingo Geo backpacks currently tie as bestsellers.
How HERO Backpacks Gives Back
Lentz was four years old when she started kindergarten in Berkeley, Calif. Before beginning school, she had no interaction with the outside world. She lived with her parents and her grandmother who took care of her during the day and had no reference of language until she went to school.
While Lentz picked up English relatively quickly by watching TV, she wasn't comfortable speaking at school. She felt like an outsider for a long time but didn't understand why.
Her insecurities prevented her from speaking up, until one day when her friend drew a superhero character inside her backpack that helped her find the courage to make her voice heard. This act of kindness inspired Lentz to include an empowering message that gets thoughtfully placed inside each HERO Backpack.
During her social enterprise studies at Chapman University, Lentz connected with classmates. It didn't matter who people were or where they came from — she realized that everyone had insecurities to face and get over at some point in life. With this, the idea for HERO Backpacks was born.
HERO was born out of the desire to see an inclusive and equal world, where everyone has the opportunity to dream and the resources to go for those dreams,” said Lentz
HERO Backpacks continually partners with two non-profits that align with Lentz's mission. 10% of sales profits are donated to the following organizations each year:
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
HERO supports the "Speak Truth to Power" human rights education program run by RFK Human Rights. This program teaches youth in high school and college how to speak out against injustice.
She's the First
HERO also supports She’s The First, an organization that mobilizes students and young professionals to join the movement for gender equality, and provides scholarships for girls in developing countries to be the first in their families to graduate high school.
HERO Makes Contributions to Local Programs and Launches Special Initiatives
In response to Hurricane Harvey, HERO Backpacks launched a buy-one-give-one "HERO FOR HOPE" campaign while Houston was still underwater after Hurricane Harvey.
The brand partnered with Houston-based nonprofit Rick Anthony Athletic Foundation to provide backpacks and school supplies to families displaced by Hurricane Harvey.
The High School of Fashion Industries
From fall 2016 through spring 2018, HERO Backpacks partnered with The High School of Fashion Industries (HSFI), a New York public school where 76% of the students live below the poverty line, yet 91% of students graduate and 82% continue on to college.
At HSFI, Lentz taught workshops, sponsored a design competition, invited entrepreneurs and industry leaders to the school for a panel discussion, and donated product.
What's Next for HERO Backpacks?
During the years that Lentz dreamed about starting HERO Backpacks, she was conducting an enormous amount of research. She collected data to understand better what features her potential customers wanted. Her research drove the design and development of the product and Lentz continues to ask people what features they're looking for in their next backpack.
She went to market with one style in many colors, and Lentz continues to iterate on that product. She uses learnings from customer feedback and sales history to introduce new products.
Lentz measures business success by sustained growth over time.
"Being better than yesterday and giving as much effort as you can," is what makes Lentz feel like she is thriving.
Growth over time is advantageous for Lentz to reach her future goal to design and develop new products, new prints, and continue to expand the HERO Backpack offering that captures many different audiences.