The Woman Behind Bonobos's Controversial #EvolveTheDefinition Ads Just Became Its CEO
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A lot has happened since then: Walmart acquired Bonobos in July 2017 for $310 million, and the company’s co-founder and former CEO Andy Dunn became Walmart’s senior vice president of digital brands, which include Modcloth and Allswell in addition to Bonobos. (Co-founder Brian Spaly parted ways with the brand to found Trunk Club in 2009.)
At that time, Onvural also added co-president to her title, while Dunn juggled his Walmart duties with leading Bonobos. Then last week, Bonobos announced that Dunn had stepped down and Onvural had assumed his chief executive role.
“If you think about it, most CEOs, sadly, are still men,” Onvural told Entrepreneur. “Most fashion CEOs come from a fashion background. And a pretty small minority of CEOs come from a marketing background.”
Onvural is not Bonobos’ first woman CEO. In summer 2015, Dunn temporarily hired Fran Della Badia, the former head of Coach's North American retail division, to take his place. Bonobos announced she was stepping down three months later, and Dunn re-assumed the role.
"What she and I learned in just a few months is that at this stage, we still need the founder at the helm,” Dunn said at the time.
As CEO of the Walmart-owned company, Onvural will continue to report to Dunn. “He acts still as that person who’s creating oversight and connecting the dots back to Walmart,” Onvural said, “while I am running this brand and this business, this team and continuing to build this culture.” Today, Bonobos has about 55 U.S. stores and 500 employees.
Before Onvural joined in 2016, customers knew Bonobos best for the wide range of fit combinations its clothing comes in and its brick-and-mortar Guideshop showrooms. Onvural, whose resume includes marketing exec stints at Trulia and eBay, saw an opportunity for Bonobos to expand its consumer marketing strategy beyond catalog mailings and email lists.
She was the brains behind the company’s ad campaigns in the past year, the first featuring “role models, not male models” -- from songwriters to a transgender athlete and a philanthropist.
“For the vast majority of men, they’re not that excited about ‘fashion,’” Onvural said. “What they’re looking in the mirror for is, who do I want to be like as a man, and who do I want to emulate?”
That campaign was the prelude to #EvolveTheDefinition, a second series of videos which spotlight men whose personalities and interests don’t necessarily conform with rigid, stereotypical ideas about masculinity. Some viewed it as an affront to traditionally masculine traits and values, and Onvural said the controversy it sparked was “exactly the point.”
Onvural spoke with Entrepreneur about her methodical approach to digital marketing and brand-building, how she’s helped Bonobos realize its purpose for men and the role she hopes the brand will play in creating a more inclusive world.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you think Andy selected you as CEO?
As we were looking at the business and our future growth aspirations, it became clear that we needed to put a singular leader in charge of the business. As for, why pick the person that’s the CMO and co-president? It might look very surprising from the outside, but it’s because of our desire to put the customer and the brand front and center of this business.
Can you explain more about what you mean when you say, “put the customer and the brand front and center?” What are some examples, and how do you plan to evolve that strategy?
A year after I started, we moved from this idea of marketing to men about what they wanted to look like to this idea of, what do men want to be like? Our mission statement is, “Make fit happen for every body.” We’re a brand founded on fit, and over time, we’ve evolved to have 195 size and fit combinations. What we’ve heard from men is, when they choose clothing, they have a horrible shopping experience with not very much choice, and it’s very often about coverage and not fit.
As we started hearing how that made those men feel, you can imagine a very close correlation to not only a product problem we could solve, but also an emotional feeling that we could bring around inclusion and confidence.
There was some backlash against the campaigns surrounding the “definition” of masculinity. Many men are proud of that traditional definition of masculinity, and they said, “I don’t relate to any of the guys in this ad.”
I think the discussion that we ignited was exactly the point, which is, we need to create a world where different definitions are accepted and welcome.
If you think of the corollary for women, 30 years ago, I wouldn’t be in this job, would I? It’s taken a number of brands and individuals, a movement, to break apart gender stereotypes for women. In some teeny tiny way, I hope that we can start to break open the conversation in the same way for men who may not conform to traditional stereotypes.
Not to put myself in Nike’s shoes, but if you’ve read anything recently about the impact of the Kaepernick campaign, it’s the same thing. There are always going to be people who are going to, in their case, burn their Nike shoes and be pretty vitriolic about the campaign publicly. But there’s also going to be the quieter -- and hopefully it’s always the majority of -- people that will feel more favorable and act more positively toward the brand as a result.
When you’re talking about how this has happened for women first, Bonobos’ addition of bigger sizes reminds me of the body positivity movement among women.
It’s confidence. This confidence that men feel when they’re in great-fitting clothing is exactly akin to the body positivity for women movement.
In the same way that women will say, “I’ve got an issue here,” “My bum’s too big,” “I don’t like my upper arms,” what we’ve seen in our ethnographic research is, every single man is either trying to hide or accentuate something. It’s exactly the same, it’s just not something that’s talked about.
What we’re trying to talk about, in a much more subtle way than the women’s movement, is to make everybody feel great about the way that they look, and to also make everybody feel great about whatever path they have chosen and however they choose to live their life.
I’ve always believed that brands have a responsibility and an opportunity to shape cultural conversations. The power of a brand to create a conversation that creates a more inclusive world for men is actually the way that we will continue to break apart gender stereotypes for women, and it’s how we will ultimately end up with gender equality. Women can’t do it on their own. They need men to be part of the conversation.
To what extent was the brand already thinking this way before you introduced your campaigns?
When I first interviewed with Andy, one of the conversations that we had was about this idea of creating a brand with purpose. It became very clear to me very early on that, not only did Andy want to do that, but very specifically, he wanted to take on this cause of “evolving masculinity.”
If you think about even the name of the business, which is Bonobos -- the bonobo is one of the great apes that runs a matriarchal society. So, from its very genesis, Bonobos has been about this idea of evolving masculinity to take on more of the traits of femininity.
When you talk to Andy at length about his upbringing, his mother and grandmother were very big figures in his childhood. This idea of evolving masculinity has been in his DNA; it’s been in the DNA of the brand from the very beginning.
But what Andy would say is, he never found the right partner to express the story in the right way. It took a woman to find the right way to express it.