Blunt umbrellas weather the storm in the US

Above, left to right: Blunt global marketing manager Josh Page and co-founders Greig Brebner and Scott Kington.
Born in NZ in 2009, Blunt umbrellas hit the overseas market a year later and then went Stateside. We ask the blunt question: how do you make it in the US?

Design engineer Greig Bregner knew he had an indispensable product when he traipsed up Auckland's One Tree Hill in a storm, umbrella prototype in hand. The umbrella survived – you can bet your Force 12 117km/h winds on it – so it was time to spread the word. Now Blunt has 15 distributors worldwide and is sold in 32 territories. Idealog quizzed Blunt co-founder and managing director Scott Kington about the company's trajectory.​

Blunt umbrellas are the only umbrellas that have a fully tensioned canopy. Styles include the Classic, Mini, Lite and the Golf (above).

Idealog: How did you know it was time to enter the US market? Was it something that evolved naturally or something you had planned from the beginning? What opportunities did you see?

Scott Kington: We had planned multimarkets from the beginning but not a scattergun approach. We found a contact in Japan and launched there mid-2010. That same year we took the sales agent route to Australia, Netherlands and Belgium. We’ve been in the US since 2011.

Word of mouth gets us into markets; the user experience. We hit magazines such as Wired and bloggers to get reviews out there. Distributors looking for products will find you on these blogs.

The sales volume is huge: one billion umbrellas are sold worldwide each year; 120 million are sold in Japan each year.

What challenges/obstacles did you have to overcome?

The difficult thing is finding a distributor for each of the markets, distributors willing to take you on when you’re a young brand and they’re taking a risk. Only when you have some traction you are not so risky for them. Umbrella distributors are not interested because they want sales volume, they are set up for repeat business. Smaller distributors are more interested in selling the story of the product.

You are a resident at Kiwi Landing Pad – how have they helped and mentored your business?

Kiwi Mark Duffin set up in the US as our exclusive distributor, starting in San Francisco where Kiwi Landing Pad is based and now New York. He is in charge of Blunt USA, a standalone company.

Duffin says on KLP’s website: “We are established now to a point where we can really focus on building partnerships. KLP is a great space for this, not only because of the other Kiwi startups we interact with day to day, but also the curated networks of people in the SoMa area.

Another thing that is great about KLP is that it gives us a chance to realign with the Kiwi brand.”

Yes, the Blunt comes in hot pink.

What's the key in getting noticed in a big marketplace – what's worked for you?

We are a long way from saturation in the States but PR is very important; making sure the story is told. We are concentrating on key cities – New York, Chicago and San Francisco – commuter-centric cities where people walk to work.

What advice can you give to other Kiwis looking to start businesses in the US? Any secrets to working in the American culture?

Stick to your guns when you take the long-term approach and be true to who you are. In the States it’s easy for brands to become generic, to push back and evolve into a preppy American-looking product. Don’t give away too much of your brand soul. Make a lot of noise in key magazines and blogs, chase awards and have faith in your product.

It’s a huge market and you can take so many different approaches. It’s too big a market to cover everything, so concentrate on certain cities.

Blunt umbrellas carry a storm-resistant and dance-resistant badge.

How are US sales? What are your long-term projections and objectives for the market?

Sales are great, we have excellent growth. I think we’re at the beginning of a cycle of people starting to value products instead of the cheap and cheerful throwaway. A big chunk of the market is still nasty conscious consumerism but [Blunt is for] people who appreciate good design, products that work, people who use an iPhone, and not necessarily the socio-economic top end.

One positive thing about working in the States is using networks like Kea New Zealand. New Zealanders are passionate overseas; there’s always a Kiwi that knows where to go. As a country we are small enough to be willing to help.

Does pushing a New Zealand origin help or hinder sales overseas?

At first we didn’t want to be seen as being from New Zealand; it was about the product. Using black and the austerity of the design looked like a Germanic-engineered product. What we found at distributor meetings was that the New Zealandness was a good selling point, especially in Europe and Japan but not so driven in the US market. However, we are using more NZ images in photos and design.