As much as I try to shop local and love my village’s farmer’s market, there are a few national retailers and brands I am very thankful exist. Yes, Amazon and Costco. And Apple and Levi’s. And Lems.
Lems is a “minimalist” shoe brand that shipped its first pair just over five years ago. Having read founder Andrew Rademacher's origins story somewhere and liking it, I placed my first order at 5 a.m. the day the company hit the Web from a space shared with a steel factory in Farrell, Penn. The shoes were called Stems at launch, and then Lemings for a short while, but that’s another story. The basic running shoe is now known as Lems Primal 2; other styles have been added to the lineup over time.
Primal 2s have been on my feet for most of the 3,159,569 steps I’ve walked so far this year, and I also own the Boulder Boots and Nine2Five dress shoes. I do wear other minimalist brands for some activities — Vibram Five Fingers for racquetball, for instance. But when I got an email a couple of months ago that Lems was looking for brand ambassadors, my first thought was “if ever there were a brand that I could be a brand ambassador for, this is it.”
Given the trade I’m in, however, that’s not going to happen — for Lems or anybody else. But with today being the deadline for applications, I decided to take the opportunity to check in with Audrey Smith, Lems’ marketing manager, to get some insight into how a small company sets up an influencer program. Read on. I promise you won’t see the word “authentic” even once.
For some time, Lems has had an “Advocates” page. The seven doctors and one athlete profiled there all embrace the minimalist philosophy that Lems embodies: “footwear that adheres to four simple principles: light, flat, flexible and the shape of the human foot,” as the bio for Australian podiatrist Tim Bransdon puts it.
In the 14 months since Smith joined the six-person (and Bowie, the pooch) company, however, there have been close to a hundred people who have reached out wanting to promote the brand in return for a freebie or two. Results varied.
“We’ve had a few people who were really good -- and then we’ve had a few who, once they received the shoes, they stopped responding. Or they didn't do what they said they were going to do,” Smith says. So it decided to formalize the ambassador relationship -- with relationship being the key word.
There have been more than 500 entries, a lot more than Smith was anticipating. It's a diverse group, ranging in age from 18 to 75. The initial goal was to pick 10 to 15 ambassadors, but that number is now in the 15 to 18 range. As of Tuesday, Smith had 10 definite candidates but was still wading through the pile. She and Rademacher will make the final decisions over the next week or so and intend to roll out the winners with “a big announcement” before Christmas.
Most of the applicants favor Instagram as their promotional vehicle of choice -- about 90%, Smith estimates. Others have personal Web sites and blogs. In setting up the program, Smith took a good look at Lululemon Athletica’s brand ambassador program, as well as some other company’s efforts. The main takeaway: “Each brand is different, and you can customize how you want.”
That means there aren't too many hard-and-fast rules regarding content or execution, for example -- at least initially.
“I think we’ll see what they do … and from there we’ll find some guidelines,” she says, “We want it to be an open conversation and relationship.”
That doesn't mean there won’t be some metrics in play, however, The ambassadors will have a unique promo code -- bob15, for example -- and Lems will track performance to make sure each participant is promoting the brand. It’s admittedly a delicate balance.
“We don’t want people flooding their personal Instagram accounts with advertising for shoes,” Smith says. Shots of the shoes trekking on the Appalachian Trail are more like it.
Another metric was suggested by a Lems partner, Correct Toes, which sells one of those products that you probably didn't know you needed. They are “spacers” worn to reestablish the natural alignment destroyed by the foot-crunching narrow toe-boxes that most of us have worn all our lives. Correct Toes will a give a pair of the $65 product to each ambassador with the suggestion that they take a photo of their toes now and down the line.
We’ll check back with Lems in about six months to see how everything is measuring up.