Express Launches digital-first DTC wellness brand

Discussion
Photos: UpWest
Nov 11, 2019
Tom Ryan

Express has launched a digital-focused, direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand. Called UpWest, the “purpose-driven lifestyle” brand focuses on “comfort” with a wellness message and give-back component.

With an “Invitation To Unwind” mantra, Upwest.com offers a range of casual apparel, loungewear and sleepwear items, along with sleep aids, CBD products and home goods, like candles and bath salts from third-party vendors.

“UpWest is a brand targeting Millennial consumers who are intentional about their journey to find a greater sense of peace and calm in a chaotic world,” said Jamie Schisler, SVP and chief comfort officer of UpWest, in a statement.

The brand also introduced The UpWest Foundation, which will donate annually one percent of sales up to $1 million to charitable organizations focused on “providing comfort to the body, mind and spirit.” Initial charity partners are Freedom Dogs of America, Mental Health America and Random Acts.

To launch the concept, the brand will send a mobile pop-up, The UpWest Cabin, to Columbus, Chicago, Nashville, Denver and Austin to give consumers “a first-hand look into the brand” with free yoga and meditation classes.

UpWest will manage its own inventory, merchandising, design and ecommerce (using the Shopify platform) while leveraging Express for areas like supply chain, logistics and HR.

Digital-first brands such as Glossier, Allbirds, Everlane and Casper are seen by many as able to move faster when coming to market and build strong social media followings.  By launching an online-only offshoot, legacy brands also look to gain more freedom to experiment.

The closest comparison to Express’s initiative appears to be Hill City, a men’s athleisure brand launched online last October by Gap Inc. Hill City soon found its way into some stores of Athleta, also owned by Gap, and recently opened its first store in San Francisco.

Speaking to Forbes, Paul Munford, founder of Lean Luxe, the luxury newsletter, believes the “baggage” of being associated with a legacy retailer will weigh on the perception of UpWest among savvy consumers versus how they view independent start-ups. He added, “However, execution will always ultimately be the key here. Spinoffs need to feel like their own entity, as opposed to a sub-brand of the legacy retailer.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are there many advantages for legacy retailers in launching lifestyle brands digitally first versus at physical stores? Does the comfort, wellness and give-back message hold promise for UpWest’s success?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"I for one love this idea of spinning up micro-brands under the main brand, but at the same time question whether this is a little 'off-brand' for Express."
"UpWest is doing everything that the successful DTC brands have done – creating a lifestyle, having a charity component and not blaring out “SALE” on the site."
"I like the UpWest positioning; if Express can develop a separate brand/company culture for UpWest, it stands a good chance."

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10 Comments on "Express Launches digital-first DTC wellness brand"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

There are advantages for legacy retailers to launch digital-first brands. UpWest provides an opportunity to completely set the brand message, merchandise and experience without being shackled to Express. I think this is a smart play for Express. As far as the brand promise is concerned, it has to be more than just words – it’s not just what they say, it’s how they act that will matter. Time will tell if their brand message sustains and resonates with the target audience.

Zach Zalowitz
BrainTrust
The obvious advantage is low cost to enter, especially if leveraging the supply chain and back-office resources of the parent company. I was interested to hear it was Shopify that was the e-commerce platform vs. the enterprise e-commerce tool that Express uses. I for one love this idea of spinning up micro-brands under the main brand, but at the same time question whether this is a little “off-brand” for Express. I think a company like Gap Inc. has a little more latitude to create and launch a brand like this. I’d even think someone like Eddie Bauer may do something similar to this. When I think of Express, I think of fitted shirts and pants. A relaxed comfort brand (especially in the same store), for me (as a Millennial) doesn’t jive with the main brand. All that is to say, I think this would have to simply be another brand in the portfolio, and trying to cross this brand in the future into an Express store likely will produce a disconnect with the consumer while… Read more »
Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Theoretically, UpWest provides Express an opportunity to connect with consumers in a way that it is not able to do through its traditional ranges or stores. That said, having reviewed the collection I don’t see it as particularly special: it’s alright, but it doesn’t stand out in a what is a very crowded and competitive marketplace. And of course, other than allowing Express an opportunity to experiment and test new ideas, it does very little to fix the issues within the company’s main proposition. Indeed, if the main business worked properly then, arguably, this venture would not be necessary.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

This sounds like the established retailer and the pop-up are both exercising some very pragmatic efficiencies. The retailer gets to launch a brand extension with minimum investment and the pop-up gets to their (presumably) target customer in a faster and less expensive way than if they did it on their own. Great learning opportunity for both businesses. Next question — are they dating, or engaged or halfway down the aisle already? Curious how this will play out under different possible outcomes.

Stephen Rector
BrainTrust

UpWest is doing everything that the successful DTC brands have done – creating a lifestyle, having a charity component and not blaring out “SALE” on the site. Whether or not it will be successful will depend on how much marketing dollars they spend to get through all of the noise online and if the customer reacts to the UpWest story in a positive manner.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

They certainly have checked most of the boxes to be appealing to the Millennial generation – wellness, community giving back, lifestyle. I don’t think most customers will even know it is an Express brand and therefore won’t associate it with a “legacy” tag. The built out supply chain and store network I think will serve as an advantage. Now they have to get the merchandise mix and marketing right – without that, there is no brand.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Digital first is usually best for new brands (with few exceptions) since it’s a lower barrier to entry and there’s so much data available to understand where to put eventual stores, how they should be merchandised, etc.

I like the UpWest positioning; if Express can develop a separate brand/company culture for UpWest, it stands a good chance. However, it has to be real for the people that work there and not simply a marketing gimmick.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

Digital first and pop-up stores offer established brands a perfect venue to test new product concepts and new brands efficiently and cost effectively. Express’ focus on purpose-driven and wellness is not a new concept, but it is a hot trend. Finding a way to be truly unique and appeal to consumers’ emotions will be key to making this a successful business. For now, it is a pilot that is worth trying.

Chuck Palmer
BrainTrust

While Express has checked off all the boxes we think Millennials want — comfort AND CBD? Sign me up! — the one UpWest might be missing is the most important to thoughtful world-weary consumers: authenticity.

I might be overestimating the cynicism today’s consumer, but the brand sounds like a pastiche of other brands’ successes. The foundation doesn’t sound that different than a standard corporate philanthropy program — donations — and a Chief Comfort Officer? *cringe*

I applaud the effort and experiment, but my gut tells me this will fall flat with consumers. I hope they give it time to find its footing with customers and listen to them. They have an opportunity to let their customers help them craft the brand they want.

Suresh Chaganti
BrainTrust

It makes total sense to diversify and create a separate brand. It allows the brand to form a separate identity organically, not restricted by the boundaries of Express. UpWest’s positioning is soft, subdued, trying to appeal to a certain demographic with charity messaging, and unlike Express. So that in itself is a valid reason to create a separate brand and associated identity.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"I for one love this idea of spinning up micro-brands under the main brand, but at the same time question whether this is a little 'off-brand' for Express."
"UpWest is doing everything that the successful DTC brands have done – creating a lifestyle, having a charity component and not blaring out “SALE” on the site."
"I like the UpWest positioning; if Express can develop a separate brand/company culture for UpWest, it stands a good chance."

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