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What ‘Community First’ Really Means For A DTC Company

What ‘Community First’ Really Means For A DTC Company

Some companies start with a product before creating community around it. But Bandit, a New York–grown running apparel company, did the opposite.

Two brothers, Tim and Nick West, grew Bandit with New York’s vibrant running community, a large and diverse group that comes together for group runs all over the city. When Tim was looking for athletic wear, he came up short. “I couldn’t find any brands that really resonated with me. Nothing felt New York City to me. Nothing felt like a reflection of my experience running,” Tim says.

Bandit’s products were a hit with its target market, and the brand is now working on how to support and uplift the community while scaling. Ahead, learn from some of the principles of Bandit’s community-first playbook.

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Community first, then product

Tim and Nick were inspired by other community-first brands, like surf or skate brands that popped up from a group of friends with a passion for a sport. They wanted to make something for the New York running community, which had become so important for health and connection, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their first product was a new and improved running sock. “The run sock is a trust-building product,” Nick says. “It’s a repeat product. It’s got great margins. It’s got all the hallmarks of a great initial product, but we never wanted to be a sock company. We wanted to really have an impact on this sport.”

Four runners sitting on a park bench in Bandit clothing
Tim says running fosters connections, whether it’s participating in a weekly run club or cheering on strangers during a race. Bandit

Organic growth at the start

Tim made two promises to himself when Bandit launched: “I was never going to push the product on anyone. And I wasn’t going to take out a paid ad for the first year.”

New Yorkers are bombarded with advertisements, and Tim wanted the brand to have the independent spirit that New Yorkers respected and identified with.

Nick and Tim believe an organic foundation is key for building a long-lasting, impactful brand. That’s why Bandit focused first on word-of-mouth advertising. “It’s actually a lot scarier to try to build an iconic brand than to try to build a marketing funnel,” Nick says. “Building all of these emotional connections in person doesn’t pay off immediately.” 

Nick and Tim say founders need to continue adding value to the community and creating different touchpoints with their consumers. Eventually, the emotional connections will lead to sales, but more importantly, the brand will be known for its contributions to the community.  

Content that showcases reality

Building a running brand meant baking in the real experience of the people who run. “We’re really good at Bandit at taking the mundane moments of running and showing you actually how special and lovely and elegant and fun they are,” Tim says. For example, Bandit made a video of a runner gearing up for a cold morning run into a captivating dance sequence.

Even the grittier, nastier side of running makes an appearance. “I think showing that other side of it and coming back to reality is really powerful and something that brands across various industries can do,” Tim says, citing the opportunities for brands to connect with their customers through more relatable content and ad creative.

Female runner sitting on a sidewalk
Bandit avoids the typical creative for running companies with runners mid-stride and smiling. They try to show a more relatable version of running, which sometimes involves a quick break. Bandit

Jogging before sprinting

Nick and Tim emphasize the importance of scaling through a running metaphor: “Jog before you sprint.” They say choosing Shopify as their ecommerce platform was one of those decisions, because they knew it had tools and customizations that would allow their website to grow alongside their business.

The founders took the same approach to pop-ups. Bandit hosted more than 10 pop-ups in the 12 months before the city’s biggest running event of the year—the New York City Marathon—to learn how much to spend, how much staff they’d need, and how many sales they could expect, both in-person and online. 

Nick recommends being scrappy about your first in-person events: negotiate with landlords, partner with other retailers, and use every event as a learning opportunity.

A home for customers

Bandit now has a storefront in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, along a popular running route, and the founders have discovered ways to turn visitors into regulars. For example, they leave a water jug outside, in case any runners pass by and need to hydrate. They also host community runs on Saturdays, with more than 100 people showing up every week to participate.

The brand’s storefront is conveniently located near their office. “Every day, Nick and I pop over to the store and hang out for 20 to 30 minutes, see who comes in, and talk to whoever’s working that day,” says Tim. ”Those interactions have quite literally driven our decision-making for the next collection.”

To learn more about how Tim and Nick harnessed the power of the NYC running community to create a brand, listen to their full interview on Shopify Masters.

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This originally appeared on Shopify and is made available here for wider discovery.
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