Portland Keeps Craft Alive

Portland is one of my favorite places to visit to see what’s happening in food & beverage, the craft/artisan space, and retail innovation. I tend to find more interesting innovation than what I find in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, despite all the Silicon Valley-hype. In my opinion, the Bay Area has gotten too expensive to cultivate interesting artist-driven innovation. So, I recently took a trip up to do a bit of trend hunting and thought I’d share what caught my eye. This is Part 1 of two pieces.

My first observation from my time up north is that Portland keeps the craft and artisan movement alive. I found the highest quality of goods in this space in Portland relative to what I’ve seen in other U.S. markets, in attending shows like Renegade Craft Fair and West Coast Craft, and even compared to what I’ve seen abroad in many markets while traveling last and this year. Portland either beats or stacks up to products seen across London, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Lisbon, and Tokyo, albeit on a different scale.

What does my observation say about where the market is moving?

  1. Consumers desire for unique, well-made, story-full products has not been satiated, and the space has not been fully saturated.
  2. Small brands will continue to have the ability to disrupt larger, established players as they provide the authenticity, trust, and specialized, niche solutions that many consumers seek.
  3. Curation of such unique, niche products can make a retail concept successful. There are other national players who are building retail businesses around this concept. You can read more about that trend here.
  4. Despite the claim retail is dying—as malls lose business, big box stores continue to close and/or downsize, cities are plagued by an increase in empty storefronts, and suburban strip malls becomes suburban blight—retail establishments can find success in critical mass.

Consumers desire for unique, well-made, story-full products has not been satiated, and the space has not been fully saturated.

You see this come to life at a go-to stop for me on each of my visits to Portland. I love to peruse the shelves at World Foods in the Pearl where the owner does an excellent job curating product from around the globe from over 50 countries, hence the name, and offers a ton of selection. It’s here that you find brand and product proliferation continuing across all kinds of categories: chocolates, spirits, teas, beers, kombucha, coffee, and wine (in small cans), and consumers are drawn to this store for its vast offerings. In all of these categories, branding and packaging are being utilized in the traditional sense—to tell a story and stand out at shelf. Yet, in this type of environment, even in variety seeking categories, it’s hard to be noticed. I wonder how these brands utilize other marketing tactics to create a followership and build loyalty. At minimum, they have a champion in these owners who seek to offer unique, inspired foods.

World Foods_Sign.JPG

World Foods_Aisle.JPG

Small brands will continue to have the ability to disrupt larger, established players as they provide the authenticity, trust, and specialized, niche solutions that many consumers seek.

I spoke to a few consumers while in Portland around this topic and found that a reason they are attracted to smaller brands is that most are not burdened by the “big, bad business” ethos that is focused all on money. The small brands tend to be believed to have a more genuine purpose which carries through to their products. Consumers feel more connected to them, because they know they are supporting an individual’s passion project or they have more insight into exactly how the products are made. Consumers also appreciate having more product uniqueness in certain categories.

A few independent players in Portland meet these criteria. One is Bridge & Burn, a fashion retailer that designs its clothes in its studio above its flagship store in downtown Portland. The company states, “We never compromise on fit, fabric, and careful detailing to ensure each new line upholds our signature of versatility, durability and casual sophistication.” The company partners with other like-minded brands and gives back to its community, pledging 1 percent of its retail sales to local charities. MAAK LAB produces its personal care items from nature’s ingredients right in Portland. It defines itself as “an exploration and experimentation of the habits.” And for pets, there’s Portland Pet Food Company that champions feeding your dog like you feed yourself, is committed to a sustainable food system sourcing its ingredients from the Pacific Northwest and repurposes spent grains, and gives back to local shelters.

Bridge & Burn.JPG


Curation of such unique, niche products can make a retail concept successful.

There were several other craft-focused retail destinations beyond World Foods that present a collection of unique, well-made merchandise. Made Here focuses on bringing together products, not surprisingly, made in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2014, they’ve championed and brought together the talents of designers, artists, and makers into one well-merchandised storefront with stories to support each maker. Tender Loving Empire is rooted in celebrating People and Art, focused on providing opportunity for artists to be seen and heard. The company has had quite an impact over its 10 years in existence, noting that its paid artists over $2.5 million over this time period. The storekeeper also shared that some of their artisans have become buyers for the retailer, because they appreciated how well they were cared for as vendors. Canoe has been in business since 2005 and continues to offer one of the best curated selections I see year after year full of unique products from its own productions to Oregon-made to offerings from Japan. The retailer focuses on “products with a lasting aesthetic that transcends short-lived trends.”

TLE.JPG             Canoe.JPG

Despite the claim retail is dying, retail establishments can find success in critical mass.

I always see innovative retail experiences in Portland before I see them pop-up in SF. The Ace Hotel utilizes an open corner storefront on its property for pop-ups. On this day, a collection of local boutiques partnered for a giant sale, together generating excitement and bringing energy to this part of downtown. Adler & Co. has for a few years shared its space with a flower shop, giving another beautiful reason to draw consumers inside. Union Way is a renovated covered “alleyway” in downtown that is a mix of like-minded, artisan-inspired shops and has the architectural design to support it.

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Union Way.JPG

What does this mean for marketers elsewhere in the U.S.?

  • Understand how your category intersects with the craft and artisan movement that isn’t slowing down. Is it ripe for disruption from these more intimate, soulful players?
  • Consider new solutions and brands. Are there niche targets that have a compelling problem to solve? Should you create a new brand that is built on a foundation that is consistent with today’s consumer brand expectations?
  • Explore a DTC business model. Should you go direct-to-consumers and not just with a single product, but with a holistic, curated solution that speaks to a niche consumer target needs and desires?
  • Build more relevance. Are there brand or retail partnerships you can establish that will create more meaning and scale for your offerings?
  • Tap into artisans. Can you find uniqueness by unearthing and celebrating artists who need patronage?

A final observation of all these examples is how they are all vibrant, successful businesses. It’s often thought that operating based on principles and giving back don’t align with a sustainable business model. But these examples buck this thinking and demonstrate that artist and craft-driven brands and businesses are viable, oftentimes much more interesting and compelling, and are more likely to survive Amazon’s encroachment on all industries and categories.

1 reply

  1. This is a really great one Kathy! You gave me an idea of my next brand muse!

    If you’re not familiar with the Over The Rhine (in Cincinnati) story you might want to look into that rejuvenation of a down and out retail neighborhood (albeit with beaucoup funding from the 3CDC group) for a bit of inspiration and another POV of how craft is moving into retail and energizing it in the process.

    PHILIP VANDUSEN VERHAAL BRAND DESIGN Branding | Strategic Design | Marketing mobile 917-705-3826 pcvandusen@gmail.com http://www.philipvandusen.com


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