For a while, it seemed the response of legacy brands to their direct-to-consumer (DTC) counterparts was to simply acquire the competition.
Unilever acquired Dollar Shave Club. Shiseido bought Drunk Elephant. The list goes on.
But Portland-based knife manufacturing company Benchmade is taking a different approach: The decades-old brand that has historically focused on technical outdoor knives is now entering the DTC space with a new kitchenware-focused product line of its own.
We know that digitally-native brands are known to expand their product lines.
But what happens when a legacy brand tries to do the same while entering the DTC space for the first time? Benchmade has gone all-in to find out.
It started with a significant investment in new equipment to enable the in-house assembly of their new kitchenware items. From there, it extended into making sure people across the organization could share input on the new product line along the way—from the manufacturing floor to the research department.
Aside from gathering feedback from the internal team, Benchmade also partnered with several Portland-area chefs to get real-life use case inputs on knife quality and performance.
“Through our connections and some of our experiences, we partnered with restaurant operators, personal chefs, and advisors in the food industry,” said Jon deAsis, Benchmade’s CEO. “From these partnerships, we received important product feedback on everything from functionality, design, ergonomics, to materials, use, and care.”
Jaret Foster, a chef at Portlant-based Tournant, describes Benchmade’s three-piece knife set as cutlery that toes the line between tactical and traditional kitchenware.
“We liked the knives’ tactical handles, which are good in the hand, grippy when wet, and clean well. The knife blades are sharp and have retained their edge throughout heavy-duty use in our kitchens,” Foster said.
In terms of market positioning, Benchmade has a unique value proposition to offer DTC shoppers: Premium knives made in the USA.
Their approach is to bring a high-quality, American-made offering to a vertical that has come to be known for commoditized products made in China, Japan, and Germany.
And according to other Portland-area chefs who use the knives daily like Da Pine Grinds chef Darrin Domingo, Benchmade’s technology-driven craftsmanship is what makes the product more than just a commodity.
“Since I received this knife, I’ve carved, trimmed, or cut at least 2,000 pounds of meat and 500 pounds of produce—and have not needed to sharpen this blade at all. It’s easily the most versatile knife in my bag, hands down,” he said.
Entering this new vertical has, however, come with a unique set of risks for the brand. Being a newcomer to the kitchenware space meant finding ways to stand out from their competitors.
One way Benchmade is doing this is by offering personalization and customization elements (like laser engraving and custom colorways.)
“Your home, and especially your kitchen, is a very personal space. That’s why personalization was important to us: So buyers can create a custom kitchen cutlery set that’s matches the look of their kitchens,” deAsis said.
Having these value-adds was a strategic move, as they realized brand recognition likely wouldn’t be enough to help them stand out in this already crowded space.
Retail veterans like Jaime Schmidt, Founder of Schmidt’s Naturals and Investor at Color Capital, agree that brand names are losing significance and no longer ensure an “easy in” with consumers.
“For some, this leveling of the playing field is an opportunity; for others, like heritage brands, it could pose a threat,” she said.
The bottom line: Like Benchmade, legacy brands entering new markets via DTC channels must offer high-quality products and have distinct positioning and/or personalization aspects to succeed in today’s highly competitive and highly diversified marketplace.