Next time I’m asked which is my favourite brand, I’ll be tempted to name Engelbert Strauss. I listened in to the OMR Podcast last week, where magaing director Henning Strauss was the guest. Now, the first thing that hit me in the face about this brand is how extraordinary its success has been.
From the early 2000s to now, sales have multiplied tenfold, from ca. €100m to ca. €1bn. The company has grown from 100 co-workers to around 1,600 today. That would be impressive enough for some Berlin tech start-up. But for a family firm based in Biebergemünd, deepest Hessen, who started off selling brushes and brooms?
A lot is down to the business model, which was the right one at the right time. How much is by design and how much chance and smart choices in the circumstances is hard to say. The fact is that the huge bulk of sales come from Engelbert Strauss’s own online channel. Throughout the company’s history, from the brooms and brushes on, it’s been direct selling, with no wholesalers involved. We call it D2B and D2C these days, and it’s done online rather than mail order or knocking on doors, but the principle hasn’t changed.
A catalogue as the main communication medium? A firm HQ in the middle of nowhere, that few have heard of? I can think of plenty of parallels with IKEA. Could Biebergemünd set up town-twinning with Älmhult? When I worked with IKEA, the spirit of Ingvar Kamprad was ever-present. It was a matter of pride that Ingvar always trusted his instincts rather than doing things by the “Best Practice in Management” book. And there’s a lot of following instinct at Engelbert Strauss, too. Henning Strauss’s period of study in LA had a huge emphasis on the decision to expand into the US. But more on that later.
So many companies bang on about their “Authentic Culture” these days, but family and roots you can’t fake. Ask IKEA, ask Engelbert Strauss. The family have always rolled their sleeves up and got stuck in with the daily business. Henning Strauss referred to the Biebergemünd HQ as their “extended living room” and the logo as “the family coat of arms.” And this democratic culture, like that of IKEA, can be summed up by the idea of a local hero who’s open to the world. When the company calls its customers, they can see the 0 60 50 Biebergemünd dialling code. It’s a Somewhere brand that is at home Anywhere.
Business model, culture - the other Engelbert Strauss success factor is a biggie. Customers - relationship and psychology. The brand’s core customers are crafts- and trades- people. And what is clear about everything that Engelbert Strauss does is that it’s done with understanding of and respect for people who do, build, make, repair, maintain. Not just that, but elevating and celebrating Handwerk as something noble and praiseworthy. This all starts with the attention to detail that goes into product design - a typical pair of work trousers from Engelbert Strauss is made from 200 individual components. And that respect goes right through to the marketing. Partnerships and sponsorships are deliberately chosen not just for reach, but to reflect the core customer group interests - football, handball, egaming and heavy metal in the form of Metallica.
Engelbert Strauss is not just a workwear brand today. It’s a lifestyle brand, worn by off-duty doctors, dog walkers and kindergarten kids. And freelance strategic planners (see above). The brand has ticked the Mark Ritson boxes to get where it’s got. Distinctiveness: name of founder with “quirky” potential outside DE, red & white ostrich logo. Full marks. And Relative Differentiation - not the only workwear brand, but certainly the “quality German engineering” one.
These are internally-driven factors that have powered the success of Engelbert Strauss. There are broader human societal trends that have put a bit of turbo behind that. One is the recognition of and yearning for Real Work, which became clear to all in the pandemic. Without essential workers, everything ground to a halt. The people who can’t work from home, the people who work with hand and heart as well as head were our heroes. And so should they be.
AI can take over much of office work, generating content, speeding up mundane tasks. But can an AI-powered robot replicate the intrictate brain-hand coordination of an aircraft mechanic? No way. And learning a craft or trade is becoming more aspirational. Maybe it’s because the generation who grew up on Super Mario and Bob the Builder are now finding their way in the world of work. Young people are questioning whether an apprenticeship may be a more useful start in life than studying for years, running up a huge debt with no guarantee of a good job at the end of it.
For those of us still stuck behind a desk, the more time we spend in the digital world, the more we yearn to get stuck into the physical world with our hands. Make, create, build - do something positive that won’t be lost in the cloud of ephemera. And pulling on a pair of Engelbert Strauss trousers has a psychological effect. You immediately feel more practical, more competent, more of a capable pair of hands.
The final trend is the changing meaning of masculinity. While Engelbert Strauss is for everyone, its core is the adult male worker. And here, maybe the brand represents a positive, timely antidote to macho-macho and toxic masculinity. Constructiveness, grit, competence, ingenuity, down-to-earthness, honesty and yes-we-can-ness. These are all values that sit comfortably with Engelbert Strauss.
The latest news from Engelbert Strauss is the US expansion. There are a few challenges with the market, just as there were for IKEA. Two huge competitors in the form of Dickies and Carhartt. The potential confusion with another famous Strauss who pioneered workwear in the USA in the 19th century. And, what the heck has that ostrich got to do with workwear anyway?
Ah, back to the ostrich. It’s obvious that Engelbert Strauss are not hiding any heads in sand. But can ostriches fly? Henning Strauss made it clear in the podcast that he’s not looking to be snapped up by an investor, and expansion is being kept within limits.
Maybe the question is more whether the ostrich wants to fly. Back to the topic of relative differentiation, being flightless means that the ostrich is the heaviest and largest bird on earth. And the fastest on land, with an impressive running speed of 70 km/h. Running, I understand, is far more energy-efficient than flying.
The ostrich’s wings aren’t used to fly. But they do have a role in balance, for courtship displays and for shade. It’s all about adaptation - something Engelbert Strauss are masters at. By design or intuition, head, hand or heart - who knows? But it works.