For most of its 15 years in operation, Graf Lantz had a cult-like following based on its timeless product designs and emphasis on high-quality, sustainable materials — conditions that led to a steady 25% year-over-year growth rate since 2016. Then the brand went viral during the pandemic thanks to its eco-friendly handcrafted face masks, which helped Graf Lantz expand its customer base 14X over the past three years.
Menaka Gopinath, President and Chief Operating Officer of Graf Lantz, attributes this staggering growth to the brand’s focus on thoughtful category expansion and emphasis on product discovery. Initially known for its Merino wool-crafted coasters, the brand has ventured into adjacent categories including kitchen, workspace and fashion.
“Our founders, Holger Graf and Daniel Lantz, wanted to feel good about what they were doing and putting out into the world — that is a driving part of our vision,” Gopinath said in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Daniel says it very succinctly: we don’t want to make junk, so that quality piece is something that continues to resonate through the brand. I think not losing sight of that, especially as you grow, is key.”
Graf Lantz started as a bag brand but quickly found success with its “deceptively simple” coasters, which Graf designed from memories of his childhood. “You can’t find [similar coasters] anywhere in the U.S.,” said Gopinath. “The fact that they’re functional and they put all this energy into creating these unique colors and assortments, and they actually work well, embodies the ethos of Graf Lantz as a brand.”
Maintaining Sustainability Along Multiple Fronts
Graf and Lantz both pride themselves on designing products using renewable, biodegradable and natural materials. For example, the brand uses Merino wool felt sourced exclusively from mulesing-free farms across the pastures of New Zealand, South Africa, and South America, as well as hand-dyed cotton canvas, vegetable tanned leather, Peruvian alpaca, biodegradable cotton and organic hemp.
In celebration of Earth Day 2023, the brand also launched a partnership with Sway, the regenerative design company and 2023 Winner of the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize, to release a limited-edition Wine-Ote’s note card. The collaboration features Graf Lantz’s felt Wine Markers and note card set packaged in Sway’s home-compostable seaweed-based “plastic.”
The root of the value proposition, according to Gopinath, is that all products are crafted using high-integrity materials and function-forward designs that have a mantra of “less is more.”
“Our founders are not consumers in context of the ‘consumerist culture,’” Gopinath explained. “They’re not buying stuff all the time, so they are very mindful of what they have and what its function and purpose is. This idea of function over form is actually very critical too, and that’s what’s driven this focus on beauty intersecting with utility. It’s useful and it has a purpose, but it’s also beautiful. And the magic, I think, comes from finding the bridge between those two things.”
A Path to Retention and Expansion
Graf Lantz’s collection of handbags, accessories and homeware items are designed so that people don’t have to buy them again within a year. “These are products we want people to use for years,” said Gopinath. “Anecdotally, we hear from our customers that they’re still using bags and laptop sleeves from 10 years ago. That’s counterintuitive to growth when you’re thinking about selling more.”
This creates a unique challenge (and opportunity) for the brand, especially when growth is such a high priority. The company’s goal isn’t to get consumers to buy the same products over again, but to sell those products to more consumers while also providing shoppers with things that work in other parts of their lives.
Graf Lantz has done extensive research into ways to encourage new customers to try the full range of its products. One major objective was to analyze consumers who were attracted to the brand by the hype surrounding its reusable masks during the pandemic by measuring their overall conversion rate into the larger assortment. The team conducted a survey to learn more about how consumers found the brand and why they purchased from them, and analyzed carts to understand which additional products they purchased.
“The majority of customers we acquired [during the pandemic] were just buying masks,” Gopinath said. “We did a very focused sampling effort last year where we identified a group of customers who had bought a ton of masks from us but didn’t purchase anything else. We wanted to invite them into the brand more, so we sent them the brand story about our founders, added a coaster and a QR code so we could track who came to the site and actually purchased more items. That was a very intentional initiative to try to pull those mask customers into the larger assortment, and we continue to track that.”
An Evolved DTC Playbook
Graf Lantz has benefited from a lot of earned media coverage and organic word of mouth. That’s why, regardless of the channels Graf Lantz sells on, community has been central to the brand’s success.
“Word of mouth was a big part of our growth early on — it’s how the brand really started to take off,” Gopinath said. “As we grew, the wholesale business was a big driver for discovery. We continue to be in some great design, museum and specialty stores. People buy the product because it’s cool and unique, but then they go from buying the coasters to having their whole house filled with Graf Lantz.”
Graf Lantz is building out its affiliate marketing strategy to support its community growth, according to Gopinath, with media and brand ambassadors playing a more central role. “More intentional community-building is a big focus for us this year,” she said. “We have an organic community that loves us, and we have a loyalty program that’s been around for a few years. Now, we’re asking how we can take that to the next level and really build our ambassadorship. We want to double down on that and use it to drive interest for the brand.”
To boost wholesale and DTC acquisition, the brand also has been ramping up paid marketing investments — specifically social media and search.
“It’s getting more expensive to acquire customers online and performance seems to not be as strong as it used to be, so optimization of that paid allocation is a big focus for us right now,” Gopinath said. “We’re also not just with Meta, but moving to Pinterest and asking if we should be spending on TikTok. We’ve even engaged with an agency to establish a foundation for SEO, because we are seeing people organically searching now for Merino wool felt and that’s how a lot of people discovered us.”
Currently, Graf Lantz products are available across more than five countries and in 400+ doors, including Food52, Macy’s and West Elm. However, the brand has especially profitable relationships with the specialty retailers that focus on curating unique products from emerging and lesser-known brands.
“Our growth and the loyalty we’ve gotten is largely from specialty stores,” Gopinath revealed. “This is an element of retention because our specialty stores are like a DTC customer times 10. They’re an important customer and we want them to keep ordering from us.” She added that the wholesale team has mapped the entire U.S. and every region to find the order amount they can get from each one, and that “these little things add up, just like DTC growth. We don’t want to lose that big chunk of our revenue.”
Custom “swag” and commercial B2B sales are two other growing areas of the Graf Lantz business. Both areas are expanding organically, so Gopinath is exploring how the business can tap into these opportunities and “be more intentional about future growth.”