Success Stories: Brand Development Strategies from Kulani Kinis

October 6, 2020
Richard Emanuel
 min to read

Dani Atkins went on vacation to Hawaii to decompress and relax and was blown away by the sticker price for swimsuits. The two suits she ordered cost her a startling $500. She felt frustrated by this and knew she could create excellent swimsuits for affordable prices. With drive and determination, Dani and her business partner, Alex Babich, created Kulani Kinis - a thriving brand that is tracking to hit 1.5-2 million USD in revenue by June 2018.

Notable customers include ASOS, Forever 21, and ModCloth. But this previous psychologist turned entrepreneur admits that in the beginning, she and Alex did everything and learned a lot along the way, but even as the brand continues to grow, Dani holds the core value of providing an excellent product at an affordable price as a non-negotiable, no matter how big they get. Dani shares “I have a lot of empathy and that’s why we get a lot of customers who come back to us. I hold the customer at the heart of the business because without the customer there is no business.”

Owning the Volume Model

Originally, Dani looked at selling wholesale swimsuits online but found that she would be purchasing suits at the very price she wanted to sell them. She discovered the swimwear model is margin-based and not volume-based which is often why the cost per suit is so high in the marketplace. Dani wanted a great price and a great product so she created her own bootstrapped startup that went against the grain and ran with a volume based model instead. Their suits are manufactured in the same places as some of the biggest brands so their customers are not only getting quality merchandise, they’re getting it for under $100 per suit. The duo invested all their money and ran Kulani Kinis as a side hustle, working nights and weekends. Within 6-9 months, Dani jumped from part-time to full-time. She created her own designs on Canva and Shopify, packaged her own products, and Alex would ship them on his lunch break. They claim it wasn’t hard work they did, but they worked really hard.

Eventually, Alex joined full-time because there was too much to do. Once they entered the trade show market and went from online to in-store, there was a huge shift. Today, they still keep a lot of things in-house like social media and pick-and-pack, but as they’ve grown, they’ve realized the value of outsourcing benefits too. They partnered with us here at Parkfield Commerce to upgrade their website through a collaborative effort and we communicated their voice through design. Brand development is not just a logo; it’s everything from the lifestyle you portray right down to how you make new and existing customers feel when they visit your website. The biggest trustmark is a great design. We wanted to ensure their users had a pixel perfect experience. Kulani Kini is like  Porsche in the sense that we’ve made small forward thinking changes directed by the customer and their behaviors. We did not copy what competitors do for their websites and instead stayed true to this brand’s ethos and ideas. We elevated Kulani Kini’s online presence by telling an authentic story through original content and design.

Social Media’s Influence

Initially, Dani started with Instagram and influencer marketing but she quickly discovered that the fees to advertise with top influencers were quite steep, so she decided to exchange value. Instead, she focused on giveback. Kulani Kinis ran competitions and gave away suits to increase brand awareness and grow their social media platforms. They looked at their inventory as a way to get the word out about their brand. Along the way, she found a few girls who had a million plus followers who agreed to take pictures in exchange for swimsuits. Today, Kulani Kinis continues to collaborate with like-minded brands ranging from sunglasses and coconut water to vegan supplements, beach towels, etc. to increase brand reach and promote brand awareness.

As a result, they grew quickly and currently have a strong social media presence on Instagram with 107,000 followers and counting. Alex notes that though social media isn’t the end-all, it is a great touchpoint. He calls it a great lead generator and customer acquisition at its core. It’s not always instant gratification but over time, it works. They both advocate that advertising should take up a significant part of your budget and if you can’t do cash advertising, then product exchange is a great route to brand building.

The Tradeshow Gamechanger

The power duo started their tradeshow journey by attending one in Huntington Beach last minute. Their trade show booth was placed on the end in a really good position where foot traffic had to pass them as they came up the stairs. As everyone passed them, they capitalized on the opportunity to really sell their brand.

Their first big client was Honolulu Surf, a subsidiary of Billabong and a brand they both grew up wearing. From there, things began to fall into place. They met a neighbor at the tradeshow who explained how everything worked and did quick, one-hour tutorials with Dani in their downtime. He also let them know when Forever 21 was heading their way and told them to get ready to grab their attention. They learned that you never know who you are speaking to and you have to be ready for when opportunity walks past. They landed a deal with Forever 21 during that tradeshow and still work with them today.

Key Strategies They Learned Along the Way

When they first started, Dani approached some girls at a local cafe and asked them to take some swimsuit model pictures. She found a photographer, offered everyone a little bit of cash, gave them swimsuits and gift bags, and it turned into a beautiful shoot. Dani saw the value of the investment and within a year, they hired a career model whose partner was a photographer. They took a product that wasn’t selling well, updated it, photographed the model wearing it, put it online and it began to sell overnight. They discovered quickly that pictures sell really well and today one of their biggest expenses is getting amazing imagery. They have regular photo shoots on the second of every month to deliver excellent pictures for their customers. They believe there is great value in having a significant advertising budget and it has paid off handsomely for their business.

Though neither had marketing backgrounds, they rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to achieve their success. They weren’t afraid to ask questions, try new things, and take calculated risks to receive dividends of success.

Richard Emanuel
Rich, the CEO of Parkfield, is a direct marketing pro with a decade of experience helping companies build, grow, and re-imagine their businesses. Rich focuses on using data and technology to create marketing solutions that capitalize on business opportunities and drive growth.
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