What to make of Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn's decision to sell out to Wal-Mart? | Bleader

What to make of Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn's decision to sell out to Wal-Mart?

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Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn posing with Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler during a store opening party in 2016. - RYAN SMITH
  • Ryan Smith
  • Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn posing with Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler during a store opening party in 2016.

Corporate sellout. That's the epithet social media users have adopted to describe Bonobos in the wake of its recent sale to Walmart for $310 million, and why not?

The NYC-based menswear brand, founded by Chicago native Andy Dunn in 2007, built a niche as a cool, millennial-friendly online company. If you listen to popular podcasts, chances are you've heard their ads (Dunn was even a guest on NPR's From Scratch podcast last year). Bonobos also talked a big game when it came to fostering a unique company culture and employee happiness. When I interviewed Dunn in April 2016 at a Bonobos store opening at Michigan Avenue, he bragged that Crain's New York Business had named his company one of the best places to work in 2011. Eventually he'd love to top that list, he told me.

That wish looks hollow now that Bonobos is joining forces with Wal-Mart—the monolithic retail giant synonymous with profit-driven corporate evil—a fact not lost on many of the company's customers.

The top "Liked" comment on Bonobo's Facebook page announcing the deal reads: 
" . . . it's also a move that your loyal customer base sees as the ends justifying the means. You're joining an organization that millennials, your core consumers, loath and vilify as destructive, unethical, and cheap—essentially the polar opposite when previously thinking about Bonobos. In doing so you've alienated the voice of your customer—that which heavily contributed to the Bonobos brand initial success. In the mind of the consumer, the connection has been made and the perspective of quality tarnished."

It's a reaction that Dunn seemingly anticipated, which is why the Bonobos CEO (also soon to be SVP of Digital Consumer Brands for Walmart U.S. eCommerce) wrote a post on Medium defending his rationale for the deal. The problem is that the essay, generically titled "The Future of Brands," is short on insight and long on faux-intellectual musings ("I have come to an odd belief, which is that we don't make decisions so much as the decisions make us") and obfuscating corporate speak. Dunn writes that he was initially against the deal but then, well, "the world is changing faster than we thought" and that he was convinced of the path by Marc Lore, the CEO of another e-commerce company gulped up by Wal-Mart. You have to scroll through almost 600 words to find the post's key sentence: With our model proven, we now want to become the market leader in all of premium menswear.

Well, OK, then.

I don't mean to be overly harsh on Dunn. The same day the Bonobos-to-Wal-Mart deal was announced, Amazon (a megaretailer some argue is a worse corporate citizen than Wal-Mart) spent a cool $13.7 billion on another company urban millennials adore: Whole Foods. This kind of thing—like it or not—is a regular feature of late capitalism.

But maybe I'm just disappointed. I spent an hour or so hanging out with Dunn at the aforementioned store opening party after he hobnobbed with Bulls star Jimmy Butler and other attendees, and found him more engaging and interesting than almost every CEO or tech entrepreneur I'd ever met. Sure, he still spouted the usual business-elite bullshit, but he also talked in-depth about what bonobos (the monkeys, not his company) could teach humanity and how he eventually wanted his company to push men toward feminism and matriarchy.

Ultimately, that could have just been another element of Dunn's brand all along. To sell men's pants effectively in the 2010s, perhaps you have to pretend to be selling a utopian vision of masculinity.

Here's an abbreviated transcript of that previously unpublished interview from April of last year:

What was the origins of the name Bonobos?

Andy Dunn: For me, they're the most amazing animal on the planet. They're one of the five great apes: Bonobos, chimps, orangutans, gorillas, and human beings. Of the five, bonobos are the only ones who organize nonviolent societies—and they do it in three or four ways. They do it by having a matriarchal leadership structure, by using sex as a means of conflict avoidance and resolution, and by engaging in play deep into adulthood—they're the only species besides human beings where adults play with children from both genders. Ultimately they recognize that male aggression needs to be held in check.

So we see Bonobos as the light for the male gender to look to for the future of both our gender and the future of our species. I call it the evolution of mankind—starting with pants.

You told me earlier you wanted this company to be about more than pants. You wanted to be about an idea.

I think it's about evolution. There's this fundamental belief we have in life when we're not considering our best self, which is that we're static. We're done. We are who we are. Isn't it more optimistic and more hopeful to think about the fact that we can evolve? So at Bonobos we talk about these five values—positive energy, empathy, judgement, self awareness and intellectual honesty.

What differentiates humans from bonobos? We have a much much deeper verbal ability by which to demonstrate self-awareness and empathy. So I like this idea that our brand is about evolution. It started with, hey, there's a better way to build a brand and it's digitally native, hey, there's a better way to do a men's pant with a curved waistband with a tailored fit in the thigh. That idea is behind everything we do.

You say you're trying to attract a certain kind of man—an evolved man? Are you saying you want to foster this kind of culture?

I call them the Navigator. It's a guy who's not sure where he's going but he's trying to figure it out. We believe that men are in a really interesting moment. Masculinity has to be more than just about bourbon, beer, bods, and burgers. There's got to be a higher common denominator. I think empathy is a big part of it.

Does that mean Bonobos is trying to instill feminism?

I'm saying that we can't have feminism without a comparable focus on what it means to be a man. Feminism can't exist in a vacuum without men reexamining what we do. As a men's brand, I want to add a little bit to that conversation over time. I don't think we've really contributed to that conversation yet. We're contributing in spirit by building a brand that we think is a better way to buy clothes. But eventually, we want to contribute more to that conversation. Like the Navigator we aspire to serve, we're trying to figure out what that means.

Explain more about what you mean by this so-called Navigator.

My grandfather won the Distinguished Flying Cross in World War II. He was a navigator on a B-17. So I think it's a little bit about courage. It's about resilience. It's about the fact that life is sometimes hard, and hopefully you see that human spirit of Bonobos.

Jimmy Butler is still here. Here’s a guy who, not only did his father abandon him at 18 months, but his mother kicked him out at 13 years, reportedly saying, “I don’t like the looks of you.” You want to talk about navigators of life, talk to Jimmy Butler, don’t talk to me.

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