No matter where she looked, 52 year-old Fran Dunaway couldn’t find a quality shirt that was designed for women who wanted to express their masculinity. In 2012, she finally gave up looking. Enlisting the help of her wife and cofounder, Naomi Gonzalez, Dunaway created Tomboyx—a gender neutral apparel company that is the first of its kind to carry boxer briefs and other undergarments not only designed for men.
Nine years and one pandemic later, first-time entrepreneur Dunaway has been featured on the Forbes 2021 50 over 50 list, and Tomboyx’s sales have reached $24 million. Thanks to one key piece of feedback from their consumer base, Tomboyx went from being just another clothing company to shooting to the top of a new fashion subgenre, one they invented themselves.
Tomboyx values consumer experience above all else and has used all the tools at their disposal through all the stages of their development to harvest valuable insights from their key demographics. Their ability to seamlessly align with their customers has given their branding potency, authenticity and longevity. Amidst a pandemic and global recession Tomboyx has entered a season of growth, showcasing the value of knowing and investing in your audience.
What worked for Tomboyx, and what can we learn from them?
Let audience insights guide brand positioning.
While running their Kickstarter campaign, Dunaway and Gonzalez discovered a community of historically underserved individuals hungry for gender and body inclusive clothing, who kept asking specifically for one particular product: underwear.
Their campaign raised $76,000 focusing on shirts and unique patterns. Nonetheless, Tomboyx knew they had tapped into something special. They created their now iconic sets of boxer briefs designed for women’s bodies of all shapes and sizes, based on feedback from their audience. These garments quickly became their hero product and tripled their revenue in 6 months.
In 2016 Tomboyx decided to lean all the way in and completely relaunched as an underwear company while keeping their focus on gender and body inclusivity. Two years later, they raised a Series A investment of $4.3m. The growth from here has been exponential; by 2019, they raised a Series B investment of $18m.
Align corporate and consumer values for strong brand loyalty.
Tomboyx’s growth periods are linked to one theme - their willingness to leverage consumer insights when it comes to brand positioning. What gives Tomboyx’s value proposition authenticity is that the team behind the brand belong to the same communities as their consumers.
From its inception, the company’s customers and investors have been one in the same. 95% of their Seed investors were women. Dunaway attributes this to women wanting to break into the venture capital space and invest in “people who look like them.” According to Forbes, 81% of Tomboyx employees identify as female or non-binary, 42% identify as members of the LGBTQ community and 16% identify as non-white.
Tomboyx’s founders have made it clear that they are not a politically neutral company. “Tomboyx has an agenda. [We are] a rebel champion sticking up for what’s right because that’s what tomboys do,” says Dunaway.
This is the beauty of the Tomboyx brand - their ethos and core values are implicit to their name and the product itself. In the age of Victoria’s Secret, gender neutral and functional undergarments subvert popular understandings of how women’s underwear should look, feel and function. For Tomboyx’s audiences, brand loyalty is an expression of social activism.
Use social media to engage with existing communities.
Strong messaging with political and historical roots comes with a major benefit—existing communities of their core audience. Because consumers see themselves in Tomboyx from ad campaigns to executive employees, the company has seamlessly integrated into pre-existing communities. Tomboyx attributes their ability to translate data into audiences to Shopify, the e-commerce platform they have worked with from the beginning.
As with most apparel companies, Tomboyx focuses on social media, though Facebook is much more of a focus for them than YouTube. But perhaps more telling is the company’s second largest driver of digital engagement at 20%: Reddit. (Source: Similarweb)
A check on Reddit pages for “tomboyx” returns nearly 5,000 results. (Source: Google)
This level of consumer activity on a platform like Reddit, a popular discussion aggregate, speaks to the organic, user-generated discourse that the brand incites. Tomboyx is a popular topic of discussion primarily amongst LGBTQ and female-led community groups, some of which have hundreds of thousands of members.
Use digital research tools to understand core audience.
As their popularity grew, Fran and Naomi began to leverage digital analytics tools to better understand the concerns of their growing online community. They enlisted Google’s Find my Audience, amongst other tools, to understand their core audience and respond accordingly.
Their ethos of compassion and community-building was never more apparent than during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time Fran and Naomi created lists of resources related to mental health, housing insecurity, and other relevant issues that members of their community had expressed concern about on social media.
“Without digital tools I don’t know how we would have been able to survive or be there for our community during the pandemic.” Naomi Gonzalez, founder
As the global economy took a steep decline, Tomboyx products began selling out. “Without digital tools I don’t know how we would have been able to survive or be there for our community during the pandemic,” Gonzalez tells Digitally Driven in a 2020 interview. By consistently investing in their consumers, Tomboyx created a community that invested in them when it mattered most.