From Rejection to $900 Million: The Creative Journey of Gentle Monster

Imagine getting rejected and embarrassed by an industry, only to then build a brand valued at $900 million. Let’s talk about it. In 2011, the iware industry was done dominated by the Luxottica Group, who owns Ray Ban and is behind pretty much every single pair of designer glasses you can think of. Hanku Kim’s view was that the Iowa industry was uninspired and that glasses were not being explored as an artistic form. So he started a Gentle Monster with the mission of adding creativity and innovation to the industry. Of course, this was met with a lot of pushback at first, and he actually kept getting rejected by the industry when he was trying to compete with Luxautoka. Things got so bad at one point that he struggled to pay his staff, but he never gave up. And when all these doors closed in his face, he went in through the side window.

Hancock very smartly identified a gap in the market, which was a blind spot that Luxodeka didn’t see. He found that Korean women were not satisfied with the sunglasses that were on the market. Korean women wanted bigger frames to create the illusion of having a smaller face, which is the Korean beauty standard. Luxatico is too focused on making glasses that fit the western standard. So Gentle Monster started making oversized glasses, which were amazingly received by the Korean market. But it wasn’t until 2013 that Gentle Monster got its big break when their sunglasses were worn by the main character of a huge K drama show. What I love is that it was actually the show stylist that made this happen because he was a big fan of Gentle Monster. And this is such a great lesson to all the brands that are shooting their shot in the DMS with a list celebrities and influencers only to get ignored. Instead, try to get your products in the hands of those around the celebrity. So the stylist or the personal trainer or a good friend of theirs. Of course, the key is to do this tastefully. So now that Gentle Monster had all this momentum, Hanku Kim could show how unpredictable and creative the brand can really be. Starting with the products which have something for everyone, from the more classic frames that are a majority of their sales to more and more unique and experimental designs that are gentle monsters way of expressing its imagination. But where they really show their imagination is in their stores, which are closer to art exhibits than they are glasses stores. Each one of their stores explores a different theme and tells an immersive story that provokes an emotional response. My favorite is this one, where they’re exploring a world where technology has found a way to restore forgotten memories. And they tell this story with these incredibly lifelike robots of an old woman and two donkeys. And gentle monster will spend a whole year working on these robots in their in house robotics department, which feels almost surreal to say about a sunglasses brand, but Gentle Monster actually employs more than 100 people whose job it is to work on these incredible spaces that are more art than retail. It’s amazing how they choose creativity and storytelling over the rules of what a retail experience should be.

Usually, brands will prioritize the efficiency of the shopping experience to maximize sales, whereas Gentle Monster prioritizes the experience and making it unforgettable and not even remotely about the products. And as a result, most of their business comes from retail. They have lines around the block of people wanting to go in and experience a store for themselves, even if they don’t wanna buy anything. Now compare that to other luxury brands where they pretty much kick you out if you’re not gonna buy anything.

Then there’s Gentle monsters collaborations and this is another pivotal way that the brand and expresses its creativity. They partner up with everything from big fashion houses like Marcella to video games like Overwatch to mega celebrities like Jenny from Blackpink. And they create these unreal looking experimental glasses that sell out in minutes. And this huge desirability of Gentle Monster products is really because of everything else they’re doing. It’s not just the products, it’s the hype and the value of the brand that comes from how creative and unpredictable they are with everything they do. Another thing that’s unpredictable is how Gentle Monster ventures into different industries. They started a cosmetics brand called Tamberans, which has been wildly popular. And then when everyone expected them to stay in the beauty and fashion space, they of course, shocked the world and started New Day, which is an artistic dessert brand. And both of these sister brands clearly have the gentle monster DNA in the creativity and amazing in store experiences. And to me, they’re almost building this gentle monster creative universe where they have all their brands in the same building where each floor is a different brand that fulfills a different need. My take is that Gentle Monster is aiming to have a brand for each one of the five senses. So Gentle Monster is the sense of sight with their glasses. Newdake is the sense of taste with these incredible looking pastries. And then Tamberans is the sense of touch with their moisturizers and the sense of smell with their perfumes. So I’m gonna go ahead and predict that their next brand is gonna have something to do with the sense of hearing. So maybe a gentle monster line of earbuds or headphones.

Then there’s gentle monsters content. And as you’d expect at this point, it’s more like art than it is content. There’s so much imagination in the concepts they come up with and their content is more about being thought provoking than it is about promoting any products. And as a result, their content gets so much further in reach and people get so much more interested in the products, which is the same ironic thing that happens in their stores, where the product is also secondary to the art and the creative activity. Even their influencer PR boxes are so original and shareable and it’s so clear that Gentle Monster understands the power of an unboxing experience on social media, this Gentle jelly packaging went viral because it’s so visually impressive. And it’s a great example of how to use packaging as a storytelling medium.

Another thing I love about Gentle Monster is how they activate their community. They launch these really creative and interactive campaigns to get their audience involved with the brand, whether it’s to market a new collaboration or start a trend on social. For example, they launched a mobile app game as part of their collaboration with Jenny, where players could win frames from the collection. Or my personal favorite is this New Day campaign where you could get your pastry order for free if you beat the cashier at Rock, Paper, Scissors. That’s so good.

The last thing I’ll say is this. I need to take it back to Hanke, Kim, and when he was once asked what his goal was for Mental Monster, he said he wants the company to be publicly traded on the stock market, but not for the reason you might think. He wants to go public because he wants his employees to own shares in the company, to own a piece of the success. That is gentle monster because he says it’s so expensive to own a house in Korea and he wants every one of his employees to own their own house. That’s just beautiful. What brand do you want me to break down next?