Cultivating a Lifestyle Brand vs Curating a Focused Brand

13 May 2019 | 23 Comments

Last year at Gen Con, I had a pivotal discussion with a long-time Stonemaier Games partner, Top Shelf Gamer (specifically, Chad and Marlene). I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but that chat would end up shaping a key element of our overall strategy.

Since Stonemaier Games was founded in 2012, it’s been a game company. We make tabletop games, along with expansions and accessories for those games.

But along the way, the brand has flirted with other types of products. On the original Viticulture Kickstarter, for example, there were engraved wine glasses and corkscrews. Our webstore now includes a number of products designed for our games but are applicable to other games, like custom dice and metal coins.

Our most notable departure, however, began in 2014 with the first treasure chest of realistic resource tokens. It was a boxed set of commonly used resources in tabletop games (gold, stone, wood, etc), and it was intentionally designed as a universal product for a wide variety of games, not just Stonemaier products.

Among the many reasons we started making these realistic resources was to cultivate Stonemaier as a lifestyle brand beyond just games. A core part of our products is that they include high-quality components, and the premium realistic resource reinforced that element.

After eventually creating a total of 7 treasure chests, there was ongoing demand for specific resource tokens. So we partnered with Top Shelf Gamer, who specializes in selling premium components to enhance the games you love most. Their infrastructure was perfectly set up to sell, package, and ship the various tokens we continued to produce.

Starting with the Gen Con 2018 discussion, we decided to take it a step further and sell the realistic resource IP to Top Shelf Gamer. They were doing such a fantastic job with the brand that it just seemed like the right thing to give them full ownership over it. They’ll continue selling the same tokens, but they’re now coordinating the production with Panda instead of me, and they’re going to be releasing new tokens in the future.

This transition happened a few months ago, and Top Shelf announced it this weekend with a celebratory sale on their webstore. If you haven’t ever received a package from Top Shelf Gamer, I’d highly recommend giving it a try, even just once. It’s a special experience.

Coincidentally, a few days before the announcement and completely unrelated to it, I was starting to wonder if I should steer Stonemaier back into being more of a lifestyle brand. The impetus was a “back in the tank” episode of Shark Tank where a surf board company was expanding into a full line of t-shirts. So even if you couldn’t afford a $500 surfboard, you could still engage with the brand by buying a t-shirt.

I think this is a perfectly viable strategy, especially in cases where there are such vast differences in prices. An example of that in the tabletop industry is Board Game, which makes premium tables and also bags and even a few board games. In other cases, there are cross-branding opportunities that emerge from lifestyle brands, like how Fantasy Flight leverages their card sleeves.

But for me, the Top Shelf Gamer announcement was a good wake-up call to how Stonemaier has tried to curate a focused brand rather than cultivate a lifestyle brand. I think it’s fine to have a middle ground too (we still sell the wine glasses, and I like writing this blog and filming my game design YouTube channel)–this is just the direction in which we’ve been leaning over the last few years.

The great thing about the focused approach is that it provides a clear sense of direction. Short-term decisions, long-term goals, areas of improvement, etc: Everything is centered around the focal point. Which, for Stonemaier, is still our games.

If you can think of any examples of innovative lifestyle or focused brands where the strategy seems like a great fit for that company, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments (among any other thoughts you’d like to share).

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23 Comments on “Cultivating a Lifestyle Brand vs Curating a Focused Brand

  1. Ok, *one* more comment: the problem with “typical” branded items isn’t that they are different from the core products, but rather that there’s a pretty low ceiling on their ROI. It violates the general principle that one should focus one’s bets on things with high potential upside (and limited downside). These products get the “limited downside” bit right, but that’s not enough to constitute a good bet.

  2. I also think (and this is related the book recommendation above), the distinction between “focused” and “branded” may not be the most fruitful distinction. Reason: if you can design a product that your core customers covet just as much as they covet your core product, it will become a core product. The boundary is fluid, and the more successful you are at designing products your audience loves, the less of a boundary there is. In that sense, the end goal is to make the distinction meaningless.

    I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing more and more as our market becomes increasingly saturated. Board games aren’t nearly the blue-sky products they used to be, but the market is getting big enough that “game adjacent” products are becoming big enough to sustain companies. A success in that sphere can act like a stabilizing force against increased saturation.

  3. Your reference to the value of having many different price points echoes a book I read recently, which helped me to think more clearly about this topic: 80/20 Sales and Marketing, by Perry Marshall.

  4. I’d be proud to sport some Stonemaier Games branded apparel and miscellaneous lifestyle items (ball cap, enamel pin, tee, hoodies/coffee mugs, stickers, magnets, coasters, etc.). The perfectly designed hex/SM logo would be enough. If there were game specific items I’d be over the moon. I’m all about “pimping my game” to enhance the tabletop experience but enhancing my everyday life with gems from my favorite hobby brand – I would be all in! My family would actually know what to get me for birthdays and christmases too! If these items are out there and I missed them please please point me to them!

    ETSY has some examples but even there it’s slim pickins (I’m guessing due to ©).

    1. Sorry I realized you asked for company examples! I’d defer to what I know: video game industry. Bethesda, Rockstar, & Epic to name a few.

      My husband just mentioned “Bunker Branding” partners with companies to create lifestyle items.

  5. Maybe you need to revisit the idea of licensing your brands. That allows you to focus your energy on your core strengths while giving your customers more ways to enjoy your worlds.

  6. First congrats on your sale to Top Shelf!

    And second, I definitely see SM operating in more of the Gary Vee style philosophy which is “every company needs to be a media company”

    Which I don’t think you feel SM is a media company, but I think you are actually a media company first and a game company second. I know SM games because of this blog. And now follow the SM brand very closely because of the enormous value you have provided through your media.

    I can essentially justify buying any of your products because even if they did suck, its fine because the value you have provided is still beyond the cost of the game. And I know im not alone in this way of thinking.

    The SM media machine you have built has the ability to change the industry even if only by a small amount. Things like declaring how much you like flash funding goals and dislike early birds, you now see a lot more flash funding goals and a lot less early birds.

    Your take on how to do worldwide fulfillment has made a huge impact on the industry. Your success with your own preorder campaigns is now giving people confidence in doing there own preorder campaigns and skipping KS (if they have a following and dont need to use KS for the cashflow)

    I would argue that you are a media company first.

  7. I love Top Shelf Gamer, and I’m really excited to see how they expand realistic resources. My husband is a big fan of Jeep, which has really become a life style brand for him. He no longer owns a Jeep because we want all electric, but he still owns shirts and signs around the house and considers himself a jeeper because he enjoys offroading and outdoors.

  8. I can’t quite tell from your post: does this mean we won’t expect to see things akin to the Viticulture wine glasses again in the future? To me branded thematic items is a sensible thing to remain as part of Stonemaier Games, whereas upgraded resources makes sense coming from a different company.

  9. It’s honestly a shame that you didn’t hang on to the rights and had a KS every few years with treasure chests from Stonemaier. I wasn’t as actively pursuing the boardgame-hobby back when you did the last ones, so feels like I really missed out. Those were very affordable high quality upgrades of all these boardgames that I’d easily backed every few years or so, as they offered great value.

    The likes of what Top Shelf Gamer offers doesn’t really feel like value to me, but rather expensive upgrades that just become way too expensive when you add on the shipping costs to Europe.

    1. Thanks for your opinion, Codie. We stopped using Kickstarter years ago, though, and for many reasons I would not call that a “shame.” In fact, the last time we sold the treasure chests, we didn’t use Kickstarter for it at all–there are other ways to create things. :)

      I know from the production side of things that Top Shelf’s prices are perfectly reasonable. The prices we offered for the treasure chests were able $40 less than what the MSRP should have been. Also, Top Shelf sells tokens to Board Game Extras in Europe, so shipping to customers in Europe isn’t an issue.

      1. Codie, as Jamey says we buy the tokens from Top Shelf for sale here in Europe, and while we sell the tokens individually we also do quantity discounts for buying 10 or more of the same token. We may also be offer a further discount if you make a big order

        1. I can vouch for Board Game Extras as a great supplier. They do good stuff, ship reliably, communicate well, and are lovely to chat to at conventions.

  10. In general I loved the resource boxes. I’ve bought all 7 of them, but I immediately lost interest once it switch over to purchasing the individual tokens. I think that switched with the animal tokens. The boxes and the price were great reason to get them. When you buy them individually the price obviously needs to be higher, plus not having those nice containers was a big draw back for me. If you ever do an animal box in the future, (I doubt it and I understand why) I’d buy it.

  11. I think there is a balance. While having a accessory products let’s most participate in the brand is good sometimes to much of a good thing can distract. With other companies not in the game space they brand everything. (Like a power tool company with hand tools) while the same category I have less trust because the two tools have different processes and most likely sourced from a manufacturer of which the quality may be of question. From my vantage point I like companies who deliver a quality product that is within their wheelhouse. Perhaps a variety of games would suit the lifestyles of various folks.

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