When 38-year-old Malia Mills decided to launch her own swimwear company, she set out to do much…

When 38-year-old Malia Mills decided to launch her own swimwear company, she set out to do much more than just sell high-end bathing suits. Mills wanted to inspire a beauty revolution that would fundamentally change the way that women felt about themselves. Before she became an entrepreneur, Mills had worked in the fashion world as a designer for established apparel companies. Mills, a native of Hawaii, saved the money for her start-up investment by working for many years as a waitress in New York City. She started Malia Mills Swimwear in 1 991. The motto of Mills's business is “Love Thy Differences,” and Mills is passionate about encouraging all women, regardless of age, weight, or body type, to feel good about themselves and to celebrate their uniqueness. In Mills's world, if a woman does not like the way she looks in a swimsuit, it is the suit that has to change, not the woman. As she explains, “We are passionate about inspiring women to look in the mirror and see what is right instead of what is wrong.”

The Polaroid Project

If you walk past the Malia Mills Swimwear flagship store in New York's SoHo, the first things you will notice are the photographs in the window. Instead of showcasing fashion models, the window display features a collage of Polaroid pictures of customers wearing the company's signature swimwear. According to Mills's sister, Carol, who manages the store, “We've had so many customers walk in off the street because of those photographs. People are thrilled to see actual women in all colors, shapes, and sizes wearing our suits.” The Polaroid project actually began as an offbeat idea thought up by a summer intern on a particularly slow sales day. Mills liked the idea of using photographs of her customers because it resonated with the core mission of her business.

Place Matters: Setting the Right Tone

To create a comfortable environment for her customers, Mills has constructed her stores to look and feel like cozy lounges. She herself always hated trying on bathing suits in department stores under the glare of unflattering fluorescent lights. In her boutiques, the lighting is soft and dressing rooms are located in the back

so that the customers will not feel exposed to other shoppers. She provides free bottled water so that they can feel relaxed and at home. Sales associates are always on hand to assist with finding the appropriate suits. Mills does not believe in a one-size-fits-all design philosophy. People's bodies do not come in packages of small, medium, or large. Accordingly, her tops are sized like lingerie, and bottoms come in sizes 2 to 1 6. All pieces are sold as separates, which allows customers to mix and match across different style and fabric options, as well as size.

The Price/Production Connection

Malia Mills's suits are priced at the high end of the swimwear market. A bikini top or bottom will cost somewhere between $130 and $165, and one-piece suits run an average of $325. This pricing scheme reflects some of the choices Mills has made as an entrepreneur about how her suits are produced. For example, she chooses to manufacture in New York City instead of outsourcing production to Asia or elsewhere, where labor costs are lower. According to Mills, “It costs us much more per unit to sew our suits locally but supporting our community is worth it. The women (mostly) who sew our suits do so with extra care-we visit them often and they know how important quality is to us.” Mills chooses to import the fabrics she uses from Europe and she typically buys them in small quantities, which is more costly, so that her designs stay fresh. Mills also pays a premium to the fabric mills that custom-dye her materials in unique colors and this also contributes to the bottom line of her manufacturing costs. Her suits are so well made that she sometimes worries about undercutting herself in the marketplace. If the average woman owns two or three bathing suits and a Malia Mills suit can last several years, it could take a long time for a customer to seek a replacement.

Smart Selling Requires Trial and Error

Early on, Mills sold her suits wholesale to department stores, but she found that this strategy did not fit well with her core mission. Mills's suits got lost on the racks next to other brand-name apparel, and the salespeople did not understand how to answer customers' questions about the unique features of her product, such as how they are sized differently from other swimsuits. Eventually, Mills decided to sell directly to the consumer. Maintaining control over the sales process has allowed Mills to stay true to her mission of providing women with an enjoyable and empowering experience, purchasing swimwear that fits in a relaxed environment.

Promotions: Getting the Word Out

Over the years, Mills has been successful in generating PR. Her company has been profiled in major publications such as the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, and Harper's Bazaar. It has helped to have celebrities such as Madonna wearing her suits, especially when they are photographed in public. Recently, Mills began purchasing advertising for the first time in local print media. She is doing this as an experiment to see if it has a noticeable impact on generating new customers. In the meantime, the growth of Malia Mills Swimwear continues to be propelled by word of mouth and customer loyalty. Each day, the business connects with passersby who are lured into the store by the Polaroid photographs of ordinary women wearing her bathing uits. Once these women walk in off the street, there is a pretty good chance that they will walk out as customers.

Case Study Analysis

1. Describe the unique features of Malia Mills's product.

2. Malia Mills Swimwear is not inexpensive. Why do you think customers are willing to pay a premium for her suits?

3. The case mentions that Malia Mills Swimwear is currently experimenting with paid advertising. If you were in charge of marketing for the company, how would you assess whether or not it was cost effective to continue purchasing advertising?

4. What kind of environment is Malia Mills trying to create in her stores? Why is this important?

5. Besides her own boutiques, specialty stores, and through the Internet, what might be some additional sales venues for Malia Mills Swimwear to consider exploring?

6. Why was the “Polaroid project” a successful promotional venture?

7. Imagine a scenario in which Malia Mills Swimwear hired you as a media consultant. Answer the following:

• Come up with a cause-related marketing strategy for the company.

• Describe three strategies for the company to pursue in obtaining media coverage. 

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