On August 23rd, Amazon launched its 206 Collective Men’s Galen Wool Blend Sneakers. The bland and mouthful-of-a-name was not the important part: The shoe closely resembled the signature sneaker that put Allbirds on the map and led to hundreds of millions of dollars of lifetime sales. The kicker was that Amazon sold its shoe for less than half of what Allbirds did—a private label attack in its purest form. 

The copycat product entered the news cycle a few weeks later in mid-September. But Allbirds did not officially respond until late November when CEO Joey Zwillinger wrote a short post on Medium titled “Dear Mr. Bezos,” that encouraged Amazon to copy its shoe as long as it copied Allbirds’ approach to sustainability as well. Allbirds, like Tesla and unlike many other major companies that have some sort of proprietary technology that makes their products hum, has open-sourced the EVA foam it uses for the bottom of its sneakers, which was created in partnership with Braskem, a leading Brazillian chemical company. Allbirds wants Amazon to use the same material it does because Amazon’s scale would further drive the price down and make it more accessible for any company to use it, since higher material prices are often the number one reason companies opt for traditional over sustainable materials. 

Zwillinger’s Medium post took off and led Allbirds to count November 24-30th as the most popular week search-wise in its history, according to Google Trends. Coverage in every major news outlet only fanned the flames. Amazon, predictably, declined to comment and the move is consistent with the challenges brands like Nike have run into selling on the world’s biggest ecommerce platform. 

This approach contrasts with how Allbirds handled Steve Madden copying its shoe with a model called the Traveler, which launched in late 2017 and retailed for the same $95 that Allbirds charges for its shoe. In this case, Allbirds sued Steve Madden for copyright infringement and did the same with another Australian brand named Giesswein Walkwaren. The company says there are over 20 other brands that sell some version of an Allbirds-like shoe, but the Madden case was so obvious it likely required a stronger response. Suing Amazon, Zwillinger said, is “probably a risky territory to wade into…. We’re a company of about 500 people total. I would suspect Amazon has more than double that in just lawyers.”

Ownership over design, especially in the consumer products industry, is a massive temperamental rabbit hole. There is an evolutionary nature to many products, especially with footwear, and tracing the origin of a design is not easy. Common Projects, the “it” shoes of the middle of this past decade, were a combination of Converse All Stars and Stan Smiths. Even Allbirds, which launched in 2014, resemble Nike Roshe Runs, which launched in 2012 and likely resemble yet another predecessor.  

Given this, Zwillinger’s letter was more of a PR device than anything else. While there is no doubt the contents of the letter have positive intentions and appear genuine, Amazon has, for many reasons, both inside and outside of its control, become a punching bag that if hit at the right angle generates a lot of press, and Allbirds successfully capitalized on this. 

The larger, more interesting question is what this stunt says about Allbirds’ brand. The company was last valued at $1.4 billion on an estimated $200-300 million in 2019 sales, and is known for its product way more than it’s known for its brand. People think the shoes are comfortable and buy them because of that, less so because they are sustainable. The brand also has a tech-nerd bent to it, especially among early adopters, which has turned some people off from buying them. 

This PR stunt—in addition to giving the brand a pop of relevance—helps cement Allbirds as a sustainable player in the footwear space that can make money and do good, while further vilifying Amazon at the same time. Even the idea of open-sourcing the EVA technology likely plays better brand-wise—and does better for the world—than keeping it close to the chest, which shows that the brand cares. 

But beyond this, Allbirds’ brand is still rather simple. While it did a masterful job playing defense here, it needs to start playing offense, especially as competition and copycats will only increase. Sustainability can still be front and center, but it seems that most Allbirds customers don’t know the details about the company’s mission, which are compelling. If Allbirds can remain the better choice for the planet and for customers, even with a premium price over competitors, it will have a promising future, and this is where it’s mission really starts to matter. Compared to Reformation, which takes too many creative liberties with how it advertises its sustainability efforts, Allbirds has to communicate its mission better while ensuring the integrity of the communication is structurally sound. This, after all, is why Zwillinger’s letter was so effective in the first place.