, SOG Knives Rediscovers Success By Getting Back To Its Roots, The Nzuchi News Forbes

SOG Knives Rediscovers Success By Getting Back To Its Roots

, SOG Knives Rediscovers Success By Getting Back To Its Roots, The Nzuchi News Forbes

I’m a Scoutmaster. I’m chock-full of pithy thoughts I believe will be of value to my Scouts as leaders in the outdoors. One of them is, “As a Scout, you can’t possibly own too many knives.”

I practice what I preach to them. I’m not going to bother counting all my knives (it would take me too long, for one thing—and my wife may well read this, and that could only lead to uncomfortable questions), but my planning for this story did give me a reason during a recent campout to count how many SOG implements I own. The total is seven. It just so happens that on the very hike I was on when I did the counting, I was carrying three of them. That’s how much I like SOG’s products.

So I was thrilled to connect recently with Jonathan Wegner, VP Brand at SOG (formally, SOG Specialty Knives & Tools, Inc.) and to get a chance to learn more about the company. The SOG saga is every bit as fascinating as I’d hoped. It’s the story of one guy starting a successful business based on personal inspiration. It’s the age-old tale of a great company that lost its way chasing growth. And it’s the less-frequent story of such a firm getting off the ropes and finding its way back to what made it great.

SOG is based in Lynnwood, Washington, just north of Seattle. The company is privately held and backed by private equity, and has about 25 employees. It was founded in 1986 by Spencer Frazer, a young product designer with a background in audio equipment and top-secret aerospace projects—and a former Boy Scout himself, with a resulting affinity for knives and axes.

His inspiration for launching his own knife brand started when he came across a Vietnam-era SOG Bowie knife at a fair. Knife aficionados know part of the name comes from Jim Bowie, the legendary knife fighter who perished at The Alamo, and whose surname came to describe a class of fighting knives with long, broad blades with a curved edge. The version that inspired Frazer was specially made for a highly-classified, multi-service U.S. covert special operations unit, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG). Frazer set out to recreate the SOG Bowie knife for the civilian market.

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He succeeded, then decided to do more. “Our founder had a very compelling vision, and worked directly with his end users—Navy SEALs, for example,” Wegner explained. “For the first 20 years, SOG was all about innovations and insights. Then we got investors and their five-year-plan to cash out, and they took a premium brand to the mass market. They doubled our sales, but sold out with no clear plan to maintain things. The company started into significant year-on-year declines, with a deterioration in relevance and minimal innovation.”

, SOG Knives Rediscovers Success By Getting Back To Its Roots, The Nzuchi News Forbes

There were some dark years when even the brand’s biggest cheerleaders were doubtful about its future. “I’ve been a SOG fanboy since the early ‘90s,” said Shane Keng, himself a knife and tool designer, and founder and President of Multitasker Tools, a boutique brand of functional multitools focused on weapons maintenance needs for police and military applications. “But their quality started to go. I last bought an Access Card [a small, lightweight card-style folding knife] when it was still made in Japan, then I lost interest. They started to go all over the map on product design and price point.”

After a series of CEOs were unable to right the ship, SOG brought in Joe Mc Swiney in 2016. He built a new company leadership team to lead a turn-around. “Joe was able to bring together a top-notch team of executives,” Wegner said. “Now our current CEO, Doug Lauer, is doubling down on the skills and experiences each of the executives have brought to SOG.”

Wegner, who originally worked with SOG as a consultant, soon became one of those new executives. One of the existing executives he worked closely with was Beren McKay, SOG’s VP of Product Development & Innovation. “Jonathan dug into the real background of the original SOG,” McKay said. “He spoke with Veterans, and really dug into what end users really valued and needed from SOG. That fed into our reframe of the brand. It became all about those important words, ‘study’ and ‘observe’—we did that with our customers. Before our turnaround, I sat down with my team and asked them which products they were proud of and happy to carry, and there was silence. Now there’s nothing we make they wouldn’t be happy and proud to be part of. We got there by asking our customer how they live their everyday lives, then making tools for them that they embrace and value, the same as the Vietnam-era guys did with that original knife, whether today it’s something for uniformed professionals like police and firefighters, for use in camping and outdoors, or for home use and everyday carry.”

Wegner agreed. “Our brand promise was innovation. We got back to that through user insights, and through our mantra of, ‘study, observe, understand, apply, and repeat.’ It ended up making things much clearer about where we were going. It’s all about giving our users focused tools to improve what they do, from warfighters to first responders to campers, and also office workers.”

Keng has seen the changes from outside as well. “They seem a lot more focused now. They’re aligning the brand DNA with their end user. They’ve put the focus back on how they develop products with ‘Studies and Observation Group.’ They’ve even put that full name, and idea, right on their knives and packaging.”

Changes to the business model have played a part too. “That new focus on the customer as the end user taught us that retail buyers will tell a story to your salespeople, but that story isn’t necessarily reality,” said McKay. “Buyers were telling us it was all about low price, but we found people are willing to spend real dollars for something that lasts. Our high-end stuff now blows right out of our website. What we used to do in a year, we now do in less than a month of digital sales.”

The focus for SOG now is firmly forward. “We now work to a three- to five-year plan with our team, a rich road map of what’s ahead with product and innovation,” said Wegner. “We’re pulling new ideas from SpaceX with materials, from vehicle design, even from anthropology, looking at key insights of how humans got to where we are now. Any industry gets better by looking outside. The knife and tool business had gotten stale, and was playing to the same audience. What about others? There’s a lot of opportunity for every brand in our space to be more relevant to more people. It’s hard to step out of established categories, but it can’t just be about making more dollars—it should be about truly being more beneficial, and adapting ideas and intellectual property for more people.”

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