image of shinola products on a table

Brand Culture: Sean From Shinola

We share a story that demonstrates how one engaged employee can make such a huge difference to your brand culture, customer experience & ultimately, profits.

A story of how one engaged employee can be your most powerful brand ambassador

My New Yorker friend always says; you can never impress a Londoner!

“What do you mean?” I snap back at him.

“Well, you’ve got amazing cafes serving the best coffee, fantastic restaurants with great food and more shops than one could ever want… and yet, I rarely hear people getting excited about them. In New York, our dinner party conversation consists of the best places to eat, drink and shop…”

This got me thinking.

When was my last truly great service experience, and what made it memorable?

Like many Soho residents, Saturdays consist of a stroll around the shops with an overpriced coffee, before brunch and the gym…

  • 09:00 – I enter the coffee shop and make my order: one flat white with an exasperated eye roll from the barista as I request “extra hot milk”
  • 09:15 – I stumble into my favourite clothing store: one pair of skinny jeans with a set of piercing daggers from the sales assistant as I, ‘the customer’, interrupt her Snapchat story
  • 09:30 – Brunch: I’ll take the full English (with a side of arsenic when I ask to sub the avocado for baked beans)

No wonder our dinner party conversations are about the weather – I’m drowning in a sea of bad service. It’s not the coffee, the clothes or the food that stink… it’s the service.

But, at 10:45 last Saturday that changed when I met Sean from Shinola.

He doesn’t know it yet, but Sean is not only great at his job, he’s also an expert on how organisations motivate their employees and turn them into powerful brand ambassadors.

“Hey, happy Saturday! If you need any help, let me know” Sean says as I enter the beautifully curated shop, smelling of cedar wood and leather.

Already casting suspicious scorn at his pleasantries, I continued to browse the store (a little frustrated that my New Yorker friend may have a point – you can never impress a Londoner).

I begin to ponder over a beautifully put together £45.00 notebook and realise I have been living in London too long when I feel like I’ve landed a bargain.

“How much do you know about Shinola?” pipes up an excitable Sean. “Would you like to hear about where we came from?” His charm and excitement was too much for even a self-confessed introvert to refuse.

And so, he begins his story…

Shinola began trading in 2011 and specializes in watches, bicycles, and leather goods. It’s headquartered in Detroit and has a reputation for attracting, recruiting and developing passionate and interesting people. They refer to their people as ‘Craftspeople’, as everyone helps to craft the Shinola experience, with a focus on beauty and precision.

Little does Sean know, I am a consultant who regularly works with organisations to understand what makes their employees tick. My curiosity gets the better of me, so I ask him “What do you love so much about working here Sean? You are very knowledgeable about the company.”

Sean had worked at a few places during university to make ends meet, but to use his words “there’s something special about this place”. Unknowingly, he gives me the three magic ingredients of what makes him motivated to be a Shinola brand ambassador: purpose, mastery and autonomy. Without realising it, Sean goes on to more or less give me an education on Daniel Pink’s motivation theory:


Sean: “The first thing they do when you get here, is tell you the story of Shinola and I remember them telling me about how important our job is, in stores, to tell the story of the company to customers”. In essence, Shinola had created meaning and purpose for Sean. They got him excited about the history and heritage of the company, what they stand for and why they are special and inducted him into their brand culture. They gave him clarity about how his role as a sales assistant at their Carnaby Street Store in London (4,000 miles away from head office, might I add) was essential. He was valued, important and had a purpose.


Sean: “Before I came here, I worked in a chip shop, all day, battering fish. When I came to Shinola they taught me how to fix a watch strap, polish shoes like a gentleman and interact with customers. They pushed me and challenged me, and I’m actually quite good at this stuff.” In short, Shinola created a culture where their employees could learn new skills. People are challenged, but not so much that they ever felt uncomfortable or out of their depth. They gave their people the ability to ‘have a go’ and master new skills – with this came increased discretionary effort, increased motivation and as a result, happy customers.


Sean: “After 4 months of working here, I spoke to my manager about an idea I’d had to sell a range of Shinola products at a famous London department store. He said to me, “ok, put together a proposal and run with it, let me know what support you need”. I didn’t have a clue where to begin, but, last week we sold our first hand made leather bag from our new concession in that very store”. Even if he didn’t explicitly realise it, Sean was energised by the fact that he was given ‘Autonomy’. He was given the ability to take an idea, develop it, and receive guidance and support from his manager. This gave him the ‘inner drive’ to achieve something great.

But, so what?

Whether it’s conscious or not, this is an example of one organisation role modelling what we at NKD refers to as a brand culture.

For Sean, he has a job where he engages with purpose, learns new skills and loves coming to work every day to represent the best of the Shinola brand.

And what about for me, a Londoner, a customer accused of never being impressed, exasperated by the sea of sameness when it came to services experience? I’ve been stopped in my tracks by an employee, fiercely passionate and knowledgeable about the company he works for, who was able to influence this bitter Londoner’s buying decisions.

For Shinola, they now have a customer who buys their products, returns, buys more and tells his friends about his service experience… he even writes a blog about it.

A great brand is important and is what gets customers interested. You then need iconic products and a Customer Experience that sets you apart from the competition. But none of this is possible without monumentally engaged employees and inspiring leadership, who act as ambassadors for your brand every day. The result: sustained profit and growth.

Why are we so confident about this approach? Because we’ve seen it happen first hand in a number of organisations who have bravely invested in giving their people purpose, mastery and autonomy. They have seen results that exceed all of their expectations. What’s more, I have also been a customer of one of these organisations, and my AmEx bill is living proof of the impact.

It’s simple. Motivated and engaged employees are your greatest brand ambassadors, they will deliver service to your customers that keeps them coming back time and time again. And that adds zeros to the bottom line.

Thank you, Sean, for reminding me what truly great service looks like – and showing that this bitter Londoner can still be impressed!