Inspiration and Critique: Saddleback Leather

8 May 2015

Inspiration and Critique: Saddleback Leather

I first came across Saddleback Leather in about 2009. I was looking for design inspiration for my new blog. The old Saddleback Leather website had just won a design award and it was the start of a love affair. I subscribed to their newsletter and have followed them ever since.

I became a Saddleback Leather customer, follower and advocate as a direct result of them hiring a good web designer.

PodMidOpenSaddleback Leather make heavy duty leather bags. They are a luxury brand and their bags come with a hefty price tag attached. Despite the fact that Indiana Jones uses a cloth messenger bag I always associate his image of old world durability and battered antiquity with Saddleback Leather.

They are an American company based in Texas and whilst I understand that they do have a local presence there they are essentially a global online brand and the vast majority of their sales, PR, marketing and communications are done online. They are a good example of a company that has succeeded online. They have succeeded for a number of reasons and these are things that I advise clients to emulate. There is one thing that they have achieved which is very rare and notable:

They have successfully created enough desire to justify a high price tag for an item which most buyers will only have experienced online.

Most successful online brands are either cheap or they proved the value of their brand offline and then their buyer bought online through reputable websites. This is not a small achievement and this is why I think they are worthy of discussion.

I do not agree with all the decisions that they have made. They have recently redone their website and to be frank I think it is a step backwards. They needed to modernise the site, they needed it to be responsive and they needed to simplify it. The old site was too noisy and left a lot of their most engaging content hidden away, and you really had to dig to find it. In simplifying their new design they have made the same mistake again. They have again failed to identify what is engaging content and prioritise it, and so again you have to dig.


Saddleback Leather have have tapped into the wandering souls of their buyers and focused their imagery not on their products but on the places and experiences that people who would buy their bags want to have. All their images are emotive.

A dog which has been tied to their bag then trying and failing to drag their bag across an empty beach. You see the practicality of tying your dog to the bag so he doesn’t run off whilst you, the owner, is swimming in the sea. You empathise with the dogs position. You are rooting for the dog to escape, even though you see that the dog hasn’t moved the bag an inch. Its an image purposefully chosen to hit the emotional chords of someone afflicted with wanderlust. They have strong grounds to sympathise, empathise, engage and desire that scene on multiple levels.

Designed into the websites background is an old world map drawn on leather that evokes a desire to travel, explore and discover in the old fashioned way.

If you explore the site you’ll find photographs of the bags in Juarez, Costa Rica, Panama, Prague, Bled, Australia, the Sahara, Budapest, El Paso, Bora Bora, Jordan, Sudan, New Zealand, and even on an air force oil refueling tanker as it refuels a military jet midair.


The site goes into great detail about the story behind the brand. Essentially the story is that of the company founder, his love of travelling, the love of his dog ‘Blue’, meeting his wife, falling in love, starting a family and then the shared experiences of his family. He has positioned his product as a the result of his story and his story is continuing to be a part of his product. The reality is that his story has nothing to do with how good his bags are, their ability to do the buyers desired task or how good their value for money is. His bags are inanimate objects but our human desire to personify and imbue inanimate objects with meaning is strong and they leverage this heavily. And because of his story, his bags are viewed as having an emotional value that is priceless, and which ultimately means that we will happily pay more for them.

His story is engaging because Dave Munson has bared his soul. One of the cornerstones of making an audience engage with a character in a story is to show that person suffering, physically and emotionally. However people writing about themselves are not inclined to bare their personal wounds and usually hide them. You need to be brave to tell a good story. You need to let people see you weak. You need to let them in. He tells you that he ran over his own dog by accident, he tells you of the pain of his dog dying of cancer and the heartache he still feels. He tells you how he was injured in a bull fight because he didn’t speak enough Spanish to understand that he should stop his leg from shaking. He tells you of the time he had to exchange his dog’s puppies for food because he was broke. He tells you that worked dirt cheap for the Mexican mafia. He lets you in and because of this you really feel for him and as his life moves from broke wandering vagabond to successful family man you are elated by his success.

To tell a good story about yourself you have to let people see you bleed.


The first barrier in selling a luxury product online is creating the sense of value and attachment. If you go into Harrods you can pick up and feel luxury products. Before you spend £500 on a fountain pen you can feel it in your hand and see the craftsmanship and have an experience that validates the massively higher price. Any good salesman will tell you that the fear of losing something outweighs the desire to gain something. Kahneman and Tverskywon a nobel prize for discovering this. Once the salesman has put the pen in your hands your attachment to it is greater than if you had just looked at it through the glass.

But online you can’t feel the product, you are simply going on the photo, and we all know that product photos are photoshopped. A £5 handbag can be made to look really desirable when you can’t see the cheap materials and poor craftsmanship. Without experiencing the brand quality first how can you justify paying ten times more than you would on a comparative product?

Saddleback leather does this with product videos. Each product has a video of about 2 minutes with Dave Munson, the founder and face of the company, talking you through every feature of the bag in full HD resolution. He goes into great detail and focuses heavily upon the craftsmanship behind the bags and the practical logic of how the bag can be used, and this is supported by full HD close ups of product. I think this is an excellent way of conveying quality and of reinforcing the founders story and the craftsman pride that he feels for the product and leveraging them to justify the higher price.


Most ecommerce sites have a small product images. It’s from the legacy of people having small screens and slow download speeds. On ebay the product image is only 300px x 300px, on Next it is 300px x 450px, on TOPMAN its 350px x 380px, most woocommerce themes have images of about 350px x 350px, but on Saddleback Leather their images are 560px x 560px.

The larger your imagery is the more immersive your site will be and the more you can express the quality and detail of your product.


The whole business has a very casual tone of voice. Not many business would say “… Saddleback Leather no longer discriminates against any cow on the basis of age, appearance, lactose intolerance… if the beast has a natural marking or brand, or whether or not they worship the Divine Bovine” as a way of saying there may be imperfections in the product.

He uses terms like ‘Daddy likeee’ in his marketing emails and signs them ‘Peace to you’.

I once emailed them to say, ‘Hey, I have always loved the site, even showed it to a potential client in a high powered meeting. How much is postage to the UK for the Tobacco Messenger bag?’. This is the email I got back:

Hi there Richard!

Pam here looking after the shop, on this lovely Colorado morning. I must say I’m enjoying some slightly cooler temps. after a few weeks of being up in the 90s and pushing 100 degrees. This Scottish chick starts melting after 70. Haha!

Thanks so much for your kind words. Lovely notes like yours are definitely welcome :o) I passed it on to the rest of the team and it’s sure to make everyone’s day!

Also, it’s really cool hearing from folks back home. It’s good to know some leather goodness might be making it’s way across the pond.

The best shipping rate I could get for you is with USPS Priority Mail International, at $57.90 .

So the best way to do this is for you to go ahead and place your order whenever you’re ready. Then reply to this email right away, and let us know. We’ll go into our system and work some magic so that the shipping cost is $57.90. You’ll see a pending charge on your account for whatever the site initially quotes you, but as soon as we go in and make the changes, that will disappear.

I really hope that helps! Looking forward to hearing back from you.


Pamela, “Tetley Tea Addict”

Saddleback Leather Co.

How can you not love Pam? Even if this is a sales persona, and i suspect that it both is and isn’t, or at least if it is Pam being Pam that Pam and Saddleback Leather both know that its a likeable persona and will result in more sales.

The key point here is don’t be afraid of expressing personality.

Having personality does not mean that you are not professional or serious.

I didn’t buy the messenger bag, mainly because at time I couldn’t afford it and then when I could afford it I then quit my job to start Square Socket. But I know with absolute certainty that I will buy that Tobacco Messenger Bag one day, and hopefully before Christmas.


Saddleback Leather’s messaging is absolutely confident. They are not hesitant to say that they are the best out there. Their strapline ‘They’ll Fight Over It When You’re Dead’ and ‘Forge Your Legacy, History Favors Excessive Quality’ are excellent straplines.

They also have added a page on who their rivals are, and there they list 13 other high end leather bag brands. These are all strong, successful brands and includes Swaine Adeney Brigg, which has been around for 260 years and is the bag that James Bond traditionally carries. Their reasoning this thus:

“I don’t suspect our competitors would put a link on their websites to ours, but I don’t mind doing it. I want you to shop around. I’m so confident that you’ll find our classic look and over-engineered durability, at our price, so hard to resist that you’ll be back.”

This is clever for two reasons:

  1. It is a display of absolute confidence that their quality surpasses more established brands.
  2. It associates their brand with being in the same league as these other brands. These are actually more established, more successful and more expensive bag brands. But they have positioned their relatively young upstart brand as being in their league. This again helps them justify the higher price.


They go into real detail about the quality of their bags. They even have a video on how to duplicate their bag where they show you every strip of leather and rivet that goes into them and explain that they didn’t take any shortcuts.

If you are selling a quality product then you need make the creation of that product part of the story. If you make the story immersive with great video and visuals people will read to the end.


They have done a lot of things right. Their success isn’t accidental. However there are some things that they can improve upon. They have amazing videos and user submitted content however it doesn’t look like they have added any new content for quite a long time.

They need fresh content. They could get this content inexpensively by running a facebook competition, or giving prizes to buyers who submit new photos of their bags in random places. With large prizes for anyone who does anything really original and daring, like wrestling with a crocodile for the bag. They then can use this content to update part of the homepage, so that returning users see new engaging content and new visitors will see that there is as community and lifestyle surrounding this brand.

The great content that they do have is actually hidden quite deep in the site. People are lazy and they won’t go digging for interesting content. As soon as their interest wanes they are gone. Get your fresh and engaging content served to them high up in the site. Get it on the homepage and get it on the top level internal pages.

They have a blog but all that they have a link to it, and even when you go to the blog, the articles are only titles. There is no engaging imagery or excerpt. Which brings us to one of the golden rules of how to engage people:

Specific is interesting, generic is boring.

The more specific your opening statement whether it be in a news article, a sales conversation or picking a girl up in a bar, the more likely they are to engage with you. The homepage should have a title and excerpt of the most recent article and not just the bland statement that they have a blog. ‘Pink Stitching and Purple Pigskin’ evokes more curiosity and interest than ‘News and other cool stuff’.

There is also a few bugs in the new site’s build. For example if you reduce the homepage to to 520px wide the content doesn’t line up, ‘In Memory of Blue’ Shoots up and the news section shoots down. This isn’t going to affect their business success, but the professional in me is always a little disappointed when I see that a website I love hasn’t been tested properly.

Their site navigation could use a bit of a rethink. They have a main menu at the top which only has their top level items and then when you go to one of these pages there is then a sidebar menu for that section. This essentially divides the site up into multiple silos and you’ll only know what’s in these silos if you visit them all. It fails to give a visitor an overview of what’s on the site and it fails to allow users to navigate horizontally around the site. Whilst writing this article I have discovered content that I had no idea was there before and I have visited their site many times over the years. They could fix this by using a megamenu. So that when you hover over the main menu a large menu appears below where alongside the submenu you can see recent articles, featured products, current deals and the most recent user submitted photos. Then when you move to the mobile view this changes to a simplified mobile menu. Or they could cross advertise content so that blog articles link through to products, and products to news updates, or a product links through the that product in a user submitted photo so that before long a visitor has a wide understanding of the sites content.


There is a lot to learn from Saddleback Leather and if you are launching a new ecommerce brand you should include their way of doing things in your research. Hopefully the next time you have a meeting with Square Socket you’ll see my Tobacco Messenger Bag.

Visit their site and fall in love with their bags:

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