Press: Marketing Authenticity

September 30, 2005
by Cristina Opdahl
in New Mexico Business Weekly

Store focuses on Zuni art

Near the door to Santa Fe-based Keshi: the Zuni Connection is a rack of informational pamphlets and Xeroxed newspaper articles. Books on Native American art and jewelry vie for space near the cash register. Many focus on the work of members of the Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico, who have a reputation for impeccable craftsmanship.

Founded by schoolteachers from the Zuni Pueblo, Keshi still relies on education as the cornerstone of its sales philosophy and the tactic has worked.

While the owners do not have records of their initial sales since 1981, when the store was started, "we've more than doubled our sales in the last 10 years," says Bronwyn Fox, Keshi's owner. For several years, its sales have easily exceeded $200,000, and a move into a new location has increased sales by 35 to 40 percent over the last two-and-a-half-years.

"Our focus is education, and that is appreciated [by the customer]," Fox says. "We have a lot of literature we send out with everything, educating people on everything from what fetishes are, to what to look for in determining what is not real."

The store carries pamphlets from the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture as well as information for specific items.

"If someone is buying a pair of wolves [i.e., wolf fetish carvings,] for a wedding gift, then I've got an article from this woman who is talking about the meaning of wolves, which mate for life," Fox says. "It really enriches the experience."

Keshi's advertising campaigns also educate the public about its merchandise.

"We did a series of ads that were concentrating on different animal medicines," she says. "One week, we did elk medicine. So we would have a picture of an elk and talk about their medicines. We had people who were cutting them out."

For Fox, the emphasis sets the store apart from most others.

"The focus of that ad campaign was not buy, buy, buy," she says. "They [the ads] were getting people to connect with something deeper, not just shiny things. That's why we call our store the Zuni Connection. The majority of our stuff is about people feeling a connection to something deeper, something spiritual that feeds them somehow."

One obstacle Fox and her mother have run into is the counterfeit market. While every fetish, necklace or kachina doll they sell has been made by a member of the Zuni Pueblo, which contributes 95 percent of the store's merchandise, or one of a few other artists from other pueblos, many fetish carvings and fetish necklaces are produced in a location that was renamed Zuni, Philippines.

"There's more and more stuff being made in Zuni, Philippines, so they can say things were made in Zuni," says Fox. "It's a battle. People are making so much money doing it, they pay their fines when they're caught and then continue doing it. It really hurts the Zuni artists. We try to make it as clear as we can to people."

While objects at Keshi range in price from $4 to thousands, Keshi has a focused clientele.
"We advertise in Native American publications and we target the environmentally conscious community," says Fox. "We support various environmental nonprofits and advertise in their publications and underwrite their radio shows and we advertise on public radio. And we have sponsored some speakers, like Jim Hightower. People who are environmentally conscious and socially conscious -- these are our customers."

Advertising notwithstanding, a move to a new location in a single building near the Santa Fe Plaza two-and-a-half years ago, which added a third more space, has made Keshi's sales grow more than any one single factor, Fox says.

"Before, we were right next door in the Santa Fe Village Mall. It was very much a twilight zone. I've heard locals say, 'I've been here all my life and never seen this place.' It was very much a destination location. We've done well in there. [But], now people can see us who aren't looking for us. "

Such walk-ins make up about half of Keshi's clientele, and the move to a more visible spot has increased the store's sales by 35 to 40 percent.

"The old space had an old fashioned, trading post feel. But this space is more sophisticated. Maybe it has engendered more confidence in certain people to spend more money. Some folks feel more comfortable in a place that feels more sophisticated."

Zuni fetish carvings are well-known among some circles of art collectors, and some artists sell out quickly. Keshi's success has hinged on its ability to distinguish itself from other stores, both physical and in cyberspace, that sell Zuni work.

To that end, Keshi has benefited from its unique history as a business that started as a Zuni-owned co-op in 1981. While living on Zuni Pueblo when she was a young girl in the 4th and 5th grades and her mother was teaching in 6th grade, Fox recalls, "a bunch of teachers got together and recognized there was a lot of exploitation going on by the traders. They thought, why not have a co-op, a place where the customers and artists could get a fair shake, instead of all the unscrupulous middle men?"

Zuni Pueblo initially funded the store location in the Santa Fe Village Mall, but that didn't make things easy.

"They had to do everything on consignment because they had no capital," Brown says. "Just working out the protocol for how to approach the artists was difficult. The Zuni perception of the world was a little more immediate. The question, 'If you give me your work now, I will pay you later' was a novel concept to some of the artists. That was a very long process of getting enough work together."

After several years of mismanagement, Fox's mother, Robin Dunlap, took over managing the store. Several years later, the board, still Zuni schoolteachers who had little interest in running a business, asked her to buy the store, and the Pueblo helped her secure financing.

"After a couple of years, it was starting to really grow and the board members could see that," Fox says. "There was a great deal of trust that she would always remain true to the mission of giving at least half of the retail price to the artists. "

The store has always maintained this policy. It now exhibits the work of about 400 artists. And, says Fox, "we have people go to Zuni, then come see us. We have access to some artists' work that you won't find other places because they're in demand."

Keshi, which began with just one employee plus one part time, now employs four full-time employees and three part-time.

The newest employee is devoted full time to the Web site, which was re-launched early this spring.
"Right now, it's probably like 15 percent [of our business], but we want it to be a lot more. We're thinking about the situation in the world with fuel. Are people going to be driving to Santa Fe as much? The Internet is going to be more key, " Fox says.