The Promise and Perils of Early Branding with Emily Heyward (Red Antler), Philip Krim (Casper) and Tina Sharkey (Brandless) | Disrupt SF (Day 1)
2:38AM Sep 6, 2018
But here we are talking about a brands like Casper. So here to introduce that conversation is john Schieber one of the senior editors at TechCrunch. talking to the people behind Casper brandless and red antler. Big round of applause for john and his crew that come up. Thank you very much.
That's that sounded more like a medium round of applause to me than a big round of applause. I feel like y'all can do a little better than that. Come on, I'm on and now my panelists have abandoned me even though they were supposed to walk out on stage with me. But this is these are the perils of live entertainment right now is what we're having right here. So I'm with me today. Soon, as soon as they walk out onto the stage, which should be shortly is Emily Heyward, who is the co founder of red antler, Philip krim, who is the co founder of Casper, And last, but certainly not least, Tina Sharkey, who is the co founder of brandless, we are going to have an amazing conversation today about what makes a good brand. The title is the perils and promise or promise and perils of branding. But with these companies and the success that they've had, I see very little peril and pretty much only promise. So which is a great thing to a great thing to be in a room with so many illustrious, esteemed entrepreneurs and, and brand marketers and creators. I want to start out with one bit of housekeeping notes, which is actually for y'all. If y'all want to tweet some questions at me, you can. My Twitter handle is at J. Schieber and that's j. s. h. e. b. Er. This is really just a pad my follower count. But beyond that, I'd like to make this as interactive as possible to start that off, show hands. How many of y'all are actually like founders of retail companies, e commerce companies that are doing branding things? Well, that's a fair bit. So hopefully y'all will find this little interesting knock on wood. Emily, I wanted to start with you. If I may. And I I heard an interview that you did with Jonathan fields where you were talking about sort of your background and you mentioned that you studied post modernism at Harvard. Yes. Okay. So how does post modernism play at all into the work that you're doing now? Is it because everything is a fiction and
reality? No, I would not say that. Um, I think that it was more about breaking down consumer culture and what makes us do what we do, and not taking for granted the behaviors that we all take part in every day, but instead, really taking the time to figure out, you know, what's actually motivating people and what forces are at play in something as simple as walking into a store and, you know, grabbing a bottle of detergent, and you were in advertising before I was so and
then you started red antler, which we'll get into in a second. I love origin stories, but we'll leave it right there for right now and fill it move on to you. So you were the American you founded the merit group, which was doing a bunch of like e commerce websites for for all sorts of companies. How did that inform the decision to take it to the mattresses and start a mattress? Yeah,
you know, I've spent my entire career really since I was a sophomore at the University of Texas, in Brooklyn, horns in digital advertising, e commerce, digital marketing, and so started in the space and kind of the early 2000s started that company in 2002 and really saw the evolution of online advertising saw the evolution of e commerce. One of the categories we sold with that company were mattresses. So I saw the consolidation happening over the last 15 years saw how the retail landscape really didn't change from a consumer standpoint and ultimately informed a lot of our key understandings about what we wanted to do with Casper and
Tina your career. We could talk for 25 minutes about all the things that you've done. You were at I village you worked with Michelle Phan at Pepsi. When you were at Sherpa foundry. You were at Sesame Workshop? How did that trajectory inform your thinking as you you thought about creating brandless?
Um, I would say that everything that I've ever done is always been about community and a, how do you connect people to their passions? How do you connect people to their affinities, and how do you think about sort of both companies, but more importantly, people and movements. And so brandless was formed with a very specific intention and building a community of people that had a shared belief that everyone deserves better and better, didn't need to cost more. And so I would say that all of those experiences, whether it was I village or AOL or any of those were all about how do you connect people to actually unlock their own power? And so that was really the essence of what brandless stands for. Well, I
mean, that's the essence of what the internet stands for, ostensibly in some ways, right. And you can apply this notion to to any of the any number of the the sort of endeavors that people are engaged in online on but I wanted to get I know that y'all had a few slides that you wanted to show some of the products to talk about what you're doing. And unfortunately, I forgot to grab the clicker. So this is going to be interactive among the panel. Tina, if you wouldn't mind, I think that there is a clicker up there. Oh, I'm gonna grab it. Or you got it. Yeah, there we go. And so now we're going to take a look at some of the the products that are on offer. Tina, can you tell me what we're looking at right now. Um, that is brandless. So and, you know, we're not about our products, although our products are awesome. But this panel is really about sort of what is
the underlying architecture of building a brand. And so at brandless, we trademark the white space as a metaphor for it's really about your voice. And we want you to put your voice in the center of this. It's not about what we say about ourselves. It's what our friend tells a friend. And so by creating that very intentional white space, it let people tell their own stories and products tell their own stories. And so in partnership with red antler, we kind of it was like Zen and the Art of the brand in that we were trying to imagine what it felt like to build a brand in the hopes that people would start to populate that narrative. So the first things that got populate in that narrative is things are what they are tomato basil, pasta sauce, it's organic, it's gluten free, it's vegan, and it's brandless. And we turn brandless into an attribute that everything that you see here really tells its own story, you know, Matson, Delmonte don't own applesauce. applesauce owns apple sauce. That's its own narrative, as is every product has its own story to tell. And people have their own stories to fill in. Well, after
SOS doesn't own apple sauce, right? I mean, there are manufacturers that are behind apple sauce that make that make that product. I could argue that fact. I mean, can you argue that fact their manufacturers that make apple they're
not that fact. But you could argue the idea that apple sauce in its purest sense, or facial cleanser or anything like that, it just is that and then everything else around it is it is a narrative. And so if you just strip things down to what their most basic things are, that products can tell their own stories based on their attributes and what they stand for. And people shouldn't have to, like, search and hunt for those things. Emily,
let's talk about the about the crafting that narrative because that's what red antler does, right? I mean, y'all have worked with pretty much every one of or most of the most successful brands that have launched recently as, as sort of e commerce direct to consumer stuff we're talking about, like, I mean, all birds and Casper and brandless, and so on, and so on, and so on. Um, when you interact with a company, at what point in the process Are you coming in, and how integrated Are you with the this notion of brand creation. So
our clients early split among two different phases. One is pre launch. So Tina fell up, you know, we met these teams before they even launched in the case of Casper before they even had a name and we're getting involved from the very start to help not create the vision because obviously, we're working with founders who have extremely strong visions, but really distill it into its core essence and then figure out how that translates throughout the whole experience. And then we also work with some companies who have already launched. But maybe did it a little bit scrappier to begin with and recognize you know, after they raise another round, or as competition gets more hairy that it's time to take another look at brand.
Well, and that's interesting. So I, I read an article Tina, when when you were just getting started with brandless that you had you had a placeholder name for the company, which was doe seat, right, Diego, si. So how does how did you move the company and how did those conversations go? Where you started thinking about shaping the brand from Doshi to brandless or was was that Oh, no
does. He was always it was a it was a code. It was we were in stealth mode. And so did his name was always brandless. Well, that don't see was actually that it was a town in India, where the mud from that hill was many to have IRA Vedic properties. So in some cases, it was the site site of a first brand. So it was just our stealth name. We never branded OC as like our thing, how much of this process of creating a digital brand was how much of the playbook was written by Warby Parker when they started out? And then moving on? Like you, y'all used to call yourselves the Warby Parker of mattress companies? Right?
At one point,
I don't think that's a name we use internally I would say lazy journalists used it I think every company kind of learns from predecessors and Warby Parkers been doing kind of this playbook and model for eight years now you know, folks like Dollar Shave Club Harry's came before Casper we learned a lot from them, we continue to look at the landscape. And so I think, you know, the there is no single playbook where else every company would be executing in the same way. But instead there's you know, a collective that you can learn from different companies and what looked like it could be working well for them and but do what your own way and do it we always try to think what's the CASPER way to come into physical retail or do things online, etc. Now,
for the young entrepreneurs or any age entrepreneurs that are out there, like trying to think about how to start a new brand online, there's, there's literally so so little friction to starting your own company. Um, what advice would you give them as they sort of foreground brand in the strategy? What's the most important thing for them to think about as they think about crafting their brands? I hope that question was good. Yeah,
I think that it's really important from day one, to understand what you stand for, beyond what you're selling. So what's the emotional promise of what you're offering beyond just this is a really comfortable mattress, or this is, you know, an amazing set of products that are affordable, because that's also going to enable you to scale I think, if you root your brand too much in a functional benefit, you're gonna find yourself stuck a few years down the road when you're looking to expand your off and your entire brand is about this one product versus about ultimately what you can, you know, become and what consumers can become by being a part of your world. I'm like, it's also that branding is not an exercise where you look at a bunch of things on the shelf and say, you know, that one is the one I want to go with and pick it, you know, working with red antler like we did, it's a partnership to really go through and understand what's important to the founders. What do you want to stand for, as a company? What do you want to stand for, on the product side of things, and, and it's an evolution of getting that stuff out formalizing it and with Casper we had never gone through that process before. And so we were very lucky to be able to rely on Emily and JB and the team at Red antler about helping us understand and crystallizing some of those points. And so the brand that ends up coming out of that is, is really a long arduous process that you have to spend a lot of time in because it should be a reflection of the founders and what's important to the company and the mission and vision there. Now,
y'all are all New York based companies, right? Like everyone not by
I know we're in San Francisco and Minneapolis.
Oh, there we go. I apologize. For some reason I thought you were New York based on it's because you're cool. Because you're so cool. Thank
you. Well from New York so well, there
you go. Um, but but there was a recent like sort of tweet storm that an investor did about la as sort of the next big hub for for branded commerce and e commerce leveraging all of the the influencers per capita that exist there, and God bless. I know it, I live there now. It's pretty terrible. Um, I mean, the city is awesome, but the number of self absorbed selfie takers is amazing. Um, when you think about about leveraging community or leveraging a follower, what role will influencers play in in the development of new consumer brands? I mean, you worked with Michelle at Etsy. Yeah, I
would say that influencers in our particular case play a huge role, but often in the micro sense. So the first community that we met, literally, we launched on July 11 last year. And I think on July 12, the vegans of La found us on Facebook, and they just started sharing it with all their friends. And so we actually did our first pop up in LA in May, in West Hollywood. And the first community that we invited in to bring in all their friends were the vegans of La because they were the first community we met. And so whether it's the gluten free community, the vegan community, or the people who are reimagining the brands that they use, or environmentally friendly things, or design, things like those micro niches, where they have really strong relationships, they're sharing recipes, they're sharing ideas, they're sharing hacks, those we find are the ones that really come and stay in our community because they're co creating the content with us they're co creating a lot of the product because they're asking for things so we're accelerating things because we want to meet their needs and that's a huge part of what we do is just thinking about who can we serve and then how can we bring them into the conversation and how's that work at Casper Are you leveraging influencers when you think about building the brand we've definitely had a lot of celebrities, athletes influencers that have talked about the brand talked about the company's since the very beginning. And it's been awesome, you know, it's something where we don't actually go out and pay these folks that they just are natural fans of the products that we sell. And they've been very vocal about it. So we've been very lucky, we've, we've had some celebrity investors that are also very vocal about it. And we think it's a great way to just build brand awareness. And so I think you have to build brand awareness in a multi faceted approach. And I think that can be a great component for, for businesses that want to leverage visibility through that channel.
Now, Emily, you were talking about the sort of having a unique and sort of honest voice to really craft a brand and think about how you're going to build your company. But one of the things that's had the greatest impact on on the retail and e commerce space recently has been the advent of artificial intelligence, machine learning and sort of the ways in which people are parsing content spend and consumer demand is there how, how are those technologies which one could argue are incredibly in personal impact, the ways in which people think about starting a company because one of the, again, going back to this tweet storm, the idea was that you have an influencer, that influencer can find out whatever it is that people are looking for buying online, smack their own, you know, name on something, and then start pitching it and build a platform that way for growth.
Yeah, I think it remains to be proven, how much of that can be like, you know, automatic, I think that, you know, you can obviously use data and machine learning to deeper understand behaviors. But I don't think that then means that you can spin it back and have a formula that's gonna, you know, absolutely predict and be able to influence people's next behavior. And, you know, I think a lot of what we see succeed is originality and surprise, and not just relying on what's been done before. Well, and
I mean, brandless is writing on number of consumer trends, right? So, you're, you're, you're looking at gluten free, you're looking at organic products, you're looking at toxin free products, you've got a whole range of supplies for for the home for health and wellness, for beauty, all of these things. Um, but but was that was that use sort of tapping into the Zeitgeist or was that us saying okay look there's these things that are happening we know that we can sell these products and we can do it in a way that's sort of
mass affluent Lee approachable or something. I think if you go back to the idea that we were starting a movement we were building a community that was based on the idea that everyone deserves better and better doesn't need to cost more we then started with the things people reach for every day and we said wait a second why is it that organics and and all of these other pieces why Casper is a cousin or Warby Parker is a cousin, or, or, or all birds is their direct to consumers. And so we can go direct to consumer, how can we open up the available options, access to better things at fair prices, starting with the things people reach for every day. And so access to organics access to gluten free access to vegan access to FSA certified tree free products, $3 was not the starting point for that. And we wanted to democratize access to that. And so that's why we started with all of those things. Because we wanted people to not have to choose between what they wanted and what they can afford. But we also knew that not everybody has $3. And so if we really wanted to democratize access to that, we wanted to say, how do we support those people too. And that's why every time you check out, we partner with Feeding America because hunger 42 million people go hungry in this country every day. And at the very essence of brandless is to live more and brand less. And so if you want people to live more, how do you scale kindness as the emotional benefit of the brand isn't,
isn't Feeding America also sort of about the optimization of supply chain, I mean, it's basically taking unused products from grocery stores and giving them to food banks, which is great. But that in itself is not not like buying a meal for someone. It's It's It's sort of taking things
out. And they're a nonprofit who has scaled a system to be able to their largest hundred relief organization. And so we're not an NGO, we're not in a five, a one c three, but we don't believe that profit and purpose need to live separately, they can live together in a company. And so we identified them as to your point as the most scaled people trying to go after the hunger crisis. It's actually hunger action month this month. And so we've got to figure out how more people in this country don't go hungry every day. I
it's an amazingly profound point, I want to get back into sort of the branding aspects of this and what's important for Well, not not only what's important for society, but what may be relevant to these entrepreneurs. And one thing that that we've talked about, or that's been written about a lot is the tension between having a direct to consumer brand online and then opening retail facility as physical retail presences. And I know fill up that y'all open one earlier this year in New York, how's that going for you? What our sales like there versus online? How are you managing that relationship? Yeah,
we think offline or physical RETAIL IS A GREAT extension for direct to consumer brands and businesses. And if you think about it, it is a direct one to one in person conversation with customers. And retails been doing phenomenally well, for us, we have 20 stores in market today, we announced we're going to go to 200 stores over the next three years, the stores are performing really well. And from a customer experience standpoint, it makes a lot of sense for our category, our category are selling highly considered products, because they make such a big difference to people's lives and their large purchase, right. And so oftentimes, people want to talk to someone, they want to understand what the products are, they want to touch and feel the product understand why we design it the way we do, why we've invested so much in R, amp D, what that means for our products, how does that differentiate it and so retails done phenomenally well for us, and we're really excited to scale it. Is
that something that you thinking about it brandless 100%,
we're going to be in New York the last two weeks in October, and with the pop up and really for their it's about taste in trial, right. It's about community gatherings. It's about sharing stories. And it's about having people sort of decide and engage to, whilst it's not a considered purchase as much like a mattress or life stages and every day one, but if you're going to switch to an organic olive oil, or you're going to switch to an organic ketchup, or try incredible new snacks, you want to have that sensory experience and online can only go so far. Plus, it allows us to meet up with our community that supports us virtually as great to be able to write them in real life. Yeah,
so you mentioned another interesting point, which is about the tension between products that are sort of consumable goods, sort of commodity goods that people buy every day and something big like a mattress. Emily, when you talk to different companies that are operating at such different scales, how do you you advise them to think about things like ad spend, when they should be whether their their ad should be focus on branding, per se, or whether it should be focused on sort of getting the product into the hands of consumers?
I mean, that's a tension that every startup deals with, instead of how much do you focus on brand building versus, you know, end of the funnel conversion. And I think it's always a balance. But ideally, you're not thinking about those two things in opposition. And you really see every moment that you're interacting with your consumers as a chance to build the brand and build affinity. And I think something I know Casper has done so well, is really see a lot of their advertising as a gift to their customers and finding ways to entertain people, even when you're trying to ultimately motivate them to click back. Well, you
have a magazine right? Isn't
there asleep magazine we
do. It's called Willie, you could buy it on our website and has a bunch of content around sleep. It's not traditional content. It's something that was designed to be left on your nightstand. You could read as you're falling asleep. And we think contents been a great way for us to build the relationship with our customers. beyond just the initial purchase
one one, I'm mean we only have a few minutes left. And I'd really like to get to this because there is an elephant in the room whenever you talk about e commerce or retail. And that's Amazon target Walmart, or several elephants, a herd of elephants would say when when you think about how young startups can compete with these because obviously, you know, target offers simply organic products that are organic and available to consumers. Everyone is offering now you've got so many competitors that have come out of the woodwork right now to like, like, bite the CASPER model that it does. It's kind of comical. Um. But But
what is is the brand really the only competitive advantage that companies have when they look at how they approach thing approach Walmart or approach Amazon,
I think it's brand and brand defined in a larger sense, which includes experience. And I think what Amazon certainly doesn't offer. And Walmart to a certain extent as well is a chance to really discover to go deeper to have a story told to you to, to really immerse yourself in a world. I think Amazon's amazing when you know exactly what you want, and you need it to arrive within minutes. But I think if you're really trying to develop a deeper relationship, and ultimately motivate people to try something new, it's actually very hard to do that on Amazon. And
Have y'all found that you've been able to compete effectively against these guys with the the notion of the brandless brand.
Yeah, I mean, brandless is a brand and it's not brandless.
And but it's I think that Philip makes a great point about content and back to community, which is that if your aim direct dialogue, and you're co creating along with the people that you serve, or you're educating them, you're sharing stories that the brand becomes a narrative that's bigger than any individual product. And ultimately, the product itself becomes a souvenir of that movement. And I think we saw that with Nike yesterday and their fall campaign with Colin Kaepernick. I mean, that is like movement, and then specificity and storytelling and standing for something. And I don't think that a brand can be put in a box and the way that it might have been done, you know, many, many years ago, it's not about the logo, right? It's about the narrative and about the platform and about the story and about the voice. It can't be centrifuge to say, Well, if it's this, or it's that it's actually the architecture of all of it. I'm someone who is much smarter than me about branding. Who is a fellow that I talked to you occasionally about this stuff, because he's smarter than me about branding
said something that I thought was really interesting. I wonder how it resonates with you. Luxury isn't about price anymore. It's about perception and aesthetic. Does that does that seem accurate? And if so, how does that relate to the ways in which you all approach your customers and the way you approach your clients? Yeah, I
think that's true to the extent that people aren't just looking to spend, you know, triple the price to have like a logo on their handbag, right? They're caring more about the origin story, they're caring more about, knowing that they're contributing to something better, a better way of making things and I, you know, more time spent more quality. So I think that, you know, the days of just sort of lazy status are definitely becoming less and less relevant. And with that, I'm afraid we are, we are just about out of time. It's been really a pleasure to talk to all of y'all. I really appreciate the time very much. I hope y'all learn something I certainly did. Thank you
so much. Thank you. Thank y'all have a wonderful rest of the day.