When Poolside FM – an 80s-style internet radio station – launched its first line of real-life products in April, it did so with a big splash.
In just two days, the startup had built up a waitlist of over 10,000 people interested in the launch of its sunscreen brand, Vacation. They offered up their email addresses in exchange for business cards with spoof job titles such as “Karaoke Mic Stand Operator” and “Global Sauna Romance Researcher.”
It was a fun way to spend a Friday on Twitter – and a job well done for the new brand, founded by entrepreneurs Marty Bell, Dakota Green and Lach Hall.
“Where some brands might put up a launch page and gather email addresses that way, we wanted to do it in a more fun and creative way, and a way that the Poolside FM community would enjoy,” says Hall. “It worked better than we had planned.”
When Vacation eventually started taking orders a few weeks later, its honorary employees were given 48 hours early-access to the website, where they could shop with a 10% discount. Hall couldn’t share how many bottles of sunscreen were sold during those two days, but he does say that “we quite quickly got to six figures in revenue.”
For Vacation, a viral launch strategy made sense. There are just a few months of the year when people are even thinking about buying sunscreen. “So it was very important for us to start pre-selling and talking about our brand as early as possible,” Hall says.
Going all out at launch
It’s not at all uncommon these days for brands to launch with elaborate campaigns and slick branding and packaging. When hibiscus water brand Ruby came onto our radar at the start of this year, it did so by creating its own fictional sci-fi universe – the “Rubyverse” – inhabited by Moomin-like characters called “shmees.” The brand’s founder, Noah Wunsch, soon struck a deal with Whole Foods to stock the drinks.
Other brands that have launched to viral hubbub include razor brand Harry’s, which amassed 100,000 emails in a week with a pre-launch referral campaign, and Liquid Death, the water-in-a-can startup which managed to get more followers on Facebook than legacy water brand Aquafina just three months after launching.
While timing and luck play their parts in a brand’s launch, the scales are tipped in the favor of brands that have a well-oiled machine behind them - involving PR firms, creative agencies and marketing companies, who can help to give a brand its best chance of causing a sensation on launch day. It can be an expensive exercise and, like so much else in the world of business, it can also depend on a founder having the right personal and professional networks to tap up for investment, or to get a good deal when it comes to creative services. Those without a foot in the door may struggle.
“A lot of founders are bringing their own competitive advantages to the fold when it comes to launch,” says Justin Seidenfeld, the cofounder of Doris Dev, a product design studio in New York that has worked with the likes of Blueland, Great Jones and By Humankind. “They’re founders who have their own network, and are leaning into it for launch instead of just paying up for exposure.”
New brands launched by former employees of “heavyweight” direct-to-consumer brands tend to spark intrigue among the press and other industry insiders. Alcohol-free spirits brand Ghia and deodorant brand Hiki are two examples of brands founded by Glossier alums, while suitcase brand Away’s founders have been regularly asked in interviews about their stints at glasses brand Warby Parker.
Riding the wave
To help young, pre-revenue brands afford their services, agencies have been known to cut deals, reducing their fees in exchange for equity, or even allow startups to defer payment until after they have raised money. Creative agency Gin Lane, which wound down in 2019, would reportedly accept stakes of 1-3% in direct-to-consumer brands, so long as the business could cover Gin Lane’s operating costs while design and branding work was being carried out.
Seidenfeld says that Doris Dev regularly pursues these sorts of partnerships. Meanwhile, when launching his dehumidifier brand Canopy in late 2020, Seidenfeld took a similar approach when it came to securing a creative agency, PR firm and marketing company for the business.
“When we’re getting in at the ground floor with a startup team that’s pre-revenue and pre-launch, we’re very open to structuring partnerships where there’s some upside for Doris Dev in the form of equity or revenue share,” Seidenfeld says. “That’s a win-win, because incentives are aligned.”
This deal raises the stakes even higher for an about-to-launch brand, with agency partners also monitoring performance to see if their exchange is likely to pay off. In Doris Dev’s case, Seidenfeld says the first signs of a successful launch tend to come in the form of requests from a brand to up production volumes or to tweak the product based on customer feedback.
But buzz can die off quickly – while Vacation was able to secure over 10,000 sign ups within two days of its business card campaign, Hall estimates that over a whole month 15,000 emails were collected altogether, suggesting that the pace of acquisition quickly tapered off.
Emily Heyward, the cofounder of creative agency Red Antler, which has worked with sneaker brand Allbirds, emergency supplies company Judy and LGBTQ+ healthcare provider Folx, says that even the buzziest of launches can’t be interpreted as a guarantee of big returns – and that brands that build their businesses slowly and steadily are just as likely to achieve long-term success, especially where there is clear customer loyalty.
“We are thrilled when there is one of those first month rocketship occurrences. But we’ve seen enough to know that that is not required for a business to do well,” she says.
Figures such as repeat orders that demonstrate customer retention – “the most important thing by far” – are unlikely to be seen right out the gate. “That is ultimately the metric that’s going to determine if a company has longevity and can reach profitability.”
A brand is only as good as its products
Brands that pursue a loud launch around a product that has not yet been tested in the wild also risk setting themselves up for failure. If a brand is a big hit in the press and on social media, it could struggle to keep up with order volumes, leaving customers frustrated and unable to get hold of products. Worse, if a product isn’t quite up to standards yet, customers might go away feeling like they’ve been ripped off. And once customers feel that way, it can be hard to get them back.
“If nobody cares, it’s not that big a deal because then you can just go out and try again to make another splash,” Vacation’s Hall says. “But if it’s a negative response, that’s a little trickier. First impressions do matter.”
In these cases, a more slow-paced launch strategy, where founders can gather and respond to customer feedback, could have been a more sensible approach. Where a product or service is particularly complicated or could struggle to be delivered at scale off the bat, bringing customers on board in batches (as glucose monitoring startup Levels has done) is one way for a brand to maintain momentum without over stretching itself.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Seidenfeld says. “On one side it’s great, because you get the flywheel going in terms of exposure and perception from the outside world that you are an established entity. But then on the other side, if there’s issues with your product – which more than likely there’s going to be – you’re setting yourself up for potential disaster. It’s a high risk, high reward approach.”
Launching a new brand is never going to be an entirely risk-free endeavor, and founders will always have to weigh how much money – and reputation – they are willing or able to put on the line before selling a single product.
Red Antler’s Heyward says that as the direct-to-consumer brand landscape has become more crowded, brands are now finding it harder to cut through the sheer volume of noise.
Looking good at launch is now the baseline that customers expect from internet-born brands, and getting press attention at launch can require brands to take truly unique or headline-generating approaches, such as Dirty Lemon’s SMS-only ordering system when it launched in 2016. “We have seen such an explosion of startups in the past five or six years. It’s a lot harder to get attention,” Heyward says.
“When we first started Red Antler, nobody thought that early-stage startups needed to worry about branding. Just putting together a beautiful identity that told a great story was enough to get attention,” she reflects. “Now everybody’s gotten the memo.”
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