There are a number of categories in the world of internet-born, direct-to-consumer brands that have seen an explosion. Casper is now far from the only mattress brand offering a 100-day trial, there are multiple companies offering a Warby Parker-style try-these-glasses-at-home service, and it won’t be long before there are more than enough artist-designed puzzles for one person to complete in a lifetime. As Jesse Derris put it when speaking to Modern Retail earlier this month: “We are swimming in a sea of sameness.”
Cookware is one of these categories. In response to the segment's wider stagnation – Le Creuset, still considered by many to make the best Dutch oven out there, was founded in 1925; its 5.5 quart model comes in at $350 – a number of upstarts have entered the scene, each touting the familiar formula of (relative) affordability, better design and more friendly customer service.
There are now 16 brands listed in the Thingtesting directory with products that are a variation on this theme, and they are continuing to expand and attract investment capital. In May, Caraway landed $5.3m in seed funding from more than 100 investors. Just last week, Great Jones announced a $1.75m funding round and a new line of bakeware.
Each of these brands has done a good job in differentiating themselves from the incumbents in the space, and now that competition is heating up they’ll need to do a lot more work to help customers understand what their unique differences are. Because really, what separates an Equal Parts frying pan from the one that Our Place sells? How can customers figure out where their hard-earned cash is best spent?
We decided to ask the brands themselves. Of the 16 brands selling pots and pans listed in the Thingtesting directory, seven took part. Nearly all of them touted simplicity and an “essentials only” product range as one of their main selling points – but they also articulated the more subtle differences that can get lost when scrolling through whichever publication’s most recent “best new cookware sets” list, and these differences can be just as important to consumers as the colourways their pots come in. Here is a selection of their comments.
Minsuk Kim, co-founder of Potluck: “There are three things. The first is value. Good Housekeeping and Cook’s Illustrated have [both] chosen us as their ‘best value’ picks – we think that’s incredible for a brand as young as ours. Second is curation. From the beginning we’ve focused on offering only the most essential kitchen tools. The last is customer experience – we don’t leave it to a customer service portal like Amazon.”
Sierra Tishgart, co-founder of Great Jones: “We take a mixed-material approach. Sweetie Pie (our new pie plate) is ceramic, while The Dutchess is cast-iron enamel. Most brands take a ‘one material fits all’ approach to kitchen design, [but] a kitchen full of exclusively nonstick pans will be limiting as your skills advance. We’re also the only kitchenware start-up that has entered the bakeware market!”
Jordan Nathan, founder of Caraway: “We brought colours into the kitchen that traditionally live in the fashion and home decor worlds, and developed storage solutions that make organising your cookware incredibly easy and seamless. It was important for us to include storage as part of the product experience because we sought to equip our consumers with everything they need as soon as they open the box.”
Katy Marshall, general manager, Equal Parts: “Our cookware balances clean and organic design elements, and our Light Blue, Navy, and Cream colours match the organisation essentials of our sister brand, Open Spaces. I love having matching colored items from Open Spaces and Equal Parts together in my kitchen.”
Eric Wahl, co-founder of Abbio: “The market is inundated by ‘ceramic’ coated cookware – it’s commonly what you see on made-for-tv ads where the egg is effortlessly sliding around the pan. Unfortunately, ceramic coatings are delicate and simply do not do not have the longevity of Abbio Nonstick.”
Daniel Kamhi, founder of Sardel: “All of our products are manufactured in Italy at a family-owned factory that has been producing cookware for three generations. What really sets us apart from our cookware-focused competitors are the Italian-made pantry items we sell.”
Minsuk, Potluck: “We saw an opportunity to do better by customers, rather than bamboozling [them] into buying poor-quality gadgets they’ll just use once. The DTC model makes sense for us because it allows us to provide amazing value and a superior experience.”
Sierra, Great Jones: “Home cooking is a cultural force, and this is a category that was ripe for modernisation. The process of outfitting your kitchen, historically, was clunky and confusing. This category [also has a lot] of design and storytelling potential. I had worked as a food editor at New York Magazine, and I wanted to bridge the gap between professional and home cooks, and make home cooking feel warm and accessible.”
Jordan, Caraway: “It's a category that lacks emotional brand recognition. These legacy incumbents are also incredibly retail-driven, creating a large whitespace for digitally native brands such as Caraway to capture consumers who see shopping online as second nature.”
Minsuk, Potluck: The biggest challenge is getting in front of customers when there are so many competitors. On the other hand, there’s very little confusion about what our products are and how they ought to be used.”
Sierra, Great Jones: “Kitchenware isn’t like clothing – you probably don’t own multiple Dutch ovens. That makes the competition pretty serious. The advantage [is] heightened awareness. All these companies share a goal of encouraging people to cook more, which is great for the planet, for mental health, and of course for all of our businesses to continue to exist and thrive.”
Jordan, Caraway: “The main challenges exist within competing for the same fundraising dollars and increased competition on digital advertising platforms, which ultimately drives up every brand's overall marketing costs. There are quite a few DTC kitchen brands, [but each] has a unique offering and caters to a different segment of a massive high-growth market.”
Katy, Equal Parts: “We consider ourselves very fortunate to be in a category that has grown during the pandemic. The most significant, and fun, communications challenge has been to find a way to balance our playful brand cues with the technical benefits that make our cookware a worthwhile investment.”
Eric, Abbio: “There is fierce competition in almost every consumer goods category, but we welcome the competition in the kitchenware market, as it signals massive opportunity and market growth. The truth is that many brands are selling inferior products at inflated prices, relying heavily on the power of their marketing prowess. We don’t see that as a sustainable long-term strategy.”
Daniel, Sardel: “The biggest challenge when operating in a relatively crowded space is to carve out a niche that works and to be able to demonstrate why a consumer should buy your product. We focus on selling classically designed, high-quality products. We appeal to a broad, cross-generational consumer base.”
Eunice Byun, co-founder of Material: “We are laser focused on the product roadmap we've built out. We've zeroed in on certain items – like cutting boards – [and] we also stay away from other popular products because we think there's little upside to having something that is duplicative of other items out there.”
Thingtesting is a database of internet-born brands. We’re building the un-sponsored corner of the internet where consumers can come together to talk honestly about new things. Read more about Thingtesting here.
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