The last 18 months have changed the face of retail. We saw commerce trends and growth accelerated by 10 years, with over 150 million people making the shift to shopping online for the first time in 2020.
As more consumers shop online—and with social commerce gaining momentum—brands need to stay on top of the latest best practices that will help them reach new customers, retain the ones they have, and heighten their shopping experiences across channels.
This year, Commerce+ featured speakers like Humanrace founder Pharrell Williams, BIGFACE founder and NBA elite athlete Jimmy Butler, and Bombas CMO Kate Huyett. Facilitated by Shopify leaders Shimona Mehta, Atlee Clark, and Jon Wexler, the brands shared how they’ve adapted to the changing face of ecommerce.
In this post, we’ve highlighted the best quotes and insights shared by these fast-growing brands. For all the product updates that we covered during this year’s Commerce+, read the recap here.
Table of contents
- Mented, Lounge and Gym + Coffee on connecting with the next wave of consumers
- Pharrell Williams on using the DTC model to build connections
- Seed Health on using educational content to build an engaged community
- Bala, Bombas and Dose + Co on channel expansion opportunities for DTC businesses
- Peak Design on building best-in-class product design using Kickstarter feedback
- Jimmy Butler on growing boldly by building community
- Ooni pizza on how to boldly expand product lines during explosive growth
- One final note on sustainability
Connecting with the next wave using community and channel expansion
Throughout the past year, we've seen some of the biggest brands step into new partnerships and explore emerging platforms to expand their relevance with the next generation of consumers.
For this discussion, we sat down with the founders and co-founders of some of the fastest-growing DTC brands:
- KJ Miller, Co-founder + Chief Executive Officer, Mented Cosmetics
- Mel Marsden, Founder + Chief Brand Officer, Lounge Underwear
- Diarmuid McSweeney, Co-Founder + Chief Marketing and Community Officer, Gym+Coffee
The conversations were facilitated by Shopify leaders Shimona Mehta, Managing Director for Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), and Atlee Clark, Director of Operations at Shop.
What was your journey to becoming a DTC brand? How did you evaluate that you were going to choose this business model before going all-in?
Mented Cosmetics: We were getting into a really big really well-established industry, with thousands of beauty brands. And so for us, what made the most sense was: how do we talk directly to our consumers?
At the end of the day, the only reason they're going to choose our brand over another is if they understand who we are; they understand the brand, they understand the products. They understand that we're vegan, we're clean, we're everyday beauty, we're fully pigmented, and we are made specifically for you [women of color].
We didn't think we'd be able to really tell that story if we went through retail first. And we wanted to be able to connect with our consumers. So we started by connecting with influencers on Instagram and Youtube. All of it was direct. So, when they would tell the story, they would share the link to mentedcosmetics.com and we were able quickly to grow our community because it was so direct.
It was a no-brainer. How do you make a big splash and a really big crowded industry? You go directly to your consumer and tell your story. That's what we did and it's, and it's proven to be successful."
Lounge Underwear: Going back to the beginning of our journey, Lounge was born as social media and ecommerce started to boom. They married together at the perfect time; being able to talk to our consumers and our community directly, to make sure that our voice was our own and not one through retailers.
We knew that was the goal: to be able to take that customer feedback and use it to drive future decisions for the business.
Of the learning and pivoting that we've all had to do in this COVID environment, what's worked, what's been surprising for you, and what learnings have come for you?
Gym+Coffee: The thing that stands out for me over the last 18 months has been taking an authentic approach with our customers and community at all times. We had serious supply chain issues multiple times, and sometimes where customers could be waiting for weeks for a delivery. If we just were upfront with the customer and said that, their response was 99% positive because people understood what was happening.
I think the other side of it is that by being DTC-first, we were able to lean on what we already knew, the data that we had about our community, the email database we had built up, and reacting to different channels performing differently week to week across all the different advertising platforms.
Mel, from the Lounge story, let's talk a little bit about the digital fitting room concept. How does the digital fitting room help establish a deeper connection to customers and into your brand?
The fitting room was essentially created to ensure that our community could go through an experience that allowed them to find their perfect lounge fit; whatever that might be. Everyone’s bust, hips, and bodies are so different. So, the fitting room was created to enable us to offer that again and put that personal experience in their living rooms.
Once they'd been through that fitting room experience, we can then show them a product that is available in their size, which means their experience navigating the website is so much cleaner.
Having even just that little nugget—that fitting room experience—and everything that surrounds the experience as a brand hopefully means that when women are shopping the website they instantly feel that they've got that best friend touch."
Gym+Coffee has done a phenomenal job of building community as well. This included using physical spaces to build that community. Could you share a little bit about how you've done that?
Gym+Coffee: Our values are all about socializing around exercise, about making life richer, and about celebrating people in our community. We have a Sherpa community; people on the ground informing us of what’s cool and what’s not. Who are the people to highlight in Manchester vs. London vs. Sydney? We’re all about telling those people’s stories.
Women’s football, or women’s soccer, is the fastest-growing sport in the UK right now. We have to lean into that and tell stories of amazing female athletes in Manchester, who our community will definitely connect with because we would share those values in Sydney.
It's about being aware of what's happening in the cities we’re trying to move into and really connecting the clubhouses with community members in their local areas. And then bringing all of that together in a digital ecosystem. That’s where the magic happens for us; when you're telling those authentic stories so it's not really the brand telling stories. It’s telling community stories and the way people are inspiring others in their local area.
Did your investment into social media happen organically or was it a strategic channel that you knew that you wanted to lean into upfront as part of your marketing strategy?
Gym+Coffee: Nowadays there's a lot of innovation happening [in social media]. It's not just brand and community interaction anymore. There are new features like shopping. We were lucky to be involved in Shopify’s TikTok Shopping beta test just to see how people interact with those new features [on social media].
Live shopping and things like that are coming down the line in the next couple of years. Social media will probably become more complex but it'll become even more important for brands like ours where you just have to have a really strong platform and a really strong strategy to stay relevant all the time.
Social media has become a key driver of brand discovery. Our 2020 Future of Commerce report revealed that more than half of younger shoppers in the UK are using social media platforms to find brands and a third are making purchases through social channels.
We’ve seen 76% growth in merchants that adopted our social commerce channels from February 2020 to 2021 alone. We saw that shoppers changed the way they engaged with brands and shopping through social media. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snap, and TikTok are channels that, with Shopify, make it possible to build these connections.
The power of DTC to build personal connections
Up next, Shopify president Harley Finkelstein sat down to chat with Pharrell Williams, one of the most versatile creatives with a legendary impact in music, culture-shifting fashion partnerships, and boundary-breaking skincare. They discussed disrupting the cosmetics industry, choosing the DTC model, and his advice for new entrepreneurs.
How do you work within an existing framework or an existing industry that is fairly traditional and has been around for a very long time? How do you know when to disrupt and break the mold vs. working within the mold?
Pharrell: It's been award-winning. That has been beautiful and we're honored, but the awards speak to the fact that the minute that we got in, we were not just going to try to cash in on something just because people were asking me what my skincare routine was.
We thought to ourselves: let's look at every aspect from PCR, or the way they regulate skincare products in Europe, which is the highest standards worldwide. Making sure that we not only passed some of these tests and standards but also went above board. If you're going to get into it, why not take the time to just get it right?"
Everybody else had been in there long enough to where they could do whatever they want to do. So, we knew we had to do everything that we could to make it better than the way that it was before we got there, at least in our little particular space in the sandbox.
You decided, with Humanrace skincare, to explore the direct-to-consumer (DTC) business model. What was it around about selling directly to the end consumer that made you think that was the right way to launch this?
Pharrell: We just always want a direct connection. Direct-to-consumer just means a personal connection. There are recession-proof businesses, the usual ones you know of. But we think that skin health is one of those things that should be considered important. Having a connection with people who feel the same way and want that same kind of advice, we want to be there for them.
It’s not just about the products. It’s also about people and experiences like when you go onto a website, you're not just able to buy the skincare. There are other things there for you as well.
Do you have advice for someone who's just getting started in entrepreneurship, or in creating music, or creating clothing, or skincare? Or any advice on building a brand or building a company that has longevity and a longer-term impact?
Pharrell: One, find something that you love to do something that you would do for free, just because you were happy to be there. Number two, try to find a vocation connected to it. Number three, if you can, find a way to service humanity as well with that job. Now you have a dream job that you wake up every day and feel like you get paid to do it for free, and you are also contributing to karma good karma or goodwill. That's the reason why you start a business.
Using education to build an engaged community of advocates
Shopify’s Atlee Clark sat down with Ara Katz, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Seed Health, to discuss how they’re using beautiful design and educational content to stand out from the noise and misinformation in the world of wellness.
Seed's website has this amazing amount of education done in a really minimalist and approachable way. Tell us about what it’s been like creating this content and cutting through the clutter of the probiotic world and the wellness industry.
Ara: I think a lot of people feel lost in categories like ours. There’s so much misinformation and noise. Whether they buy our product or not, we want people to come away with a foundational understanding of what's important in the field of probiotics. How would you choose one? What are the things that contribute to making a good quality product that has efficacy around the things it's saying?
We work with some of the world’s greatest scientists. We don't shout about things that shouldn't be shouted about. I think, for the stewardship of a field that we think is going to change the future of human health, you can't be shortsighted when you think about things like that."
As a result, people trust us. We try to be very measured and nuanced, and we also try to put it in language that doesn't feel like a flashback to seventh-grade biology class.
One of the things that I find really fascinating is how you've built Seed University and how you work with partners. How did you come up with it?
You zoom out and look at social media and how affiliate marketing is done on that platform. You can say there’s been a lot of misinformation and sensationalism for the sake of a percentage and a commission.
You could say, “We’re not going to do that,” or you could say: “Can we find the platform that is the greatest place for misinformation to spread (in this case, it was Instagram), and can we flip it on its head to use it for education?” So, we created an account called Seed University.
In order to become a partner with us, you have to go through the course. You have to take a pledge of accountability that you sign, and you have to pass the final exam a hundred percent before you can even think about accessing any links. So, the more friction we put in, the more we felt that was going to self-select for people that were committed to being educated about what they were sharing.
[This education helps when] a brand approaches them for partnerships. They ask: “I wonder what does this brand stands for? What are they asking me to do? Is that true? Is that compliant with what I just learned in Seed university in terms of how I can share? What I could say?”
Our dream wasn’t just to be accountable when sharing about us. It was to see if we could have a more accountable future, which, as we’ve seen over the last year and a half, could really serve us."
Channel expansion opportunities for DTC businesses
As the opportunity of digital commerce continues to evolve, we're seeing more and more DTC brands expand into new channels like B2B. For some, B2B expansion is a response to explosive growth and demand from retailers. For clothes, it’s a proactive recognition of huge untapped potential and a smart way of breaking into new markets and new distribution channels. For more on how we’re supporting merchants with B2B expansion, read the full rundown of product updates here.
For our discussion on channel expansion opportunities, we sat down with:
- Natalie Holloway, Co-founder of Bala
- Kate Huyett, Chief Marketing Officer of Bombas
- Marc Day, Lead Digital Creative at Dose & Co
We talked about how they make their brands stand out, their approach to omnichannel, and how they approach their audiences in new and exciting ways.
Can you tell us about your omnichannel channel strategy and how you're approaching expansion? How do you think about those next steps into those new markets?
Dose & Co.: Dose & Co. initially started as a pretty small Shopify ecommerce store here in New Zealand. And after it started gaining some traction, we made the decision to partner with some larger retailers to increase our distribution as well as have the older customer who may not be as prevalent online. Since then, we've been able to launch in international markets and work with some of the biggest retailers in the world like Walmart and Target. We want to be as accessible as possible; be it through our own Shopify store, Amazon, or a local retailer.
Our channel strategy consists of providing a best-in-class online experience with customers via a website, face to face, via the customer care team, or our social presence, and pairing this with established legacy retailers. While we're able to run ads online to targeted audiences and see what that journey is next—whether that’s driving sales, building our audience or just bringing awareness to new customers—we are also able to take advantage of the foot traffic and the traditional brick-and-mortar model.
With everything that’s been happening, we’ve seen a really positive amount of people move to subscriptions, a solution for when purchasing in-store might be limited.
How has Bombas either changed its strategy or pivoted its strategy? What have you learned about your core customers in this last year?
Bombas: Mission has been integral to our founding story. The origin of our brand was that one of the founders saw a quote on Facebook that said that socks were the most requested clothing item in homeless shelters. It's always been really core to us and something that we knew resonated with our customers. During COVID, we really saw that our customers were engaging at a much higher level with our giving-related emails.
That mission was resonating in really different ways. With both the pandemic and also the Black Lives Matter protests, customers are really looking for companies that reflected their values. The mission is so central to what we do and has been for so long that it was very cool to see our customers engaging with that mission so directly.
Bala is also a socially driven brand. From what I understand, you didn't invest in paid advertising upfront. And a lot of your growth is organic. This is what everybody wants to know how to do.
Bala: When we launched Bala, we invested like $5,000 of my husband’s and my money at the time. We launched with the Kickstarter that funded our first production run. So [the approach] was out of necessity. We couldn’t afford to run ads. We relied on word-of-mouth marketing.
Our theory early on was that if somebody wore bangles in a yoga class, that other people would see them and say, “Hey, I want that as well.” That theory tested true for us. [Another tactic was] gifting influencers, and then them just loving the product so they would post about it.
The product spoke for itself because it’s so visual. Yes, you can wear the bangles at home, but they were created to be worn out in the world at first before COVID.
How do you think about your marketing and strategy as it relates to getting the word out there about the mission versus the product and how it fits into your brand?
Bombas: The product and the mission are really deeply intertwined. From early on, we didn’t want the mission to be an afterthought. We didn't want it to be something that people had to really dig to find. It felt so central to why we chose that specific product (initially socks, now underwear, and t-shirts as well).
We think about it on a channel-by-channel basis. We’re ideally trying to get product and mission in everything we do. In something like a TV ad, we have obviously a lot more room to tell a mission story. In a search ad, it's maybe a small snippet of copy. So, channel to channel, it varies how much we play up one versus the other, but we really do try to include both mission and product in everything that we do.
Creating best-in-class product design
In the last section, we talked about how building a best-in-class brand takes time. When done right, it’s eye-catching and unforgettable. Peak Design, a DTC bag and carry solutions maker, took a creative approach to their copycats. This approach went viral:
We sat down with Elish Patel, VP, Marketing + Growth at Peak Design, to learn about how they used creative marketing to face the Amazon goliath.
How did the video of the two slings come about? Were you surprised by the response to the video?
Peak Design: It started out as a fun project. We're no stranger to a rip-off of our products. But usually, it's not someone like Amazon. Usually, you can tell when it’s made by someone else. They change the logo, or this or that. Amazon took our product and copied it exactly. Down to [how we put our logo] on a patch, on a very specific part of the back, same shape and material, and they put “Amazon Basics” instead of “Peak Design.”
This is the craziest we’ve seen from them. We sell on Amazon. Which is even crazier. We’re a small fry. We do a little bit of patent infringement to protect our products. But there was nothing we could do except to make fun of this.
This just seemed like another great opportunity to make a really fun video. And then we put it up there and it went crazy. I think we had over half a million views within the first day or so.
You’re a fast growing successful company. Yet, you still use the Kickstarter model. Can you tell me a little bit more about why you continue to do it?
Peak Design: It's evolved over the years. When we first started, we needed the money and the input of our customers to get us over the line to production. Especially at big numbers on being able to ship globally. Then, as we evolved, it was a combination of staying within our community [and giving them a] discount for being a part of this from the beginning. They get a say, to a degree, on what they want and what they like [in the product]. We've made some last-minute changes in our designs for certain projects because of the influence of our Kickstarter community.
Then, as time went along, it became a marketing tool. We don't need the money as much, but [Kickstarter] is a way for us to make sure that we can get a good story around it, get our community involved with it, hyped about it, excited about it. And then, to get a soundbite to PR and news to say “This company [succesfully] raised this much money to launch a product.”
And that's still important when it comes to a company our size because we're not spending millions on our advertising or on marketing. We're still relying on word-of-mouth and on a community of people to get the word out about our products. We know Kickstarter and we love it. And it's still the best place for our customers to get a great deal because you usually discount something like 20% at the onset and it helps us market our product.
Growing boldly by building a passionate community
Cultural figures have rapidly increased the presence in commerce and propelled it into the future. Their unique approach to reimagining customer experiences and product innovation has expanded commerce in new ways. Creator consumer trends over the last 12 to 18 months show an increase in the cultural figures and creators driving the creation of products that play off their personas. Lead basketball player Jimmy Butler of Miami Heat is one of those people.
Butler’s newfound love for coffee, combined with his entrepreneurial spirit and hustle, have coalesced into the launch of BIGFACE. Jimmy doesn’t see BIGFACE as only a brand, but as a community experience that seeks to tell the stories of the people behind the beans with love.
For Commerce in The World, we talked to Butler before the launch of BIGFACE about how he hopes community forms around the brand, why it mattered to him to understand every facet of the coffee process, along with the people behind it, and the one bubble café he didn't know about. Read the article here.
Ooni pizza on how to boldly expand product lines during explosive growth
Growing beyond what's possible can also mean striking while the market is hot. Ooni Pizza was in the process of creating an entire product category of portable pizza ovens. When an unexpected market opportunity struck, the company found itself on a major upswing with a majority of people stuck inside for 18 months, all attempting to become master chefs. Seeing this and reacting quickly, they went all in to expand their businesses and products.
We sat down with Corey Maynard, Chief Marketing Officer at Ooni, to talk about how to boldly expand product lines during a period of explosive growth.
Word-of-mouth has actually been an incredible growth channel for Ooni. How did that come to be?
Ooni Pizza: When people haven't seen a pizza oven that's cooking at a thousand degrees or 950 degrees that can make a pizza in about a minute, it’s a shock-inducing sight. It’s always been a high-buzzworthy product. It’s a super social product. It’s about finding places where we can help propel the conversations that are already happening, rather than us having to start it from scratch, which makes it easier. So, starting with a product that people really like to talk about definitely helps.
How did you scale to meet the demands that you couldn't possibly have predicted 18 months ago—or even when you first launched?
Ooni Pizza: Scaling really happens on multiple fronts when you're growing at this pace. The first thing that happens is demand is much greater than what you have in stock and supply. It's making sure that you have a supply chain that's flexible, can have the ability to scale should you end up achieving that success that you're chasing.
We've been well north of a hundred percent growth year over year. That means building a team and hiring as fast as you possibly can, but wanting to make sure that you maintain a culture while you're doing that. It’s about trying to get ahead of the places where you're going to have real problems in your organization and making sure that you're hiring people that are a little bit above what you think you need today. You're trying to get in front of some of the big growth decisions you're going to have to make rather than chasing all the time.
We've been fortunate that the new reality is that consumers understand that demand has gone through the roof, that there's been supply chain challenges throughout the world and there is a little bit more patience for in-demand products that have a little bit of a longer lead time.
How do you approach marketing and connecting with your customers when you're marketing an entire category? How did you think about the brand’s expansion?
Ooni Pizza: One of the early decisions for this company, as a company that was founded by making a revolutionary backyard pizza oven, was the question: Could we make other metal boxes that burn things inside to things like backyard grills or smokers or things like that?
As we looked at the real passion for the business and the reason we were founded, it was all about pizza. We love pizza. We eat pizza all the time. We make pizza all the time. All of our off offices around the world are fully stocked with pizza supplies that are free to all employees to use any time.
This made some of those product expansion decisions pretty easy because it was one of the other things that we can do that can help people unlock that potential of making great pizza at home, giving them the tools, giving them the knowledge, giving them ingredients, giving them all the pieces they need. So they can be confident that they can make killer pizza for their friends and family.
A final note on sustainability
Sustainability isn't about just one sustainable act. We need sustainable materials, packaging, a diverse and fair supply chain, shipping solutions, and even buying local. All of these contribute to a better global economy.
Leaving the world in a better place is a priority at Shopify. It's one of the reasons we launched our sustainability fund in 2019. We're committed to spending $5 million every year to fight climate change. We aim to reduce the carbon intensity of commerce by helping our merchants minimize the impacts of their businesses on the climate.
The upcoming peak season is one of the busiest times for our merchants and one of the most stressful times as well, which is why it's prime time to make an impact. Shopify will be offsetting emissions from shipping for every order placed during the Black Friday Cyber Monday week.
Last year alone, Shopify offset 62,000 tons of carbon emissions. That's the equivalent of carbon captured and stored by over 80,000 acres of forest in one year, which is the size of that 60,000 football fields.
Shop—our free shopping companion app customers can use to track packages, browse and buy products, and engage with your brand—enables this year-round every time a customer uses Shop to pay for something on your store. Shopify automatically calculates and offsets emissions from shipping every order with no additional costs to anyone.