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Social Entrepreneurs: 5 Consumer Brands that Started on Social

Mai Le

Nov 11, 2018

Starting a new business is always a gamble, but there are brands approaching this seemingly monumental task by flipping the traditional business model on its head. These social-first brands are making strides by experimenting with content, corporate social responsibility, delivery models, customer service, and good ol’ fashion PR comms. Let’s see what we can learn from these pioneers.

It’s now taken for granted that some businesses are so entwined with a social channel experience that you can’t imagine them functioning without social media. We call them social entrepreneurs.

Consider Warby Parker with their 2010 launch that sent try-on packs of eyeglass frames to interested consumers, who would often then take photos or make videos of themselves and absent a retail associate, ask their social media followers to weigh-in. 

And because they had an initial business model that didn’t require a storefront, the employees would create Youtube videos to answer customer questions.

While they were creating a new way to do customer service and delivery for the optometry industry, the brand managed to build, by 2018, a 1.75 billion business with a social innovation arm. And though they are now invested in a brick-and-mortar strategy, their brand’s success has inspired other companies to reconsider the traditional approach to launching a business.

In one way or another, social media has reinvented go-to-market strategy, marketing, comms, and even human resources. And while we won’t necessarily deem it a trend, we’ve noticed that consumer brands are using social media to build not just their brand but their business strategy. They’re the first generation of businesses that didn’t have to shoe-horn social into their comms program, they’re social-first companies.

In these examples, if social media didn’t exist, these companies wouldn’t be what they are today. And interestingly, we found that the social entrepreneurs that had the most success with this strategy were with consumer products that in a previous generation could find a similar model in the subscription or mail order/catalog model.

5 Top Social Entrepreneurs

1. Courtyard La

In 2016, after selling vintage clothing for 15 years, Alia Meagan saw a missing link between the vintage market and current tastes. Fast forward to 2018: Meagan now designs an in-house line, producing pieces in California, with a vintage aesthetic that she sells via the brand’s Instagram feed as well as via its website and storefront in Los Angeles. What aided Courtyard La, (as well as Glossier, also on this list) is that Meaghan had a clear aesthetic and a sizable Instagram following interested in her point of view. Without having intended to, she built a fanbase and community, primed to buy new clothing with vintage appeal. Social media enabled her to veer from one-of-a-kind purchases to a viable mass-market business strategy, what you might call transforming from show-and-tell to show-and-sell.

(2) GLOSSIER: Instagram

GLOSSIER is the brainchild of Emily Weiss, 31, who launched her influential beauty blog, Into the Gloss, in 2010. Weiss made an impact with creative content that included makeup reviews and went into the closets of celebs such as Selena Gomez. Weiss felt like there was a gap in the beauty market and she sought to fill that hole by launching Glossier on Instagram in 2014 with only four SKUs. “Our products and thesis was like a dossier,” Weiss says of the name. “It’s like building into the additions of different things and different times of a woman’s life, her journey.”

“We operate solely through social channels,” she says. “You are allowed to get, by leveraging technology, a better brand with immediate results. We know our customer, what she’s purchased, and put her on her journey. If she likes Haloscope, maybe she’s a makeup girl and will like lipsticks.” Her deliberation with the brand matches her business strategy: “You can be profitable if you go wholesale and narrow down to 5 people tomorrow. But we’re creating an ecosystem. We are digitizing beauty.”

(3) Girlfriend Collective

Girlfriend Collective is a sportswear company, launched in 2016 with an eco bent, which also aims to fill a gap, here in the direct-to-consumer activewear space. Based in Seattle, the founders, Quang and Ellie Dinh, felt that they could craft a brand, that from the start, was transparent and aligned with their values. And what are those values? Environmentalism, fair labor practices, and a clean design aesthetic for a few well-made garments. Manufactured from recycled water bottles and fishing nets, the brand designs and makes leggings, sports bras, and tees. Launched on social media, primarily on Facebook and Instagram, Girlfriend Collective uses specials (like “Buy leggings, Get a free bra”) to get potential consumers to engage.

“We know for us, if we can get a few users to click through and fall in love with the brand, they’ll share,” Dinh says. He explains, “You see the content, you see what we’re doing, you see the campaign and you read our ‘about’ page—that’s what we want consumers to do, not just redeem a free pair of leggings. We want them to be fans and fanatics, and show their friends.”

With Girlfriend Collective rolling out seasonal colors and staying true to their eco roots, backed up by product copy that tells you exactly how many water bottles go into your leggings, it seems the brand is on an upward trajectory. And, other more well-known brands are taking notice, with Everlane making an announcement that they too would use recycled water bottles for their ReNew outwear collection.

(4) Vinyl Me Please

VinylMe, Please was conceived by two roommates that bonded over a record player they shared in their small apartment. To feed their love of vinyl, they began collecting and soon began placing ads to sell some of their finds on Facebook in 2012. With a chutzpah indicative of founders, the duo declared themselves the best record club looking for members to sign up. The thing is, they didn’t have a record club until those first members signed up. The first vinyl they shipped as a record club came much later than the ads in January of 2013.

On the surface, Vinyl Me, Please is a throwback to a retail model that flourished in the late 20th century. For those of us who grew up pre-Internet in the 1970s and 80s with vinyl LPs, tapes, and CDs, joining a record club was one of the best ways to get indie music that wasn’t on commercial radio. And, with Columbia Record Club in the game since the 1950s, it was also a cheap way for the masses to purchase music via the postal service.

Where Vinyl Me, Please differed was in their approach to marketing, with an eye on influencer and social media marketing, the team used micro-influencers (before that was a term comms folks used) to make playlists and push their monthly subscription model. Being music lovers themselves, the founders capitalized on an age-old social phenom that exists amongst that ilk, the need to share and discuss music.

The founders of Vinyl Me, Please understood both social media marketing and influencer marketing (before it was a widespread practice) and used both to grow their subscriber base. They’re still growing their base by entering relationships with record labels and brands for special edition pressings and reissues, and of course, advertising on social media.

(5) Dollar Shave Club

Dollar Shave Club launched in 2012 with a Youtube ad that went viral. The ad, surprisingly, still holds up. And the ad world and internet agreed, awarding the spot with “Best Out-of-Nowhere Video Campaign” at the 2012 AdAge Viral Video Awards and with two Webbys in 2013.

It seemed the time was right for a razor subscription model. And while the Youtube video was enough to get people interested, well-placed ads on Facebook sealed the deal. By 2013, Dollar Shave Club was a household name. By proving there was a working subscription model for razor blades, the team behind Dollar Shave Club introduced a new niche that was suddenly very attractive to traditional market players. By 2015 they were big enough players in the razor industry that traditional players like Gilette felt compelled to sue them, on the premise that they were producing counterfeit blades. 2016 brought the biggest change with Unilever purchasing the brand for a reported $1 billion. Since it is impossible to buy virality, one wonders where Dollar Shave Club would be without Youtube and a charismatic founder, adept at storytelling?

PR Takeaways on Social Entrepreneurship and Brand Building

(1) Have a Good, Differentiated Product or Origin Story

The thing these brands have in common is that they offered an alternate approach, a different point of view than others in their industry. So, maybe the idea of razors isn’t new, nor is brightly colored activewear, but mix in some magic like a subscription service or the feeling that you’re doing good for the environment by buying workout clothes? Well, you then have a story behind the brand a social media fanbase can get behind. And with the “why” in place, you’ve done the preliminary work of laying a foundation for a strong brand story. And, as we know, stories lead to interest, loyalty, and sales. 

(2) Have a Plan B and C that Shows off Your Content

Social entrepreneurs are tied to their channels of choice. Or are they? The pitfall of interacting with your community and customers on a third-party platform is that the platform can change its algorithm or change its interface in a way that is unfriendly to businesses. In extreme cases, the platform can unexpectedly shutter. So, even if most of your engagement and referrals come through a platform like Instagram, make sure you have a business website or an account on a retail platform like Etsy.

(3) Know Your Audience

Think of social as a mirror of reality. Assume your audience conducts their entire life on social platforms. Social media isn’t just a place to pass time, it’s where everything happens. Social-first businesses know their audience is immersed and that social media use has woven itself into the everyday. You can use a social listening tool to better understand your audience and keep up on trends in your community and product area. Take it a step further by finding influencers to amplify your story. It’s easier to plan what to offer when you absolutely know there is a ready buyer.

(4) Create a (Rabid) Community

While this might be the hardest to-do on this list, it’s one of the most important things you can do for a brand on social media. The good news that if you have #1-4 in place, a rabid community is likely to follow. Nothing beats superfans as brand ambassadors to promote products that they use only a daily basis and believe are best in class. Word of mouth marketing and its progeny, influencer marketing are exploding because they align with how consumers ask for opinions and advice from humans. On this list, women who live in urban centers know of Glossier’s Boy Brow, even if the brand isn’t sold in Sephora because you can bet one of their friends or coworkers have used the product before.

If you find these examples inspiring and want to break new ground by launching brands in the age of social media, a good place to start would be by identifying business and industry trends to find your niche and opportunity!