Whether they've been around for decades or were launched in the last two years, some companies just have a bit of magic when it comes to grabbing attention and establishing themselves as fan favorites. Of course, that "magic" doesn't just happen by itself. From Warby Parker's sensible pricing and do-gooder ways to lululemon's sense of community and Hipmunk's aww, so cute mascot, these brands have figured out how to work their way into customers' hearts, minds and wallets.
A Clear Vision
An affordable, stylish eyeglass retailer whose philosophy encompasses sophistication, purpose and fun, Warby Parker has seen steadily building consumer awareness and sales that have jumped by several hundred percent each year since its 2010 launch.
Co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal says the New York City-based company--named for the obscure Jack Kerouac characters Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker--tries to deliver on its promise by designing stylish frames using premium materials and offering them at the game-changing price point of $95, including prescription lenses.
The company also has a "buy a pair, give a pair" program that helps low-income men and women start their own businesses selling affordable glasses and is one of the world's only carbon-neutral eyewear manufacturers. "Warby Parker exists to demonstrate that you can be profitable and do good in the world, at scale, without charging a premium for it," Blumenthal says.
That positioning has struck a chord among consumers, says Tracy Lloyd, partner at San Francisco brand strategy and design consultancy Emotive Brand. "Today, consumers want their brands to matter more; they'll support the brands that align to their values and are meaningful to them," she says. "This give-back mentality really resonates with people."
Of course, serving up a great user experience and a bit of quirk doesn't hurt. Warby Parker emphasizes speedy and efficient customer service, and offers innovative shopping experiences such as a try-at-home option and a mobile retail pop-up shop housed in a renovated school bus.
"We try to create experiences that people want to tell their friends about," Blumenthal says, noting that word-of-mouth accounts for more than half of Warby Parker's traffic and sales.
Last year the company opened six new showrooms and doubled its employee ranks. Blumenthal attributes the rapid growth in part to the fact that the brand has meaning for many types of consumers, from style mavens to the socially conscious. "We've found that different aspects of our brand resonate with different communities," he says. "Although you can't be everything to all people, you can definitely be something to some people."
By creating a company story that's focused on aspirational visions and goals, lululemon has built a brand that consumers want to live.
Founded in 1998, the Vancouver, British Columbia-based maker of pricey yoga and athletic apparel has always attracted a loyal following, but numbers have surged recently to include not only yogis and athletes but anyone wanting to be a part of an inspirational, feel-good community. "People care about our brand because they feel connected to it and what we stand for," says Laura Klauberg, senior vice president of community and brand. "In addition to yoga and health, we're also passionate about helping our guests create a life they love through the power of goal-setting."
Julie Cottineau, CEO of brand consultancy BrandTwist.com, says functional and emotional brand promise resonates with today's buyers. "People think of it as a community; by buying the brand they're buying into something bigger. It's not just about fitness or the clothes, it's about finding that mind-body connection and doing something positive," she says.
Seeking to expand its community, lululemon has opened more than 60 stores since 2011, creating a fresh batch of ambassadors--athletes, instructors or role models who promote the brand among their students and provide feedback on product design. Meanwhile, Twitter followers have skyrocketed 621 percent since 2011, while Facebook followers have increased nearly 200 percent.
Cottineau says that growth is fueled by a comprehensive strategy that inserts the brand message into nearly every point of consumer contact, especially the ubiquitous reusable shopping totes printed with the "lululemon manifesto," which features inspirational sayings such as "Do one thing a day that scares you."
It's a tactic that can be especially useful for entrepreneurs who can't afford to go up against the marketing budgets of established brands. "Months later, that shopping tote is not associated at all anymore with the pants or the top that the customer bought, but it is a little reminder of your brand's story," Cottineau says. "That's a moment of impact that a lot of brands overlook."
Born in 1984 as a one-off, invitation-only conference that brought together key figures from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design, the nonprofit known as TED is now one of America's most recognizable brands--and, more important, a movement to spread ideas from innovative thinkers around the world.
Executive producer of media June Cohen attributes TED's growth to a widespread hunger for intelligent content and the quality of the organization's inspiring, 18-minute lectures. But she is quick to add that the success is also a direct result of the philosophy of radical openness that empowers the brand's global community.
TED really exploded among the public in 2006, when it began giving its content away--a risky move that "could have capsized our business model," Cohen says. "Why pay for it when you can get it for free online?"
But the gamble paid off. Today there are more than 1,400 TED talks available online, with more added every week. They've been viewed some 1 billion times by people around the world at the rate of 1.5 million times per day. (That's 17 views per second.)
On the membership front, steep prices--the standard TED membership, including conference attendance, is $7,500 per year--have done little to deter customers; TED events typically sell out far in advance.
John Michael Morgan, author of Brand Against the Machine, says TED's evolution from a single event to a full-fledged brand comes from an exemplary job of marketing with people and not at them. "They care about the conversations their audience is having and assist with moving those conversations forward," he says.
Those conversations have morphed into brand extensions that include TEDActive, TEDGlobal, TED Fellows and TEDx, among others. Measures are in place to keep those factions true to the brand's mission; for example, organizers of independent TEDx events may use the TED name and video content for free, but they must follow identity guidelines to ensure proper use of the brand's valuable equity.
Cohen emphasizes that giving TED's global community access to all aspects of the brand is what continues to power it in every way. "Most companies find it difficult to pursue 'open' strategies," she says. "But what you can see from TED's trajectory is that openness has extraordinary rewards."
Inspired by a bra-and-panty set Gale Epstein created as a birthday gift for her friend Lida Orzeck in 1977, the two started a company, taking a bold "by women, for women" approach.
"Hanky Panky promises to make women feel great about themselves, their undies and their sisterhood with other women who love the brand," says Epstein, who serves as president and creative director. "We consistently deliver an exceptionally made product that is feminine, flattering and known for its fit."
While the New York-based brand has long had legions of devotees--who tout the sexy but comfortable styles and one-size-fits-all thongs, available in a seemingly endless array of colors--the founders attribute recent growth to brand extensions such as collegiate and Hello Kitty licenses, a bridal collection and the slightly steamier After Midnight product line.
Branding expert M.P. Mueller, president of Austin, Texas-based Door Number 3 Advertising, says Hanky Panky addresses the complexities of the way all types of women relate to their bodies with an understanding and emotional engagement that resonates. "Lingerie is not just to please the sexual partner anymore, but for women who want to feel good about their bodies and have fun in the bedroom across many life stages: from maternity lingerie that doesn't make the mom-to-be feel like she's being put out to pasture for nine months to the Hello Kitty line that recognizes the twentysomething who still goes back and forth between vixen and Mary Janes," she says.
Another boost came from the 2012 launch of the Hanky Panky Pep Squad program, which appoints ambassadors at colleges nationwide to introduce the brand on campus and promote it via social media and special events. That growing collegiate audience is part of the reason the brand is approaching 20,000 Likes on Facebook, a number that has doubled in the last year alone.
"Our customers do our PR," Epstein says. "The brand was built on buzz."
Last year Ryan Klarner, a member of his Illinois high school swim team, posted a plea on Taco Bell's Facebook page. Employing a loose interpretation of English grammar, the 15-year-old asked: "Is there any way you guys could make me a customized speedo that says think outside the buns on the back of it?" Thirteen days later, Taco Bell posted a reply: "What size do you wear? And what's your address?"
More than 2,600 people liked Ryan's post, and more than 1,000 liked the reply. Ryan was already a regular customer--his post noted that he eats at Taco Bell "at least" five to seven times a week--but he is now a fan for life, or what's known in the marketing world as a brand ambassador.
To Raquel Smith, marketing manager at Oneupweb, a Traverse City, Mich., digital marketing agency, Taco Bell's handling of the request was a textbook lesson in how entrepreneurs can inspire customers. "It's a great example of listening to your fans, providing value for them and creating a really strong ambassadorship," she says.
Businesses routinely rely on loyal customers to serve as ambassadors--prized patrons who can be counted on to spread the word about a company's products or services or general wholesome goodness. Some companies offer something in return, such as exclusive access to sales or product launches. But marketing experts insist that entrepreneurs don't need million-dollar budgets to cultivate brand ambassadors. "It's a matter of being able to find and activate those consumers to see who you are," says Perry Fair, a chief creative officer at global ad agency JWT. "That doesn't necessarily take a lot of money. It does take a lot of effort."
Much of the process of building ambassadors occurs on social networks (though experts stress that face-to-face interaction should never be discounted). The key is to engage customers in conversation and let them know you're interested in what they say. "It's really all about dialogue--listening--and if these people are carrying your torch, thanking them for that and rewarding them in some way that makes them feel good," says Karen Post, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Brain Tattoo Branding.
Fair cites the recent case of Crayola. When a customer complained on Facebook that a new box of crayons contained an unsharpened Carnation Pink, the company responded by mailing a replacement. The customer went on Facebook again and posted: "Guess who has a new crayon?"
Fair says Crayola's small gesture spoke volumes about a willingness to listen--and respond--to customers. "When so much is happening online, brand ambassadorship is built off of customer service," he says. "At the end of the day, that's really what it is." --Christopher Hann
Tito's Handmade Vodka
Independent Spirit Award
From the name on the bottle to the simple packaging and American-grown, corn-based liquor inside, Tito's Handmade Vodka is all about authenticity. That's because its founder is all about keeping it real.
Bert "Tito" Beveridge (yes, really), founder and owner of the Austin, Texas-based sensation, began making infused vodka to share with friends before distilling his own recipe and turning it into a business in 1995. His philosophy--make it exceptional and accessible--hasn't changed a lick since then. "My brand is about making really clean, smooth sipping vodka at a reasonable price, so most people can afford it," Beveridge says. "It's an extension of me--I make vodka that I like to drink."
The man behind the brand brings to the product an engaging human face that its competitors lack, says Emotive Brand's Lloyd. "Good brands have good leaders with a strong vision, and that definitely comes through," she says. "Consumers appreciate it."
Extending that genuine personality across all promotional platforms lets consumers know what they can expect from Tito's--the hallmark of a trustworthy brand. "When authenticity from a product is delivered at every interaction, it builds credibility," Lloyd says. "Their website, social media and events all offer the same experience; that's what builds trust and brings people back to the brand and [causes them to] tell others about it."
People are definitely talking. In the last year, Tito's has seen Facebook fans increase 93 percent to some 26,200 and Twitter followers increase 70 percent to more than 18,800--the largest following of any of the brand's core competitors. Indeed, Beveridge credits social media for making it possible for his brew to share shelf space with the liquor world's biggest players. "Social media is a great platform for a word-of-mouth brand, because it's not just about who has the biggest megaphone," he says. "For guys like us going against the Diageos and Bacardis of the world, it's a leveling factor."
But it's the quality and price of the spirit more than anything that drives that fan base. Wine Enthusiast rated Tito's a 95 out of 100, besting top-shelf contenders Ketel One, Grey Goose and Belvedere. A 750 ml bottle of Tito's can be purchased for about $20, up to $10 less than lower-ranked competitors.
But even though the brand has taken off--Tito's sold more than half a million cases last year and has posted near 50 percent growth each year for the last two--Beveridge refuses to make flashy enhancements that may take away from his authenticity, like updating his basic packaging: a stock bottle and paper label he designed himself using Corel Draw.
"Why pay an extra $5 more per bottle for shiny paint?" he asks. "It's the juice inside that matters."
What began as a simple way to collect images on the web has exploded into a phenomenon of self-expression and inspiration from others. "People care about Pinterest because it helps them feel inspired," says Don Faul, head of operations for the San Francisco, Calif.-based company. "You could get inspired to start a new hobby, or stumble on a product you never knew existed or quickly find something to cook for dinner. It's also personal: It's about the things you like."
That kind of intimacy creates a strong emotional tie to the brand. "What we like is who we are, so sharing what we like online is like saying 'Here's who I am,'" says Andy Spade, co-creative director of New York-based brand strategist Partners & Spade.
Faul attributes the brand's popularity to the fact that it was shaped by users. "Pinterest started as a way to help people collect images across the web, but it didn't take off right away, so we started talking to people using it and found it had evolved into a place for people to find and save things that inspire them," he says. "We learned that the best way to build a product, service or business is to actually talk to the people using it."
User-friendliness is also key. "Designing it so you pin on a board is brilliant, because it's what you actually do at home," Spade says. "People understand that."
Klout named Pinterest one of 2012's most influential companies. The site had more than 27 million unique U.S.-based PC visitors in 2012, an increase of 1,047 percent, and the largest year-over-year growth in audience and time spent of any social network, according to Nielsen. "We're fortunate to have a passionate, engaged community of people," Faul says. "They inspire lots of others along the way."
The travel search site with the friendly little mascot--a chipmunk decked out in a scarf and aviator goggles--prides itself on not only working well, but also being more enjoyable to use than its competitors.
Hipmunk's founders "wanted to create a site that was approachable, simpler and had a better user experience," says a spokesperson. "They wanted users to know that we are on their side, sorting through poor travel options and serving up the best possibilities."
Understanding consumers' pain points has always been the key to breakthrough brands, notes Door Number 3's Mueller. "The best entrepreneurs tap into the frustrations and needs of consumers, both tangible and intangible," she says. "Hipmunk recognizes that the American consumer craves simplicity. Its uncluttered homepage and presentation of search findings as a graph instead of a text-heavy chart reflects being in touch with consumers' need for quick knowledge and decision-making."
Hipmunk promotes its brand promise to travelers primarily through a hands-on philosophy. "We're approachable through Twitter and our online live chat, where we're constantly talking to our users and making sure they're having a good experience," the spokesperson says.
Hipmunk continues to expand its product offerings, including the ability to filter searches based on "agony"--a combination of price, duration and number of stops--and a subscription-based business-planning feature designed to streamline group-trip planning.
And while it may seem trivial, if executed well, an engaging mascot with a spirit that embodies the product and company can truly elevate a brand. "Humans love brands that use critters in them," notes Mueller, citing the Aflac duck and GEICO gecko as popular examples. "If a topic is complex, critters bring us in and lower our blood pressure."