When it comes to brand buzz, you don't need the world's biggest budget to stand out.
Of course, it does help.
But there are so many other innovative and tried-and-tested ways to cause a stir online.
In fact, according to research from Roth Capital Partners, 78% of millennials feel completely unimpressed by flashy campaigns and celebrity endorsements anyway.
Remember the notoriously ill-fated Fyre Festival in 2017? Getting 400 social media influencers to promote this 'event' to millions of followers almost burnt the industry entirely; not to mention that one of the influencers in question, Kylie Jenner, also participated in this questionable Pepsi ad in the same year.
Instead, we’re looking at five small ecommerce businesses that have created killer brands - and have done it without huge budgets. Read through some of our favourites (or jump straight to the branding tips we learnt from them):
1. Bokksu's imagery creates a tummy-tingling sensation of travel
“We don’t just want you to taste Japan, we want you to experience it.” - Bokksu
And as it turns out, many people have done just that. According to Business Insider, the small family-run brand sold half a million snacks in its first two years. Impressively, they did it across 75 countries too.
Four years ago, this tiny start-up couldn’t have imagined how special their lovingly-curated box of goodies would be to land-locked globetrotters. But, essentially, it was always going to resonate - because that’s how it all began.
Founder Danny Taing had been living in Japan and couldn’t get hold of his favourite snacks when he returned to the US. He even brought back a suitcase full of cherry-picked treats for his friends and family to try. Ecstatic with their response, he’s been boxing “that feeling” for his customers ever since.
For Bokksu, the devil’s in the details. Along with sweet and savoury delights such as sake-infused candy and seaweed tempura - all washed down with an invigorating cup of organic tea - subscribers receive a map detailing every snack and whereabouts in Japan it comes from. However, it’s not just the contents of the boxes themselves that are lovingly curated.
Their use of imagery on Instagram doesn't just promote Japanese snacks; it illustrates a colourful and captivating story of travel. From socials to logomark, every digital asset feels carefully considered; their striking orange and white brand identity, often used to frame a page, makes everything else around it fizzle and pop. Exactly what you imagine a trip to Japan to feel like.
Despite an ever-escalating subscription box craze - one that’s only become more prominent during worldwide quarantines - Bokksu goes the extra mile to create experiences for their customers. That’s what sets them apart.
Unboxing the brand: Bokksu has a consistent look and feel to everything they do. The brand’s logo mark is bold and their colour palette feels clean, unfussy and entirely them. A treasure trove of photos and illustrations, Bokksu lets their Instagram do the talking.
2. Patch Plants has perfectly pruned its tone of voice
“It’s tempting to stroke those pretty fronds, but Bertie’s not really the touchy-feely type. To avoid her fronds turning brown in protest, best to leave her be." - Patch Plants
Bertie is a Boston Fern. And like every fashionable flora available from Patch Plants, “she” has a name. Makes sense; Nephrolepis exaltata doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, right?
But this technique could only work if the brand is fully committed to the cause - and they are.
From humanising every single plant in their impressive range to adopting the same tongue-in-cheek style in the site’s microcopy, they’ve nailed their tone of voice. In doing so, they’ve brought the brand to life - while separating themselves from their competitors at the same time.
Importantly, Patch Plants has taken the time to understand who their audience really is. Instead of the typical, older garden centre-dwellers, Patch Plants talk directly to 20-30-year-olds living in the city; they love nature but have little-to-no outside space. What’s more, they suffer from that creeping existential angst that only (accidentally) killing a plant brings:
“We know what it’s like to be guilty of plant murder, we've pulled together a collection of plants who are low maintenance enough to forgive you for the odd missed watering.” Patch Plants on their (almost) unkillable houseplants.
It’s a tried-and-tested principle in advertising that when everybody in your sector zigs, zag. With their unique approach to copywriting, the team behind Patch Plants have done just that.
Planting the seed: Growing an organic following, Patch Plants use every word wisely. Tone of voice is never an afterthought, so they communicate the perfect sentiment to their ideal customer every time.
3. Pasta Evangelist's brand feels authentically al dente
At a time when it feels like the only way to “treat” yourself and a loved one is yet another takeaway, Pasta Evangelists feels like a breath of fresh air.
After all, what’s more comforting than a warm bowl of pasta - right? Especially now.
But it’s not just the timing that’s perfect for the brand; they’ve created a product that’s entirely themselves. We’re pretty sure you won’t find a brunch-inspired full English pasta dish anywhere else. The value proposition is so simple but somehow incredibly unique. And, essentially, that’s what makes it work. Not quite a takeaway or a gourmet ready meal, customers pick one of several authentic Italian pasta recipes which are delivered next-day to cook at home.
Importantly, their choice of product imagery is every bit as appetising as the dishes themselves. In fact, one scroll of their Instagram feed is enough to leave any tummy grumbling for tortellini. With their website’s ‘Pasta Bible’ they’ve included recipes, tutorials and even travel guides to Italy. Tied together with consistent, aspirational imagery, they’ve positioned themselves as experts in their field - far beyond their core product offering.
Not only that, the heart of this gourmet pasta brand is very much in the right place. Teaming up with Waste Knot around Halloween to ensure pumpkin flesh wasn’t going to waste is just one example of Pasta Evangelists positive community spirit. Undoubtedly, more important now than ever.
The winning recipe: One unique value proposition + hundreds of consistent images = a healthy pasta brand. What’s more, Pasta Evangelists take the time to educate their customers and give back to the community. Winner, winner (pasta) dinner.
4. Bloom & Wild have flourished with kindness and empathy
“Love, please don’t send me flowers anymore for Mother’s Day. They arrive bedraggled and only last a few days,” said every cost-conscious Mum to their kids (probably).
Well, it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, rewind to 2013 and a private equity consultant named Aron Gelbhard could be found measuring hundreds of letterboxes across the UK. And why would he do such a thing you ask? He was researching the perfect size for a home-delivered bouquet, of course. Satisfied that he’d found the answer, Gelbhard founded Bloom & Wild shortly after.
It’s this carefully considered approach that makes the brand so special. Bloom & Wild understand that sending flowers is an occasion - for good and bad. And the way they use their CRM to plan email campaigns, offering customers the option to opt-out if they don’t want to receive Mother’s Day reminders, shows the sincere level of empathy they’re operating with:
“For many, Mother's Day is a happy time to celebrate, but for others it's a painful reminder of individual struggles. When planning the Mother's Day email campaign, our focus was not on driving revenue or hitting sales goals, but on doing the right thing by our customers,” said Marisa Thomas, Head of Brand at Bloom and Wild.
Not only that, this empathetic tone is reflected in their advertising too.
We appreciate Bloom & Wild because when they say they “care wildly”, it feels like they really do.
Pick of the bunch: Instead of trying to imagine what makes them tick, Bloom & Wild takes the time to truly empathise with their customers. Furthermore, their advertising bears fruit because the messaging is just as real as it feels.
5. Lazy Oaf is comfortable putting quality over quantity
Fast fashion has become a very dirty word.
Not surprising considering it takes 2,700 litres of water to make one cotton shirt. That’s enough water for one person to drink for 2.5 years.
Lazy Oaf takes a different approach to apparel. Although coming in at a slightly higher price point than many of their competitors, they focus on creating limited collections that are built to last.
But as much as sustainability is important to Lazy Oaf, honesty comes first. The brand has recently published their ‘Oatfesto’, detailing their commitments to sustainability, animal welfare and more but it is, in their own words, “a work in progress".
However, sending out orders in compostable packaging made from sugar cane, prioritising shipping by sea or road (as opposed to air) and launching an eco-friendly swimwear line are great places to start. In fact, even the swing tickets are now recyclable.
“We’re not producing thousands, we produce a couple of hundred of each thing,” said founder and CEO Gemma Shiel to Vice.
With a conscious attitude, sensible approach to growth - not to mention those authentic and original designs - this is a clothing brand you can feel a little more comfortable in.
Heart on their sleeves: In 2020, there’s no getting away from the challenges our planet is facing. So, be a brand that your customers can feel good about following. Lazy Oaf has got it down.
Five tips for branding small businesses
Surprisingly, you can do a lot these days with very little. Here’s how to make a splash with your brand when you’re starting out:
- Get online: You can do this quickly and relatively cost-effectively with a Shopify site. It’s easy to set-up and you can always develop it further down the line when you’re up and running. You can keep the design and copy simple too - as long as it’s responsive and speaks to your demographic. Patch Plants is a great example.
- Empathise: take a leaf out of Bloom and Wild’s book and get to know your customers. From designing mobile-first and user-focused experiences to talking directly to customer personas, walk in their shoes - and feel the pain.
- Be unique: Research your competitors and make sure you’re offering something original. The online marketplace is more crowded than ever, so a unique value proposition is paramount. Pasta Evangelists is living proof that a great product at the right time is everything.
- Get consistent: From your communications to digital assets, check that they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet. A consistent brand is also a trustworthy one. From colour palette to Insta images, everything Bokksu does feels considered.
- Do good: There are dime a dozen brands talking about ethical practices. But in 2020, it’s not enough to look like you’re doing good. Practice what you preach. Why not work on that manifesto and get it online? Because even if it’s a work-in-progress like Lazy Oaf, it’ll mean so much to your customers that you’re trying.
Written by Andy Baker
Andy is a creative copywriter, content strategist and vegan pizza connoisseur. When he’s not helping brands channel their tone of voices, he’s probably sketching, listening to records or throwing pebbles on the beach for his dog, Eric. Good boy.