You can buy sales, but you cannot buy success.
Why? Because while advertising can drive awareness and purchasing, it alone won’t inspire customers to love and evangelize your brand. Also, the results of advertising can be misleading. “Paid media can trick [entrepreneurs] into conflating sales with demand,” writes Entrepreneur columnist Adam Bornstein.
So what’s a better course of action?
That’s what Athena Club spent years exploring. Since 2019, the digitally native personal care brand has growth through a smart and data-driven mix of marketing — and this this year it officially went big. It announced a $15 million Series A funding round in May, and in October launched its first-ever national campaign, featuring commercials across streaming and linear TV, as well as billboard and subway ads across New York City. The ads highlight “how people actually shave,” and feature a diverse collection of athletes, creators, and models, including US Olympic track star Tianna Bartoletta, influencer Diana Vieras, gymnast Norah Flatley, and model Fabienne Heymans.
Here, cofounders and co-CEOs Maria Markina and Charles Desmarais detail the methodical way they built their marketing strategy — including what worked, what didn’t, and why now was the time to spend big.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Athena Club
Entrepreneurs are often warned that you can’t spend your way to success. Up until now, how did you think about spending money on marketing versus other forms of customer acquisition and engagement?
We’ve been extremely thoughtful with spending across all functions of our business. In the first two years, we saw immediate success with certain channels such as influencer partnerships, so we continued to invest and optimize where we knew we could win. But we’ve always believed that investing in product development — both physical products and digital experiences — is equally important. You should never put dollars behind a product you don’t fully believe in. It’s crucial to stay laser focused on creating the best products possible — for us, that’s personal care products that people use every day — and listening to and acting on customer feedback about how something can be improved.
In terms of marketing and customer acquisition spend, we’ve been mindful of not becoming hyper reliant on any single channel, but rather maintaining a healthy balance of acquisition strategies across channels. Many DTC companies rely heavily on paid digital advertising (and Facebook specifically) for growth. While this channel can offer opportunities, putting all of your eggs in one basket can be dangerous. We’ve invested in several acquisition and engagement channels ever since launching in 2019, including podcast advertising, influencer partnerships, referral, direct mail, and public relations, and believe this diversification of channels fueled the 2,000% growth we had in 2020. And we just launched our first-ever linear TV, streaming, and out-of-home ads. We plan to continue investing in all these existing channels, and will diversify this mix even further with brand partnerships, community programming, and product placement initiatives in 2022.
Experimenting with different channels and running tests allows you to garner so many valuable insights and learnings that can be applied to ongoing and future marketing initiatives. You never really know if something will work until you try it, and testing out various channels and investing more heavily in those that prove successful has allowed our business to grow rapidly. Set clear targets when experimenting with new channels and ensure that performance is carefully tracked — and use the results of these experiments to inform plans for how to improve and what to do next.
How did you optimize for influencer partnerships? This is an area that trips up a lot of entrepreneurs, because it’s not always clear what the ROI is going to be on an individual influencer, or who to use.
Every influencer partnership is somewhat of a gamble, so you have to do your best to set the partnership up for success in the negotiation process. Outside of followers and engagement rate, there are a few boxes you should always tick before greenlighting a partnership, including:
- Is the influencer’s audience aligned with your target demographic?
- Is their content aligned with your tone and aesthetic? Or, would you repost this content on your channels?
- Does the influencer’s paid content perform well?
It sounds pretty straightforward, but it’s so critical to do your due diligence before any content gets made. Then, you just have to trust your partner to make something great.
We’re also investing more in 1:1 community building on Instagram and TikTok, and are on track to launch a formal ambassador program in the near future. While this kind of 1:1 community building can be a heavy lift upfront, we believe it will create stronger, more lasting brand champions in the long run. Not to mention, the insights that can be gathered from these conversations are extremely helpful in determining where and how best to focus future marketing energy and product development.
You say a lot of your business until now has been driven by word of mouth and referrals. What did you do to drive that?
Honestly, we believe it starts with creating a truly excellent and differentiated product experience. We obsess over product quality and functionality so that when someone uses an Athena Club razor or body lotion for the first time, it’s a positive and memorable experience and they’re inclined to tell their friends. Equally as important is an excellent customer experience. We have a strong conviction that if you put people and product first, you create valuable customers and valuable brand champions. And it’s working — six percent of our monthly customers to-date have come to us from friends and family.
Can you share more about what you learned while building your customer experience? Were there specific things that you learned along the way, perhaps about what your customer wanted that you did not expect?
We learned pretty quickly that our customer base is truly spread across the country. Most DTCs have the NYC and LA saturation problem, but we looked at our consumer demographics and saw that our product and positioning was resonating with a wide range of people all over the US. Because of this, we catered our marketing decisions accordingly and maximized our marketing efforts across more channels that would reach people across the country, not just in the major coastal cities.
When it comes to creating a memorable product, every new product launched should be intentional and based on existing consumer needs. We conduct surveys and market research for every category we expand into to ensure that we are responding to the needs and wants of consumers while creating products that offer a new set of benefits. New products need to be truly differentiated and of better quality than existing products in the market, and it’s really a win if you can do it at a more competitive price point.
We rely heavily on research for insight into consumer demands, and use that to guide product development. For example, in personal care, we learned that consumers are increasingly considering quality, convenience, and sustainability — so we made it our mission to develop products that offer all of these benefits, at one destination, with the convenience of being able to subscribe.
Additionally, it’s so important to make sure that your marketing is an honest reflection of what customers can expect, so that you never run the risk of setting the wrong expectations. Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy and can read through the extra marketing “fluff,” so we intentionally communicate with our customers in a way that’s as “real” as possible and are direct about what we’re bringing to the table.
Generating organic word-of-mouth comes down to creating an experience that is unique, relevant, and that resonates with consumers on a deeper level. Determine a real problem that needs to be solved, and do it in a way that allows your brand to connect with your customers on an emotional level—ensuring that you stand out, and that they remember you and what you did for them.
Beyond that, prioritize initiatives that empower customers to champion your brand. Referral has always been a strong channel for us, so we’re optimizing the program this quarter, focusing on rich incentives and a seamless flow. We’re working with a new referral platform provider so that we can maximize our number of user touchpoints, run valuable A/B tests, and garner detailed learnings and insights into what kind of offers resonate the most with our advocates and referred leads — but doing so in a way that allows us to pivot quickly and optimize for best performance based on the results we see.
Did you ever have a tipping point in mind, where you knew you’d spend money on a national campaign? Like did you think, “Once we reach X, we’ll invest heavily in advertising”?
Our Series A, which we closed in May, has enabled us to test new, unproven channels for us and make bigger brand bets. This round wasn’t about a massive retail roll out or throwing everything into Facebook. It was about introducing Athena Club to new audiences with a strong brand narrative, which means we get to do exciting work like our new creative campaign and making a big bet on creative and top-of-funnel growth.
What’s your process for testing new, unproven channels and making bigger brand bets?
With the campaign, we’re investing in OOH media in New York City, and linear TV and streaming platforms nationally for the first time ever. We arrived at this mix because we wanted to make a big brand awareness push in one of the country’s most influential markets (NYC) and leverage video to communicate a narrative-driven message at scale. We’re activating all our proven channels as well, but taking the step into these larger, more traditional advertising channels establishes us as a serious competitor in the self-care market, and allows us to reach a wider demographic of consumers that we may not have been able to reach through other marketing channels. Beyond just brand awareness, these channels allow us to tell a richer brand story—we put a lot of thought into the production, creative, and storytelling of this campaign, and by activating across all of these channels, we’re able to introduce consumers to Athena Club through multiple forms of media all at once.
So now you’re doing it — tell me why now was the right moment.
We have the capital. We have the momentum. We have the message. And we saw a big opportunity to usher in a new way to advertise personal care products. In our opinion, the traditional tone in advertising celebrates a very narrow (and misogynistic) standard of beauty. There are also a number of DTC category disruptors that are challenging the way the P&Gs of the world marketed everything, from shampoo to deodorant. Consumers are definitely resonating more with this newer tone than traditional personal care marketing, but to us, it feels performatively woke and is starting to fall flat. We saw an opportunity to sit somewhere in the middle. We believe that most consumers also sit somewhere in the middle, and will identify with brands that reflect their reality with a relatable, straightforward, and inclusive message.
What have you learned as you’ve prepared to launch this campaign that other entrepreneurs should know before considering a similar move?
You need to have a strong message. All of the marketing and creative dollars in the world can’t sell your brand if there’s no story behind it that feels relevant to your audience. The same goes for products. Do not make a big bet on a brand campaign if you don’t have the product to back it up. And finally, be prepared for what comes after a major awareness play. Make sure your business is set up to accommodate the new eyeballs on your website and the new orders in your warehouse.
That’s a great point about making sure your business is set up to accommodate the new eyeballs. Can you share more about what you did there?
To make sure we understood the potential impact of our campaign, we conducted a brand survey in the spring to get a baseline understanding of our aided awareness among our target audience. From there, we made some educated guesses based on where and how much we should be spending. It’s not an exact science, but it helped us to prepare and project what success looks like, and create some benchmarks to measure against.
It’s also so important to make sure your channels have consistently engaging, purposeful content to build long term relationships with your customers. Ahead of our campaign launch, we optimized all of our owned and paid channels so we would put our best foot forward when the campaign debuted. The most important things to focus on are capacity and content, and not just in the immediate sense, but also for the longer term increase we’ll hopefully see in our business. You need to know what you’re going to say next and how to welcome all of the new folks into your brand. You need to keep the party going.