Ever wondered how some of the fastest growing startups grew so fast? What did they do differently that boosted them to success?
If that’s the case, here are some good news:
We’ve taken 3 extremely successful ecommerce brands that started out as startups and made it big - and dissolved their success into simple yet detailed steps.
If you wanna know exactly what they did great and how they did it, as well as what you can learn from their success and implement in your business, then keep on reading.
It may be a short list, but we’ll dive deep into the topic.
Here are our diving stops:
- Gymshark - Gym Clothes & Workout Wear
- Bonobos - Men's Clothing & Accessories
- Frank Body - Coffee Scrub and Flirty Skincare
1. Gymshark - Gym Clothes & Workout Wear
Gymshark is a wildly successful fitness apparel and accessories brand, supported by millions of highly engaged social media followers and customers across 131 countries.
Founded in 2012 by friends Ben Francis and Lewis Morgan, both aged 19, Gymshark grew from an online supplement store and a screen printing operation in a garage - to one of the fastest-growing companies in the UK and most recognisable brands in fitness.
So, how did a startup with zero funding strike solid gold, with valuation in excess of $1B - in just 7+ years? 🤔
While it may sound impossible, the truth is - it’s all about marketing strategies and being innovative in their implementation. There’s a lot you can take from Gymshark’s approach and apply to your own business, but we’ll focus on the things they do best - influence marketing & making the most of User Generated Content (UGC).
How they did it
At the time Gymshark started out, influence marketing wasn’t really a thing, at least not in the way we know it today. The reason why they were one of the earliest adopters of this marketing model was simple - with no previous funding, they had to be creative with the tools at their disposal and social media proved to be just the right way.
Let’s break down what they did in steps:
1. They defined a clear target audience 🎯
Maybe an “obvious” one, but it’s crucial to everything that comes next and we’ll point out why.
Once Gymshark had a clear vision of their audience, a defined set of “parameters”, they could revolve absolutely everything around this.
This helped them define the needs & wants of their customers and what’s most important, they could find exactly the right people to help them raise awareness of their brand.
How? Well, if their target audience is 18-25-year-olds whose lives revolve around fitness, fashion and music - they just had to find influencers that had such followers in fair numbers.
Which brings us to the next step.
2. They built an influencer community 🙌
Once Gymshark found the right people that their target audience liked and followed, they did one key thing that made all the difference - they didn’t set for once-off sponsorships. Instead, they worked on building long lasting relationships.
Gymshark created a surrounding of mutual benefit and partnership. Every influencer they chose to work with became brand ambassador with a signed long term contract. This resulted in a much stronger community, where the influencers create natural advocacy and genuine affinity for the brand.
The result is that fans (Gymshark’s target audience) feel more connected to the brand, since trust was built with time, dedication and long term investments.
3. They used UGC in the best possible way 🤳
In case you’re not familiar with the term, User Generated Content is any content that has been created by users rather than brands. This includes comments, reviews, photos, videos, posts and a wide variety of other material.
In this witty example of how to engage your followers, any response to the tweet is UGC. Since UGC is generated organically, by people who really love the brand (or hate it), it’s somewhat of a digital equivalent to personal recommendation.
And here’s a fun fact: 85% of consumers say they find UGC more influential than brand-created content.
Using this type of content in the right way can be beneficial for your brand in so many ways, and Gymshark knows it. Which is why they do it perfectly. :)
Let's pull up another example:
Back in 2019, Gymshark came up with a challenge where they encouraged positive lifestyle changes throughout a period of 66 days. To participate, you'd have to share your story and progress at least two times a week using hashtag #Gymshark66.
The hashtag now has over 700k posts on Instagram.
The goal was to give value to their audience and to increase brand awareness - not to generate sales or self-promote (not directly anyway!). Again, they’re thinking long-term.
Gymshark used this generated content to make their followers feel involved, heard, seen and essentially, like a part of the story and a part of the community. They did this by reposting, responding, sharing mentions, cheering participants on - using UGC to engage even more.
This, in turn, generated even more mentions, social media reach, likes, shares, and comments. Not only did people want to be a part of the buzzing story, there was also a possibility that the brand they like sees, likes or even shares their content, so naturally, more people were prone to post such content.
Back this customer-oriented approach with a strong community of influencers and you have a recipe for success (and an amazing social proof for your brand).
Key takeaways 👀
- Focused targeting can help you better understand and connect with your audience
- Long-lasting relationships can be way more beneficial for your business than quick short run goals - both with influencers and with customers
- Focus on giving value while raising awareness of your business
- Utilize social proof in your eCommerce marketing efforts (like UGC)
- Lastly, listen to feedback and focus on making customers happy - the more happy customers your business has, the more new clients you can acquire
2. Bonobos - Men's Clothing & Accessories
Bonobos is an upscale, ecommerce-driven apparel company that designs and sells men's clothing. By now, their story and business model is well known to many retailers and ecommerce businesses out there, but it’s always good to come back to good stories with a fresh view.
Founded in 2007 by Andy Dunn and Brian Spaly, college students fed up with how hard it was to find pants that fit them well and looked great, Bonobos grew from an online store with one single product (pants), to a $310M acquisition success that has a complete line of men’s accessories and clothing, along with a physical retail network of more than 60 “guideshops”.
Yes, you read that right. They went from clicks to 60+ bricks and a $310M acquisition deal with Walmart, in just about 10 years.
Don’t worry, we’ll jump onto steps right away.
How they did it
Bonobos has been a pioneer of many things ecommerce-related we now consider as ground basics, but at the time, they were quite revolutionary. One example is they offered a chance to return products that didn’t fit (with free shipping) - pretty usual right? Not 13 years ago.
The reason why they were so innovative in their approach is their problem-solving mindset. What do customers need, what problems do they have, and how can we solve it?
Let’s go through the steps and see what they did.
1. They got one thing right first 👌
If the founders of Bonobos said one thing over the years over and over again it’s this - “Make one thing great. Get one thing right”.
They focused only on one product until it was absolutely perfect. They were known for male pants only, and that product was top quality. Of course, it wasn’t perfect right away, but they didn’t jump to the next thing until the first one wasn’t the best possible.
This proved to be a good method for many ecom startups that followed (the next brand on this list used it as well). Why? Firstly, by focusing on one thing you prevent resource and energy dispersion, which is crucial to every startup with limited funding.
Then, in order to get noticed you have to make it easy for people to remember you. Since it’s a hyper-competitive market, you need to penetrate it by being known for “one thing” first. Something like “Ah I know them, the pants brand” is easier than “the pants, coats, shoes, belts and sunglasses brand”, right?
The fact is, the wider the niche, the more likely are people to ignore it (when it comes to new startups anyway).
And lastly, when you make the first product right, people will want more from you.
Bonobos widened their product offer only after they mastered the first one and developed trust. The result was that customers welcomed new products whole heartedly.
2. They invested in customer experience 🤝
Although having the best pair of pants is great, it’s definitely not enough to make your target audience love you. So Bonobos offered one more thing: “come to us because you want great pants, and you want a better way to get them”.
They invested in the quality of the one product they had, and they invested in the experience of getting that product.
One good example of this we already mentioned. Since they were online-only at the beginning, they had to find a way around the fact that men too want to try out pants before buying them. And of course, buy the ones that fit. This is where free returns came into play - one of the things Bonobos was a pioneer at.
What you should get out from this is not that they were clairvoyant, they just listened to their customers and focused on solving their problems. As one of the founders described it, they were "maniacally focused on the customer experience and interacting, transacting, and story-telling to consumers."
What they got in return was the most efficient and successful method available for attracting new customers: word-of-mouth.
3. They went from clicks to bricks in a unique way 🧱
The last step Bonobos did, that was the most revolutionary of all, is actually quite logical when you place their customers at the core of all of their decisions.
Everyone has a need to “try before they buy”, so naturally the next thing they would aim to do is provide this kind service through brick-and-mortar shops. But what’s the catch?
They pioneered a whole new type of physical stores. Instead of coming to the store to buy clothes, you would come to try them out, see them, feel the fabric, get help from the store Guides (real life equivalent of online customer support) if needed and - walk out empty handed. The product you want would arrive at your doorstep.
They turned the table and made something customers considered a benefit look like a burden. Why would you carry bags when they can come to you?
This wouldn’t have been possible however had Bonobos not focused so much on customers from the start. They established trust throughout previous years, so customers knew they would receive their clothes in a timely manner, without complications.
What’s great about this type of store as well is having only the first floor stock. This means they could find smaller stores, cut their expenses, save on storing logistics etc.
Key takeaways 👀
- Don’t waste your focus - better do one thing right than two things half-assed
- Focus on customer experience and look at every point of contact with customers as something you can leverage - it’s a good way to induce word-of-mouth and you may come up with something great in the process
- Don’t stick to the norms, reinvent concepts so they solve problems and benefit both you and your customers - like in the case of stores that could be touchpoints for product discovery and customer experience, not necessarily points-of-sale
3. Frank Body – Coffee Scrub and Flirty Skincare
Frank Body may very well be the most distinctive brand on this list. They are a skincare ecommerce startup that started out with scrubs made out of leftover coffee and a modest capital of around $5K. With it, and some amazing social media marketing skills, they made $20M in 2 years and just kept growing since.
Founded in 2013 by five friends, Steve Rowley, Jess Hatzis, Bree Johnson, Erika Geraerts and Alexander Boffa, Frank Body distinguished itself from the start as a brand with a different approach, look and sound.
They are now a multi-million dollar brand with an international presence, shipping products to 149 countries and can also be found in stores such as Sephora, Urban Outfitters, Target, Mecca Beauty, Ulta Beauty, Bloomingdales etc.
What made them stand out that much from all the other beauty products, you may wonder?
The short answer is - absolutely brilliant copywriting. Let’s see how they used it right.
How they did it
Nine years ago, when Frank Body was cooking up as an idea, the beauty industry was pretty much still old fashioned in the way they communicated with their customers. There was a lot of corporate language, confusion about product ingredients, scientific jargon that was confusing consumers and so they couldn’t truly connect with the brands.
Frank Body wanted to be an antithesis of that - transparent, funny, personal, natural. And they also knew that’s what would keep their audience (Millennials and Generation Z) captivated. So, what did they do differently?
1. They created a flirty and relatable brand persona 💋
This was hands down the most unique part of the brand. They created a character, a voice of the brand named Frank who speaks to his ‘babes’ (what he calls his customers) in a cheeky and naughty manner.
He also talks about the brand or products in the third person, using personal pronouns such as “me” or “I” (you can see in the photo above it says “My story” - it’s Frank talking). This wasn’t only genius at the time, it still works today and it set them a world apart from other beauty brands that targeted young women.
Frank’s voice was carried through all of their marketing efforts and strategies and in all areas of the brand’s exposure - from website and social media content captions, to packaging.
What communicating in personal pronouns enabled them to do is be honest and transparent - values that their target audience keeps high. They removed all the fluff around beauty products and introduced lightheartedness into the industry.
With a playful cheeky male persona like Frank, talking all seductive and flirty, they could make any lady giggle - and love their product. So they used this everywhere they could and it’s had a great impact.
This brings us to the next quite distinctive step.
2. They have bold marketing copy 💪
Frank Body knows it’s selling more than just products. Their audience cares about lifestyle and expressing themselves - so they made it possible for them to relate and express through Frank. They use bold and honest statements which are relatable and distinctive - and create a bond with their customers.
Frank knows his audience, he understands their lifestyle and interests and communicates in a way “babes” would care about. Even the package of their products is well–thought and plays into the minimalistic esthetics that could easily end up on someone’s Instagram pic.
Frank Body’s content strategy aims to capture the lifestyle of fashion, healthy skin, natural products, coffee and being a bit cheeky. They don’t shy away from “dirty talking” because it makes them different from the competition, and it's a statement in itself to be bold and be yourself - a value that aligns to its core with their audience.
We needed to be humble, honest and frank about our product and a variety of topics. So that led us to create the character of ‘frank’ in order to engage in a relatable, direct dialogue with our potential customers and we were prudent on carrying that voice through every touch point of our brand. It made us stand out in an otherwise cookie cutter industry. – Jess Hatzis, co-founder of Frank Body
3. They celebrate their “babes” for posting UGC 🥳
The founders of Frank Body are quite honest themselves about many of their strategies. In an interview with Forbes, Jess Hatzis, one of the co-founders, explained how social media strategies and UGC were crucial to their success. They focused on that from day one.
And here are some stats just to explain why: according to Millennials, which are Frank Body’s main target audience, UGC is 35% more memorable than other media. They also spend roughly 30% of the total time consuming media - on UGC.
So, Frank Body knew where the game’s at, and they leveraged social media for this purpose.
This resulted in over 100,000 consumer generated images living under their hashtags #letsbefrank and #thefrankeffect. They also have over 800k followers on Instagram only.
And how exactly did they do it? They celebrated their customers posting photos with their products and their natural beauty, cheekenes and boldness. They also rewarded their loyalty through a great loyalty program that stands out (as everything else they do, of course).
In the program, which is a Hotel with tiers, and has a game-like vibe where the goal is to arrive at the penthouse - Frank Body gave points not only for purchases but also for sharing UGC.
This, and many other efforts to generate content, including bonding through Frank (who would tell them to post pics), resulted in customers happily uploading content showing the outcomes or results of using their products, whether they are influencers or everyday individuals.
Key takeaways 👀
- A memorable brand persona can help you communicate with your customers on a more personal level, which can resonate better depending on demographics of your target audience
- Create content about topics your followers care about – and don’t shy away from having a drastically different approach than your competitors
- Celebrate customers for sharing user-generated content – especially if they are part of your loyalty program
- Know what your audience likes, which values they have, and show them you share the same values - through words and through action
Well this was a good dive, but let’s catch our breath now.
You may have noticed that all three brands had a lot in common. The circumstances are different, and obviously the products they sell, but at the core it’s the same thing - customers.
And that’s good - it gives you a chance to see different executions of the same principle, which will then help you figure out how you can apply this uniquely to your own brand, your own type of product and business model.
That was the whole point of talking this much, wasn’t it?
So, let’s have a final review and point out what you should remember:
➜ Define your target audience precisely, narrow it down until your focus is clear and you know exactly what their affinities are
➜ Research what they like, who they follow and who inspires them and connect with those people long-term through partnerships
➜ If you’re ever in a dilemma - ask yourself which action leads to a long lasting relationship, not quick fleeting results (quick can sometimes be good, but always keep in mind the big picture as well)
➜ Ask for feedback and listen to it. We can’t emphasize this enough. It can lead to innovations, better connection with customers, word-of-mouth recommendations and so many other things that are good for your business
➜ Reward your customers for being loyal and for engaging, especially for UGC - it’s your social proof
➜ Show that you care and that they come first - through customer experience, support, actions that align with their values
And lastly, feel free to come back to this post whenever you’re not quite certain what the steps were. :)