A pat on the back to 24 upstarts making unique marks on the evolving retail marketplace
A forecast from IDC Manufacturing Insights that’s been circulating through the consumer products industry sounds as much like a warning as a prediction: Small brands are going to steal 10 to 15 share points from larger, traditional companies over the next few years.
Why? Well, because they can. The barriers to entry that for decades made bringing a new brand to market a lengthy, arduous task – the need to gain widespread distribution and fund mass media advertising, to name two of the bigger ones – have largely disappeared, thanks primarily to the digital tools that make direct-to-consumer communication possible (and really, really inexpensive).
To recognize this trend, we decided to provide this brief overview of 24 brands that currently are making names for themselves – literally and figuratively – across the industry. While many of these brands are digital natives, few are online-only. And the ones who are “pure plays” likely won’t remain that way for much longer: Not only do most upstarts ultimately learn that some level of retail distribution is critical for scaling the business, but many leading retailers (Target chief among them) are now actively sourcing from the digitally native ranks as a way to differentiate their in-store inventory and attract younger shoppers.
There’s also a good chance that some of these brands won’t be considered upstarts much longer because they could make pretty good acquisition targets for traditional companies, many of which know that the fastest way to regain lost market share is to buy whoever stole it.
Without further ado, we hereby present our list of “Standout Small Brands,” the ankle-biters who are grabbing headlines and sales away from traditional companies, but who also might be able to teach their more-established competitors a few things about going to market in the consumer-centric era.
Brand/Company Name: AdoreMe Year Launched: 2012 Founder: Morgan Herman-Waiche
AdoreMe uses machine learning algorithms to create a personal showroom of lingerie, sleepwear and swimwear encompassing a customer’s style, favorite color palette as well as best shapes and fits. The company offers a subscription service and a “pay as you go” model, has developed partnerships with department stores Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor, and last year began opening its own brick-and-mortar storefronts. The digital-native brand’s stores boast smart fitting rooms outfitted with digital displays that employ RFID tags and IoT to show product details and let shoppers request different garments.
Brand/Company Name: BarkBox Year Launched: 2012 Founders: Carly Strife, Matt Meeker, Henrik Werdelin
New York-based BarkBox offers a monthly subscription service providing toys and treats to 600,000 dogs (and having served more than 2 million) in the U.S. BarkShop.com provides a curated e-commerce experience, and the company offers custom collections via its retail partner network (including Target). In 2018, BarkBox began working with software provider Oracle NetSuite for solutions across subscription, retail and e-commerce. Bark boasts more than 11 million followers across social media. “Our focus is [now] on bringing dogs and people that don’t live online into the Bark universe,” said Allison Stadd, VP of brand reach & affinity.
Brand/Company Name: Birchbox Year Launched: 2010 Founders: Katia Beauchamp, Hayley Barna
New York-based Birchbox is an online beauty retailer offering a monthly subscription of personalized samples. Operating in the U.S., UK, France, Spain, Belgium and Ireland, the company has more than 1 million subscribers and 2.5 active customers. Birchbox features 500 prestige brands, both mainstream and indie, in its online shop, where subscribers can buy full-size versions. The company says 50% of its subscribers shop for full-size products, and 35% of its revenue comes from sales of full-size products. The company garnered attention in late 2018 as it unveiled a partnership with Walgreens that brought dedicated Birchbox experiences to 11 stores.
Brand/Company: Coconut Bliss Year Launched: 2005 Founders: Luna Marcus, Larry Kaplowitz
Coconut Bliss sells a variety of wholly organic, non-dairy frozen desserts. The company leverages social media and provides consumers with unique experiences through its Bliss Van, which travels to local events and embarks on annual road trips. Coconut Bliss champions sustainability with plant-based bio-resin polyethylene pint cup packaging, made from the husks of sugar cane. It also seeks to empower women through collaborative fundraising. Coconut Bliss products are widely available at retailers such as Kroger, Whole Foods and Albertsons Cos.
Brand/Company Name: Curology Year Launched: 2014 Founders: David Lortscher, Glenn Lortscher, Nancy Satur, Kris Fredrickson
San Diego-based skincare startup Curology is a direct-to-consumer company that uses web-based technology and medical professionals to individually treat acne with a customized prescription formula containing three ingredients. The company initially specialized in once-a-day creams but recently launched facial cleansers and moisturizers to offer a full skincare routine. Patients answer questions and take bare-faced pictures, then a doctor formulates a product that is mailed to their door. Curology doesn’t use algorithms or health insurance but was created by doctors to help those struggling with acne find easy and affordable treatment. According to Glossy, Curology has tripled its consumer base in each of the last two years and secured $17 million in funding.
Brand Name: Gainful Company Name: Gainful Health Inc. Year Launched: 2017 Founders: Eric Wu, Jahaan Ansari
Gainful is a personalized protein powder subscription service. Once shoppers complete a quiz on Gainful.com, an algorithm tailors a protein powder blend to their unique body types, dietary restrictions and fitness goals. Green tea extract, for example, might be added to blends for users who want to slim down to promote weight loss and prevent weight gain. An ingredient breakdown for each personalized blend is available through the website, where users also have access to a registered dietitian.
Neel Premkumar concocted a beverage smoother and stronger than regular coffee, then took his organic, fair-trade and cold-brewed coffee shots to market with his father-in-law’s savings. Distribution began in U.S. military bases and last year grew to include Walmart, bringing the brand’s store count up to more than 50,000 U.S. locations. A former marketing executive for Nestle, Premkumar positioned the product to target the “all-dayer,” a consumer who values an extra 10 minutes in the day-to-day.
Brand/Company Name: Glamsquad Year Launched: 2014 Founders: Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Jason Perri
Glamsquad began life as an on-demand styling service, establishing a network of hair and makeup professionals who are dispatched to make house (or office or hotel) calls to meet the urgent beauty needs of women. It moved into retail last summer by partnering with CVS/pharmacy to provide services inside the drugstore chain’s new BeautyIRL store-within-a-store concept. The 500,000-plus appointments Glamsquad has conducted serve as “micro-labs” for understanding consumer needs and testing products, chief executive officer Amy Schecter told ShopTalk attendees in March. That knowledge informed the launch of a self-branded haircare product line last December. “Data is our superpower,” Schecter said.
Brand: Grove Company Name: Grove Collaborative Year Launched: 2014 Founders: Stuart Landesberg, Jordan Savage, Chris Clark
Grove’s mission is to “help all families create the home that reflects the best of themselves” by selling products that will be “a positive force for human and environmental health,” according to Landesberg’s LinkedIn page. The brand’s line of all-natural cleaning, beauty and personal care products is home-delivered via auto-replenishment (or single purchase), with customers given a free consultation before making their selections. Like-minded brands such as Method, Seventh Generation and Mrs. Meyers are also part of the inventory. Some packaging can be returned for recycling. Last-mile logistics provider Convey Inc. recently helped Grove improve fulfillment precision.
Brand Name: Hint Company Name: Hint Inc. Year Launched: 2005 Founder: Kara Goldin
Hint began as a healthy lifestyle brand best known for its flagship unsweetened flavored water. Fast-forward 14 years, and the brand’s assortment now comprises fruit-scented sunscreen, sparkling and caffeinated water and water in kid-friendly boxes (with aluminium-free deodorants to be added soon). Working with software provider Oracle NetSuite, the company also boasts a booming direct-to-consumer business that represents 45% of Hint’s overall sales. Hint SKUs are available via DrinkHint.com and at retailers including Target.
Brand Name: Inca Kola Company Name: Continental Food and Beverage Year Launched: 1935 in Peru; 1980 in U.S. Founders: Joseph Robinson Lindley (Peru); Luis Jardines (U.S.)
Developed long ago in Peru, Inca Cola made its way to the U.S. in 1980. Coca-Cola Co. purchased the Inca Kola trademark from Continental Food and Beverage in 1999, then licensed the rights back to CF&B, which is the exclusive bottler in the U.S. Despite a declining trend in the sugar-sweetened carbonated soft drink category, CF&B has grown the Inca Kola brand through a marketing strategy that utilizes relationships with local chambers of commerce to create brand awareness. The company has implemented an automated sales-delivery-warehousing system that allows orders to be fulfilled in 24 hours.
Brand Names: Kiss/Joah Company Name: Kiss Products Year Launched: 1989 Founder: Sung Yong Cheng
Kiss Products originated as a beauty supplier. As its products increased in popularity, the company expanded to mass distribution via Walgreens, Walmart and others. It now claims to be the world’s largest manufacturer and distributor of professional quality nail products. Kiss and sister brand Broadway Nails are available in more than 90 countries. The company’s products include nail care, nail jewelry, nail art, and manicure & pedicure tools. In 2018, Kiss brought an exclusive K-beauty line called Joah to CVS/pharmacy. The brand’s marketing efforts employ women of all complexions and ethnicities, aligning closely with the retailer’s “Beauty in Real Life” commitment.
Brand/Company Name: Myro Year Launched: 2018 Founder: Greg Laptevsky
Myro, which amassed a pre-launch 16,000-person waitlist, is a plant-powered deodorant available as a subscription or one-time bulk purchase via MyMyro.com. Free from aluminum, parabens, phthalates, baking soda, artificial colors and any synthetic fragrance, the brand boasts five scents that are available through pods that are fully recyclable and use about 50% less plastic than typical deodorant packaging. The pods work in tandem with branded reusable cases to further reduce plastic waste.
Brand/Company Name: Prose Year Launched: 2018 Founders: Arnaud Plas, Catherine Taurin, Paul Michaux, Nicolas Mussat
Using machine learning to make personalized hair care accessible, Prose sells custom-formulated hair products catering to specific needs and goals, even taking into account pollution/humidity levels and water quality based on a customer’s location. Shoppers place one-time or subscription custom orders via Prose.com that are mixed in the company’s New York lab. Its founders created the business’ data-driven and ingredient-centric model to solve for customer pain points unearthed while working for companies such as P&G and L’Oreal.
Brand/Company: Revolve Year Launched: 2003 Founders: Michael Mente, Mike Karanikolas
The Los Angeles-based e-commerce apparel business is known for its high-profile influencer activations, but the data prowess of its founders also made it successful. The company works with emerging as well as celebrity designers and analyzes the types of apparel shoppers want based on online sales. It also keeps in close contact with its buyers through automated notifications, as well as a tagging system that logs the individual attributes of the clothing it sells. The company manufacturers and designs several of its own brands to stay on and ahead of trends.
Brand/Company Name: Rael Year Launched: 2017 Founders: Aness An, Binna Won, Yanghee Paik
The founders created Rael to offer healthy alternatives to traditional feminine care products that are full of toxic chemicals. Rael’s product line includes organic cotton pads and pantyliners (both No. 1 Amazon Best Sellers in their respective categories), biodegradable cardboard and non-applicator tampons, as well as an assortment of facial sheet masks and acne healing patches to help alleviate hormonal skin issues that occur during menstruation. Having recently raised $17.5 million in a Series A funding round, the company plans to grow its direct-to-consumer site, GetRael.com, and explore partnerships with major brick-and-mortar retailers. Several products made their way into Target in April.
Salty Britches was borne out of a need to find relief for the irritated, ocean-chafed skin of founder Amy Tucker’s son. She developed an ointment that is non-GMO and preservative-free. The company then expanded to offer another seasonal product for winter skin relief. The company will soon offer a third product — an all-season skin barrier ointment — on the Salty Britches website. Tucker has utilized the RangeMe product sourcing platform to discover service providers and help bring the items to market.
Brand/Company Name: Seapoint Farms Year Launched: 1996 Founders: Laura Cross, Kevin Cross
Southern California-based Seapoint Farms is an importer, manufacturer and seller of edamame products and snacks, including frozen or dry roasted edamame, fruit and nut blends, seaweed snacks and most recently edamame-based rice and pasta products. According to its website, Seapoint Farms was the first American company to bring edamame into U.S. supermarkets and health food stores. In 1999, after the FDA concluded that foods with soy protein may reduce the risk of heart disease, Seapoint Farms began its mission to educate consumers about soy’s health benefits. The company uses only non-GMO soybeans, is a participant in The Non-GMO Project and is vegan and USDA-organic certified.
Brand: Spindrift Company: Spindrift Beverage Co. Year Launched: 2010
Founder: Bill Creelman
Spindrift positions itself as the first sparkling water made with actual squeezed fruit sourced from family farms. CEO Bill Creelman started the Newton, Massachusetts-based company in his quest for a more natural beverage. The company initially had a soda line but ditched natural flavors and cane sugar to focus on the sparkling water category – with impressive results. Its 10 flavors can be purchased at Starbucks, Target, Kroger and Amazon as well as on the DTC Spindrift Marketplace.
Brand/Company Name: TenTree Year Launched: 2012 Founder: Derrick Emsley
The Canadian company sells lifestyle apparel made out of natural, recycled and mostly animal-free materials, but the products are just a vehicle for its social mission: to plant 10 trees for every item purchased. Consumers are able to directly affect the environment and health of communities with a unique tree code used to decide what type of trees they want planted, and to track and monitor their individual impact. With 25 million trees planted so far, the company is on its way to reaching its goal of 1 billion by 2030.
Brand: True & Co. Company Name: PVH Corp. Year Launched: 2012 Founders: Michelle Lam, Aarthi Ramamurthy, Beatrice Pang
The San Francisco-based lingerie company aims to solve one of women’s most misunderstood tasks: finding the correct bra size. With help from designer Nikki Dekker of lingerie maker The Lake & Stars and an algorithmic “fit quiz,” True & Co. recommends bras based on each individual’s body and preferences. The idea originated when co-founder and CEO Michelle Lam became fed up with fitting rooms and misfit bras, and now the company places personalization and customer data at the epicenter of its business. Now owned by the same company as Calvin Klein, True & Co. boasts a consumer community of more than 7 million women and has been referred to as “the Netflix of bras.”
Brand Name: Tweed Company Name: Canopy Growth Year Launched: 2013 Founders: Bruce Linton, Chuck Rifici
Based in Canada, where recreational marijuana was legalized nationally last fall, Canopy Growth aspires to be the world’s largest pot producer. The public company generated $139 million in revenue in 2018 – although sales skyrocketed 300% in the “legalized” fourth quarter. Tweed-branded retail stores will be “coming to a neighborhood near you as soon as we’re allowed to,” Canopy promises on its website. A license to produce hemp in New York is the first move across the border. In February, the company unveiled a deal with media maven Martha Stewart to advise and help develop cannabis-based health products for pets.
Brand/Company Name: Untuckit Year Launched: 2011 Founders: Chris Riccobono, Aaron Sanandres
The simple premise – sell dress shirts designed to be worn untucked to men who already wear them that way – has driven $150 million-plus in sales and oodles of investment funding. While 80% of sales are driven online, the company has 51 physical stores (as of January) and plans 100 more over five years. The product offering has expanded to include items for boys and women. Untuckit is now dealing with the “exponential increase in the complexity of the business” wrought by omnichannel retailing, including tackling data synchronization (for marketing and customer experience purposes) and inventory management, Aaron Sanandres told TotalRetail.
Clinical skin care and digital native brand Urban Skin Rx exclusively caters to multicultural and melanin-rich skin types and tones, with a focus on Millennial women. Licensed aesthetician Rachel Roff (pictured), who also founded Urban Skin Solutions Medspa (one of the country’s first medical spas for ethnic and darker skin tones), designed the brand to address common issues like scarring, uneven skin tones, melisma, acne and hyperpigmentation. Until this year, the brand was only available online, but it has since expanded to retailers including CVS/pharmacy, Target and Ulta.