How do you launch a consumer brand to the world and maintain momentum?
That’s the question I had for Terry Lee, CEO of Panacea, following his team’s successful launch of a Korean skincare line last year.
“There's this tendency, especially within the entrepreneurial community, to just lead with strengths and share everything that's going well. We're doing this amount of revenue, we've raised this much money, this is how many customers we've acquired… it’s all from a position of strength,” answered Terry. “That's good and all, but we are only really going to learn and get better by being vulnerable and sharing the challenges we're facing.”
In the conversation that followed, he broke down their brand launch story step-by-step, strategy-by-strategy. Not just the press and revenue wins. He focused on overcoming struggles, tackling self-doubt and the lessons learned along the way.
So that you too can launch (or even re-launch) a consumer brand successfully and maintain momentum after the initial buzz dies down.
The Panacea Brand
It’s all about the daily essentials and a simple, yet effective skincare routine.
After consulting their customers and beauty experts from around the world, Panacea has distilled the ideal skincare routine into three simple steps:
- Cleanse: Draw out impurities without stripping your skin.
- Replenish: Replenish the water balance in your skin to hydrate and nourish.
- Protect: SPF 25 and broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection.
Panacea launched with three products, one for each step, designed to make skincare regimens less daunting. The three initial products were created for the majority of the population, but Panacea has plans to expand the line in the future.
“People have different skin. We want to accommodate that and be accessible to all different types of people. That’s why we’re now creating additional products to cater to different skin types,” explained Terry.
So, why Korea? Korea has become known as the epicenter of skincare innovation in recent years. Many of the latest and greatest formulas are coming out of that market, so it just makes sense that Panacea is tapping into that expertise.
The Launch Results
Three steps, three skincare products. And within just 30 days of launching the brand, Terry and the Panacea team generated over $16,000. They’ve even been able to maintain that momentum through early 2018.
Panacea has been picked up by top-tier beauty and lifestyle publications, including: Allure, Bustle, Byrdie, NYLON, HelloGiggles, Fashionista, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, HYPEBAE, NewBeauty, and Man Repeller.
So far, those press hits have generated a potential 150,700,000 impressions.
During those same 30 days, Panacea had over 225 organic (yes, unpaid) mentions from customers and influencers via Instagram, resulting in a potential reach of over 10,000,000 impressions.
As a result of the launch, Panacea has received 334 product reviews, 320 of them 5-star reviews, on their website alone.
Like Terry said, that’s good and all, but we are only going to improve by being vulnerable and sharing challenges. So, how’d Panacea arrive at this success? Through three core strategies: PR, influencer marketing, and Facebook ads.
Terry was generous enough to lift the curtain, to show what it’s really like behind the scenes of the high-profile launch.
Breaking Down the PR Strategy
“PR was our biggest spend leading up to the launch, and even now. We work with a PR agency that has helped launch other great brands in the beauty industry. They have a lot of experience when it comes to tapping the relevant outlets our target consumer reads,” Terry explained. “We really leaned on their expertise, but it comes with a price. As a startup, as any company that’s pre-launch, pre-product, pre-revenue… it’s a daunting decision.”
So, how do you decide if a PR agency is right for your brand? You can start by weighing the pros and cons.
- It’ll save you time and effort to have someone else secure the press for you.
- An agency has established relationships to lean on.
- An agency has more experience refining and packaging brand stories.
- A monthly retainer is terrifying when you’re not making money yet.
The truth is that if you’re working with a PR agency that knows your industry and understands your brand story, the cost is really the only downside. That said, it can be a dealbreaker, especially when you’re so early in the game.
“We ultimately decided the pros outweigh the cons,” explained Terry. “In retrospect, we’re really excited to have a PR partner. We launched with a lot of momentum from a press perspective. We got an exclusive with Allure, which is one of the biggest beauty outlets here in the U.S. We also received mentions from Bustle and HYPEBAE, so not just beauty outlets… lifestyle and fashion publications as well.”
If you’re considering a marketing or PR partner, too, check out some Shopify Experts.
You’ll notice that the press for Panacea went beyond “you should buy this new thing”. Here’s Allure talking about Terry’s personal struggle with cystic acne:
And here's HelloGiggles exploring the intersection of skincare and sexism given Panacea’s gender-neutral approach to beauty:
Whether you DIY your PR efforts or go with an agency, the key is identifying the brand’s ethos, the brand stories. In today’s world, “you can buy this thing now” is rarely compelling enough to catch the attention of journalists and get consumers talking.
Whether you DIY your PR efforts or go with an agency, the key is identifying the brand’s ethos.
Speaking of DIYing your PR, here are a few more things to keep in mind if you decide to skip the retainer:
- Make it easy for the journalist. Provide the journalist with your brand’s most compelling angles (i.e. stories). For example, Terry’s personal inspiration for the product or the gender-neutral product line. Don’t make them dig for the appeal because 9 times out of 10, they won’t.
- Create a win-win relationship. Journalists have goals of their own. Sometimes it’s shares, sometimes it’s ranking for specific keywords, sometimes it’s pageviews, etc. Keep this in mind when you’re pitching. How does covering your launch story help them?
- Be succinct. Journalists are busy, which is why the existing relationships of an agency can come in handy–you’ll skip the queue. Without those existing relationships, you’ll want to make sure you keep it brief. Get to the point, cut the fluff.
- Build the relationships before you need them. This is the single best piece of advice I can give you. Follow journalists from your dream outlets on Twitter and naturally (hey, you’re interested in the same topics) engage with them for a few weeks, a few months even.
- Be where your potential customers are. With PR, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the biggest, most well-known publication is the best choice for you. Put in the time to really understand your ideal customer and where they hangout. Remember, your goal is not just brand awareness, it’s brand awareness among your ideal customers.
Work backwards from your goals. That means choosing a handful of dream placements (e.g. Allure and HelloGiggles), choosing journalists at those outlets who cover your beat (e.g. Lourdes Avila Uribe of HelloGiggles) and finding their contact information (e.g. email and Twitter).
If you’re just getting started with PR, Help a Reporter Out (HARO) is a good place to start getting coverage and press momentum.
Breaking Down the Influencer / Social Strategy
“The easy way to have done it is pay the influencer, have them pose with our product and then post that picture to Instagram for their followers to see,” said Terry. The problem? “You don’t typically just pose with beauty products. So, how do we do influencer marketing in a really compelling and authentic way?”
The Panacea 21 Challenge was born from that very question. The premise was simple: have influencers use the products for 21 days and share the results with their communities daily through Instagram stories.
“More holistically, we wanted them to share insight into how they start their morning with intention,” explained Terry. “Waking up and accomplishing something small to start your day is important for success. Whether it’s drinking a glass of water, making your bed, working out or having a skin care routine, that sense of accomplishment creates momentum for the rest of your day.”
The Panacea 21 Challenge started with just five influencers in November, then five more in December. The strategy worked so well that they plan to continue it throughout 2018.
Here’s Madison Chertow kicking off her Panacea 21 Challenge, highlighting the “starting with intention” angle:
And Bianca Ebako talking about her results from Panacea:
The real magic happened on Instagram stories, where the influencers would share a daily update for the full 21 days.
Before you jump into influencer marketing, consider Terry’s authenticity dilemma above.
“As an early brand, it’s really tempting to say yes to almost any opportunity that comes your way because you’re trying to fight for every sale you can get,” explained Terry. “That needs to be balanced with maintaining brand integrity, too. In saying yes to something, you’re ultimately saying no to another opportunity.”
You can’t choose an influencer just because they have a couple million followers. They need to embody your brand, the ethos you’re trying to convey.
“It was really about having a thoughtful vetting process and multiple stakeholders who could view the influencers through the brand lens,” Terry said. “Are the influencers sharing authentic content? Are they adept at using Instagram, specifically Instagram stories? Do they genuinely love the product and embody the brand?”
So, there are two main takeaways:
- Build authenticity into your approach. Go beyond having the influencer pose with your product. If you actually have the influencer experience your product, if you deliver them the value first-hand, you’ll notice the difference and so will their followers.
- Follower count isn’t your North Star when choosing influencers. Don’t just choose the influencer with the most followers. Choose the influencer that fits your brand best. Also, don’t be fooled by big numbers. 2,000 engaged followers are worth more than 20,000 passive followers.
Our influencer marketing guide is another valuable resource.
Breaking Down the Paid Strategy
Panacea allocated $5,000-10,000 a month for social ad testing during the launch in November and December, which they’re now continuing into 2018.
On Facebook, they ran ads to some of their most interesting press mentions:
And they tried using press quotes as social proof:
On Instagram, they used customer and influencer testimonials as social proof:
Don’t let Panacea’s $5,000-10,000 a month budget scare you off the idea of paid ads. You can start testing ads for as low as $1 a day to gauge engagement and potential return. Then, as you gain insight into what might work, you can ramp up your spending.
“When it comes to Facebook, you just have to test things,” agreed Terry. “Test different creative, test different messaging. You have to have a firm framework to make decisions with conviction, but also a flexible mindset. Iterating quickly is key.”
It’s really a continual learning process. Testing different creative (i.e. images), testing different messaging (i.e. angles, copy), testing different destinations (e.g. press mentions, your store), testing different targeting–there’s a lot of room for optimization.
Once you find something that works, record the audience insight for future use and scale your spending accordingly.
“We’ve gathered a lot of learnings from our first couple months using Facebook ads. Those insights have informed really tangible next steps for refining our messaging and content strategy, for example. Facebook is the best closed feedback loop out there today. People often look at it as just a marketing engine, but another valuable aspect of it is that it provides great perspective and insights on what’s working with your target consumer, and what’s not,” said Terry.
One last thing: be sure that you’re focused on revenue generated when optimizing your ads. Top of funnel metrics, like impressions, can easily lead you astray. You want to run with the ad that makes you the most money, not the ad that reaches the most people or even gets the most clicks.
Everything Else You Need to Know
I quizzed Terry on the full Panacea launch story. What did he learn outside of how to make those three channels work? What advice does he have for pre-launch consumer brands? Let me tell you–he didn’t hold back.
Q: Why is that initial launch so crucial to a brand, especially a consumer brand?
“It’s the unveiling of your company. You can use it as a tent-pole moment only once, right? There’s a heightened importance when it comes to removing the curtain and showing what the brand is about, both from a product and aesthetic perspective.
We try to treat it with a very high standard and level of integrity. In the months leading up to the launch, we try to think of every detail and be intentional about every element of launching the company.”
Q: When most people think of a brand launch, they think of it as a very intangible thing. I love that you used the OKR framework for your launch. For those who don’t know what that is, can you walk through it? Why and how did you use it?
“OKR is an acronym for objectives and key results. It’s a goal setting framework popularized by companies like Google maybe 15, 20 years ago. It’s continued to grow in popularity, especially within the startup community.
It’s a framework I introduced at my last company, MeUndies, and we saw a lot of success with it. What’s really compelling about OKRs is that you set this high-level objective, which is purposely a bit vague, overreaching. For us, it was launching with a brand that we’re really proud of.
But what does that mean? That’s where you get into the key results, which are tangible and quantifiable. You can evaluate them, you hit them or you don’t. Our key results focused on how many press mentions we wanted, how many customers we wanted.
The key results really quantified the launch objective.”
Q: How did you go about choosing your three core marketing channels for the launch?
“It’s important to be focused, but you also want to test a lot of different things. So, how do you achieve a balance? We just gravitated towards the number three. It gives us just enough clarity and focus, but allows us to ensure all of our eggs are not in the same basket as well.
As a team, we’ve had tremendous success scaling a brand via digital marketing, specifically through Facebook, so that was a channel we were particularly excited about.
In building a brand that we’re proud of and creating this strong narrative, we thought it was also important to leverage press. So, that was how that channel was identified.
Lastly, we find, especially in the beauty industry, you have to be active in the influencer and social realm. Build a community, build engagement, build thoughtful relationships. That was a non-negotiable for us.”
Q: What was the most important lesson you learned during the initial brand launch?
“Our brand, our ethos is about essentialism, minimal simplicity. That’s going to convey itself through our aesthetic, our messaging. We live it through and through, we’re an essential brand without fluff. The challenge with that is that if you’re not careful, you can become too elevated, almost unapproachable to the consumer.
As a first-time entrepreneur in the beauty space, I learned that it’s a very intimate product experience. You’re using the skin care product in the bathroom, usually by yourself. You’re usually not fully clothed. It’s usually early in the morning or late at night. There’s an intimacy aspect to that. I knew that going in, but I didn’t get it fully until more recently. It starts to inform things like content and even messaging.
It’s a balance between being essential and developing an emotional connection with the consumer. They need to feel welcomed, like the brand is attainable and approachable.”
Q: And what’s been your biggest challenge so far?
“Just keeping the momentum going.
Our biggest day by far was launch day. That makes sense, right? We had a press embargo, so a lot of outlets went live with our launch story that day, we had friends and family come out to support us, we started the Panacea 21 campaign… a lot turned on that day.
The challenge is figuring out what to do when the music dies. How do you keep the momentum going?
That’s something that’s not talked about a lot. ‘Oh, you launched successfully as a brand, so now you’re doing millions of dollars, right?’ There’s this big in-between where you really need to lean in and embrace the process. That’s something we’ve been really focused on.
To build on that, I don’t look at things as success or failure. At the end of the day, what is success? What is failure? It’s all subjective.
I try to shift our focus to learning. Progress, not perfection becomes the state of mind.
I try to shift our focus to learning. How can we learn as much as we can and work as hard as we can? How can we learn from prior experience? Progress, not perfection becomes the state of mind.”
Q: What’s the difference, in your opinion, between a good launch and a great launch?
The difference between good and great is just being really clear about what you want, how you define your brand and what you want to optimize for.
If our goal was to say, hit $10 million in revenue in our first year, I would have built this company very differently than I have. Our real goal is to build a durable brand that we’re proud of. That’s our North Star.
If I was optimizing for revenue, I would have created a cheaper product. I would have appealed to a wider audience. I would have discounted heavily. I would have introduced more products.
That’s almost the exact opposite of what we did.
It’s easy to say the difference between good and great is a revenue figure, but I don’t think it’s that simple. It depends on what you’re trying to optimize for.”
Q: Any parting advice?
“Rome wasn’t built in a day. This is a first-time experience for me as well, but I have a very clear vision for what this brand looks like three, five, ten years from now. I can crystalize and articulate it on a very detailed level. That said, the brand won’t look like that on day one, or even in month three.”
When you’re pre-product and pre-revenue, the idea of launching is daunting. I mean, it makes you exhausted just thinking about it, right?
In reality, it’s tough. Getting the initial traction is difficult enough, but maintaining that momentum? Even harder.
But with the right amount of preparation and determination, you can pull it off, too. The key, Terry maintains, is to learn from the vulnerability and challenges of others who have been there. And then, in turn, to share your own.
“Let’s just be really open and honest instead of trying to pretend, or puff out our chests to act bigger than we are. It’s important for other entrepreneurs to know that this is a common challenge, a process that everybody goes through. It's not roses and flowers.”