Lessons From Nancy Boy on Brands, Authenticity

SAN FRANCISCO Eric Roos is a former account director for FCB and co-founder of San Francisco boutique Swirl. He left the ad industry seven years ago to start bath and beauty company Nancy Boy, British slang for gay man.

His first retail store was in the Castro, San Francisco’s legendary gay district. The brand that was meant to reflect its gay founders and appeal to the gay community has evolved in unexpected ways, but one thing remains constant: an institutional disdain for advertising.

After working on Levi’s, Clorox and other mass market brands, 48-year-old Roos became an outspoken and unrepentant critic of traditional advertising and has imbued the Nancy Boy brand with an anti-ad philosophy. Roos spoke to Adweek about nurturing a brand based on candor.

Q: What prompted you to leave agency life and start selling merchandise in such a competitive category?
A: I worked for cleaning and beauty clients during my agency career, so I knew how much money went into the marketing and how little money went into the product. I also sensed that something massive had changed with the dot-com growth and implosion. The Internet empowers people, but commercial companies misread it. They think that with enough money [spent online] you can tell people what to think. But I realized customers like to talk to each other online about products, and the only thing a marketer could do was to try to make the product good and put it out there. My big idea was to put our money in the product and be authentic in how we sold it.

How do you communicate authenticity without using advertising?
We try to be honest in every choice we make. For instance, we are gay and we know all creative endeavors have gay people in them, so why hide behind a straight-sounding brand name? For our logo we picked a simple blue daisy because it was sweet and unprepossessing and didn’t look like other products on the shelf. The packaging is not custom and not terribly good, so it reinforces that most of our resources go in the product. We live authenticity rather than talk about it. People can try the products and decide for themselves and then tell other people.

How have customers helped shape the Nancy Boy brand?
Certainly not in the ways we thought they would. From the start we decided to focus a lot of our business online and open a store in the Castro. But we found the gay audience did not embrace us because we were badged with a homosexual brand ID. It was a huge shock to me. Research we did later showed most gay men wanted to be accepted by the mainstream brands, not wear a brand that says they are not in the mainstream. Instead our customer base grew among upscale straight women who see gay men as knowing what is good about style and hair and skin care. Our products are plant-based and it turned out women don’t love the artificial scents in products made for them. We moved our store to a different part of town and now our audience is mostly 25-49-year-old straight women and men—as well as some younger gay men. Our growing group is college-age kids who are really into the brand more than the products. They like the blend of gay and straight, male and female that the brand suggests.

What have you learned about branding by being on the client side?
Customers like to create and project their own brand stories. For instance, I overheard someone in the store once talking about how my partner Jack and I started the business in an organic garden in the country. [According to the customer], Jack grew herbs and I had a bad back, so he made healing aromatherapy massage oils with his herbs to help my pain. These oils were supposedly the first products we sold. This story was almost totally make-believe based on a few tiny facts, but seemed quite compelling to these customers. My advice: If you try to control consumers, you harsh their buzz.

You use your Web site, e-mail and blog to talk to customers. In your communications you aren’t afraid of sharing your opinions and foibles. Is that part of your branding?
I guess so. It is an expression of authenticity. I’ve gone through lots of personal transformation and I tap into that to relate to others. For instance, when I left advertising I had to overcome an addiction to prescription drugs. The drugs helped me cope with the inherent conflict of my account director job, being locked in battle with the competing world of creatives who want to do art and clients who want to sell widgets.

Your branded blog is mentioned by your customers a lot on other Web sites. Tell the truth, did you start a company so you could have an audience for your blog?
The truth is the blog probably hinders sales among people who don’t like what I say about politics. I’ve always had a nagging desire to call out ways that our society is unjust, but I never was a writer. Even when I tried copywriting at my agency jobs, I was told that I didn’t know how and to stick to client policing. The beauty of the blog is I’m not trying to pass as a professional writer. I put it out there and you can read it or not.

In your writing, you humorously condemn advertising and mock rival brands that spend lots of money on ads. Does that message resonate with your customers?
People are already cynical about advertising, so my ideas aren’t new for them. My teacher friends tell me that in high school these days most kids take classes that teach them about what advertising is seeking to do and how it is used to change behavior. People who question ads respond to my ideas.

Are there any ads you do like?
Our standards for a good ad are tough. When an ad is hit out of the park I think people appreciate it because the bar has been set so high. Generally the good ads are funny and they are for a product that has something going for it. BMW’s Mini ads are a good example of that. But really, most people see typical ads as Saturday Night Live parodies that aren’t trying to be parodies. These advertisers are living with their heads in the sand. The audience, particularly the younger people, are saying to them, “Dude, you are smoking your own crack.”