Think about some of the most of-the-moment companies—the ones we label “challenger brands.” Praised for shaking up entire categories, they’re changing the way traditional brand marketers think about their businesses and transforming the way people shop. Beyond the Caspers and the Warby Parkers of the world—though, don’t forget those names just yet—new companies like Hims, Everlane, Brandless, Allbirds and Otherland are taking over our Instagram feeds and winning new customers.
These names may not be familiar yet, but they’re quickly becoming beloved brands with cult followings, especially among younger generations. Perhaps more curious than newly minted brands winning over new consumers is why many of these brands have a similar feel. They have clean branding, catchy names displayed in modern fonts, usually bright pops of color or soft millennial pink vibes and sleek packaging. When you look at the design of these brands—think Harry’s or Glossier—and how they are marketed to the world, there’s clearly a shared aesthetic.
So would it surprise you to learn that just three branding shops backed by a small group of VC firms, are responsible for marketing, designing and helping launch a number of these challenger brands?
Red Antler, Partners & Spade and Gin Lane were all founded within months of each other (the former two in 2007 and the latter in 2008) with slightly different goals. Red Antler set out to work only with startups, while Partners & Spade got its start in the fashion business, helping J.Crew open its first men’s boutique in the former Liquor Store Bar in Tribeca.
“It’s an incredibly small group of people who have done a lot of the work on a lot of these brands,” Jesse Derris, founder of PR and communications firm Derris, which works closely with the three shops and their respective clients, explained.
Today, the firms all work with a similar client base and sometimes even work on the same brands. Partners & Spade and Gin Lane, for example, are both credited with helping Hims, a men’s wellness ecommerce company known for its subway ads featuring limp cacti, launch. Partners & Spade helped think up the brand’s name, visual identity and brand personality, while Gin Lane worked on brand strategy, web design, art direction, packaging and marketing.
By March of 2018, Hims had already sold roughly $10 million in product, Wired reported, and reached $200 million in valuation. To reiterate: Hims launched in November 2017. Marketing and design might not be everything when it comes to creating a successful brand, but it sure seems to play a big role in helping challengers shake up entire categories.
“These brands have an aesthetic that appeals to millennials,” said Allen Adamson, brand consultant and co-founder of Metaforce. “It’s smart design without being ostentatious or too snooty. All these products are stylish, and they don’t necessarily pick up on the cues of the category. They pick up on the design language that surrounds young people today.”
So what’s the secret? How do these three shops take startups and turn them into household names practically overnight? And how do they even find their clients who oftentimes haven’t even debuted when the design shops sign on to work with them?
The firms you need to know
In 2007, a couple of industry vets—Emily Heyward, JB Osborne and Simon Endres—decided to break away from the traditional agency world. The three co-founders opened Red Antler with the idea of working with entrepreneurs to help them introduce and grow new brands. Of course, the knowledge they gained working with big brands at top-notch agencies was essential.
“We took the parts that we thought were incredibly important and stripped out a lot of stuff we felt was not practical to really making things,” Osborne, a co-founder and CEO of Red Antler, said.
With that approach, the team quickly signed on its first client, a network for creative professionals called Behance. When they did, there wasn’t exactly a company to speak of. Instead, it was three people in the process of launching a network. But Red Antler took it as an opportunity to learn about getting a startup off the ground. Osborne recalled the experience “[an] incredible opportunity to see the inside of a startup, to be inside a company while they were building the business.
“I think that helped to ground us in having true empathy for what founders go through to get a business out in the world,” he said.
That story is typical of the way Red Antler does business, even today. While the firm will work with established brands looking for a complete refresh or early-stage companies in need of assistance to enter the next stage of growth, a lot of what the team does is work with prelaunch startups. Red Antler helps with everything from coming up with a brand name to designing the packaging and even assisting with the go-to-market strategy.
Take Casper. Red Antler worked with the direct-to-consumer mattress brand early on when the company hadn’t raised much money and didn’t have a name.
“We helped create a full identity system,” explained Heyward, co-founder and chief strategist at Red Antler. Heyward’s team worked on everything from what the box shipped to consumers would look to what the branding on the mattress itself would be and “all the initial photography and the first few iterations of the site,” she said. All of those quirky, illustrated subway ads you might have seen for Casper? Those came from Red Antler.
Gin Lane started with a similar approach in terms of clients. The firm would take on projects from established brands like Nike and Whole Foods but also worked with companies like Shake Shack and Bonobos on early-stage growth. Nowadays, Gin Lane focuses mostly on that third bucket, the brands it launches into the market. Some of those include Harry’s, Hims, Hello Alfred (a company that allows you to hire people to do your chores for you) and more recently, a line of CBD-infused sparkling water called Recess and startup travel app Noken. Overall, Gin Lane said it has launched more than 50 startups and created close to $10 billion in market value.
“Our approach has always been to be lean and mean,” said Gin Lane CEO Emmett Shine. “At this point, 100 percent of our work is with early-stage startups. We don’t do pitches. We don’t do bids. It saves us a lot of time and resources because we aren’t going out and trying to bid on some large job for Heineken or Nike.”
Partners & Spade, which got its start in the fashion business thanks to founder Andy Spade (of Kate Spade fame), first found its way into the startup space after working with J.Crew on its men’s business. From that project, Spade and partner Anthony Sperduti met the founders of Warby Parker and began helping the brand with social media, brand books, advertising campaigns and eventually helped design its first retail stores.
That relationship with Warby, Sperduti said, opened doors for Partners & Spade to find its superpower: marketing and launching startups.
Finding the right clients
So how exactly do these firms even find brands to work with, especially considering their clients often have a business idea formulated but no company to speak of?
“We are quite often seeing opportunities before investors are,” Red Antler’s Osborne said. “We have founders with ideas reaching out to us and then we have to have a process to be able to filter and vet those opportunities.”
The reason agencies like Red Antler and its counterparts have this advantage and know about all of these brands before anyone else is because of the relationships they have built in New York’s startup community.
For Sperduti and his team at Partners & Spade, working as Warby Parker’s creative agency for nearly eight years, when many of the new startups are pitched as “the Warby Parker of X,” has helped them find many new clients. Because of that relationship, Partners & Spade “were lucky enough to meet a lot of Warby’s investors, and a lot of the other startups that admire them and need help,” Sperduti said.
After working with Warby Parker, Partners & Spade struck up a relationship with DTC razor brand Harry’s (before it had launched), Shinola, Hims and Peloton. For an already established brand like Peloton, Partners & Spade worked on their first national advertising campaign, but for a brand like Harry’s, the firm got in early on and helped debut the brand to the world (and has since launched Harry’s secondary brand for women, Flamingo).
Relationships in the startup space have been crucial to the success of the three firms.
“We spend a lot of time understanding the landscape, being part of a community and getting to know the right people, whether its founders, investors or accelerators,” Osborne said.
Another point of differentiation is that the firms will often take equity in clients they choose to work with. For some, it’s a way to “defray costs” that the firms can take on when working with clients that don’t have a lot of money for marketing and branding, according to Derris.
Derris takes a small amount of equity and in August 2017, it launched Amity Supply, a $10 million fund to help support these types of clients. Derris works closely with Warby Parker but has also worked with the likes of Everlane and Harry’s.
Gin Lane’s Shine estimates the company has equity in two to three dozen of its clients but did not specify which ones. Red Antler also takes equity in many of its clients, some of which have gone on to achieve massive valuations like Casper at $170 million.
(It’s unclear if Partners & Spade also takes equity in clients. The firm did not respond to a request for comment on equity.)
Creating the brands of the future
Much of time, these firms are with a brand from the get-go. They’ve seen the business plan being made, they’re working side by side with the founders to figure out the brand’s goals and how to create the brand’s voice. It’s a unique position, one that a lot of ad agencies working with major established clients don’t ever get the chance to be in.
While each firm does its own research on the target audience and coming up with a design and marketing strategy for clients, a common theme (and perhaps why a lot of these brands end up having a similar look and feel) is that these firms believe the design for an unknown brand should be clean and simple.
That simple design is possible thanks to the brands’ distribution model, according to Metaforce’s Adamson. “Their primary distribution is direct and so they don’t have to scream with their design,” said Adamson. “They can talk to people and use quieter design. All of the products out there that these companies are disrupting were designed to fight shelf wars when online wasn’t there. These brands don’t have to worry about that.”
Take Keeps, a men’s hair loss brand, that launched in early 2018. Knowing there was a market for a hair loss product targeted at men in their early 30s was the first step. But how could they talk about hair loss without embarrassing their target audience? No one wants a roommate or neighbor to see they’ve ordered pills or topical treatments to prevent hair loss. That meant that the boxes the products were shipped in needed to be discreet (no mention of the brand on the shipping box) as did the packaging.
Hair loss is also a confusing subject for some and one that many men need education around, according to Keeps co-founder Steven Gutentag. Some think they can reverse hair loss once it has already started, which they can’t. So Keeps needed to be very clear across the board, on its website and in its marketing, that these products should be used early and often.
Keeps worked very closely with Red Antler early on to help, “weave this straightforward message and experience throughout everything we do,” the website, marketing and the unboxing experience, Gutentag said.
However, not all new brands are selling products that are sensitive in nature. Some are selling shoes, some are marketing candles, while others are disrupting the consumer packaged goods space (see: Brandless) by selling everyday items—like coffee, kitchen utensils, face scrub and tortilla chips—at just $3. A big focus for the brand, according to CMO Aaron Magness, is giving back to the community (for every order placed online, Brandless donates one meal to Feeding America) as well as using premium ingredients in all products.
Brandless communicates those two key brand values, with help from Red Antler, with a simplistic white delivery box logo. Inside that box is the name of the product (dish soap, organic sunflower oil and so on) and several check marks that list all the ingredients included (or not included) in that product. “Red Antler helped create that signature look for the brand that communicates, with ease, the product’s benefits,” Magness said.
Because a lot these brands are new and unknown to shoppers, the Gin Lanes of the world have to be very sure the branding they create will pop. People need to be able to see the product or an ad for the brand, either on social media or a subway ad, and be able to understand what the brand is selling and what it stands for within seconds.
“For a lot of these brands the advertising is actually the first time that people are even made aware of this company. It’s not like they’re thinking, ‘I remember I like that soda, let me run down to the store and get it.’ We really have to tell a more thoughtful story that is inspiring a massive behavior change,” Heyward said.
While the simplistic design strategy is working well for now, some in the small community are very aware it could get old—and fast. But that’s the benefit of working with startups—they move fast, adapt and change all the time. And so too must the design firms that they work with.