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How Sweetgreen, Glossier, Away, And Walker & Co. Built Cult Brands

Company leaders took the stage at the Fast Company Innovation Festival to discuss the importance of community, anticipating consumer needs, and more.

Part intuition, part risk, part timing, and a lot of luck propel certain brands to a point beyond success, into the stratosphere of cultural relevance and cult following. But how does it happen? And how does a company manage and harness it to build for the future?

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Glossier CEO Emily Weiss; Sweetgreen cofounder Nicolas Jammet; Walker & Co. founder and CEO Tristan Walker; and Away cofounder and president Jen Rubio all took the stage at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York to discuss how they built their brands so far, and what they see as the key to future success.

[Photo:Celine Grouard]

Solve A Problem Customers Don’t Realize They Have

Sweetgreen was founded because Nicolas Jammet and his friends couldn’t find any fast, healthy food in college. “Our company started from an authentic problem that needed to be solved,” says Jammet. “We didn’t know why when we looked around, the most delicious, the coolest, the most accessible food was always the least healthy.”

For Away’s Jen Rubio, it was about looking for a new suitcase and just not finding the kind of brand that connected with her the way brands in beauty and fashion did. Luggage brands talked too much about product details, and not enough about what inspired people to use them.

“There were very few instances of people who sold luggage actually talking about what you do with your luggage–no one was talking about travel, which blew my mind,” says Rubio. “That was a natural place for us to create a narrative.”

With its beauty and haircare brands Bevel and Form, Walker & Co. looked to tap into the underserved market of people of color by treating them the same as anyone else, and not relegated to the “ethnic” aisle. But its ties and influence from broader hip-hop culture–rap legend Nas is an investor–helped the brands’ reach go even further. Walker said that while about 75% of Bevel’s online sales are to black customers, 60% of retail sales in Target are to white men.

Walker says the reason for that is his brand is associated with part of pop culture. “The believability of our culture actually propagates our message more broadly with hip-hop,” he says. “We’re so tied to and supported by our community that folks from all colors and creeds are drawn to it, and we try to be as authentic as possible.”

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Anticipating What Your Customers Will Care About In The Future

Jammet says that it’s not only about listening to what your customers want now, but anticipating and leading them to where they want to go. When Sweetgreen launched 10 years ago, people didn’t want or expect to know where the food came from when they ate at fast food or at fast-casual restaurants. Now there’s a demand for that level of transparency.

“We spend a lot of time listening to our customers, not just what they tell us specifically, but really trying to understand what they want, how they feel, and how they want to feel,” says Jammet. “From that I think it’s our responsibility as a brand to really craft an experience for them that’s better than anyone else, but also to lead them in a direction that we think they want to go.”

Your Marketing Doesn’t Matter As Much As Your Community

For Glossier’s Emily Weiss the key to her brand’s success has been how they’ve actively integrated and involved their customers into the brand. She focused on the power of word of mouth over traditional marketing, citing 80% of Glossier’s growth and sales come through peer-to-peer channels.

“Which goes to show that it doesn’t matter how fantastic your press release is, for beauty purchases, women trust their friends, and things like Sephora reviews, Amazon reviews, (they are) inspired by who (they) follow on Instagram,” says Weiss.

Glossier treats each new product as its next story, and its community as co-storytellers, spreading the word about the brand through their social feeds, online reviews, and talking to friends. “Each new product launch, it’s open to interpretation,” says Weiss. “It doesn’t matter what we say about them, it’s up to our customer. We see the life of that product really starting once it hits her doorstep.”

[Photo:Celine Grouard]

Retail Isn’t Dying, It’s Changing

The death of retail has been greatly exaggerated, but its need to evolve remains vital. Each of these company leaders sees retail as key to future growth, just not in the same way its been utilized in the past.

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“When people talk about this narrative of retail dying, that may be true for the retailers that aren’t evolving and aren’t staying connected to their customer,” says Jammet.  Today, 40% of Sweetgreen’s transactions are digital, while three or four years ago it was in single digits. “For us, retail going forward will be either hyper-convenient, or hyper-experiential,” he says. “People will want to come into a space, but there has to be a reason for them to come into the space.”

Away sells one type of suitcase, but because so much of the brand is focused on the inspiration that gets people using a suitcase, Rubio says the purpose of its retail space is about much more than making a sale.

“For us we wanted to give the context for what we’re talking about. When we talk about travel, what does that mean?” says Rubio. “If you look at our New York flagship, it’s a pretty big space, and I’d guess only about 30% of the floor space is dedicated to selling luggage. The rest is a cafe filled with travel books, where people can sit, drink free coffee, and get inspired. I actually walked by someone who was on Kayak booking a trip, so that was like, ‘It’s working!'”

For Walker, they hype around e-commerce development has often overshadowed the IRL reliance on retail. “Retail is the past, present, and future. When I moved out to the Bay Area about nine years ago, there was a stat that said e-commerce was 10% of all commerce, and it was going to grow, but fast forward a decade and that stat is at about 11%,” says Walker. “People still love going to physical places. It’s not that retail will die, it’s just going to change.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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