Brandless is an unusual company. A direct-to-consumer purveyor of food, beauty, and personal care products, it says that every item it makes is non-genetically modified, kosher, fair-trade, gluten-free, often organic and, in the case of cleaning supplies, EPA “Safer Choice” certified. They are also priced at $3 across the board. The idea, says cofounder and CEO Tina Sharkey, is to “democratize better.” She believes that Brandless — which is very much a brand — is selling items to people, often with dietary restrictions, who “couldn’t shop their values” before Brandless.
That’s no small thing to Sharkey, who cares very much about Brandless’s customers, as anyone who has seen her speak publicly can attest. In fact, Sharkey, appearing at a StrictlyVC event earlier this week, spoke about the importance of shared principles in sweeping language that elicited fervor in many of the gathered listeners — and some fatigue in others.
She talked of Brandless users who didn’t have access before to affordable gluten-free and organic products or “who had to drive 100 miles round trip” or who “didn’t know things existed like tree-free toilet paper, made with sugar cane and bamboo grasses.” (This last product was news to us, too.) Sharkey — who has led a number of consumer-facing companies in her career, including cofounding iVillage and later serving as president and CEO of BabyCenter — said she sees in Brandless users “all of America,” not just those who “live in such a frickin’ bubble on the coasts.” Elites in East and West Coast cities are “not our country” alone, she added. “Our country is filled with extraordinary people, and we have bifurcated and sliced and diced and segmented people to such a degree that we’ve forgotten that we’re all awesome Americans, and American deserve better, no matter your politics.”
If it was hard to remember at times that she was talking about a company that sells nearly 300 household items, from maple syrup to fluoride-free toothpaste, the crowd didn’t seem to notice, nodding along in agreement.
Sharkey doesn’t reveal much publicly about revenue or user or growth numbers, though in fairness, it’s early days. She prefers talking instead about the roughly 70 percent savings that Brandless says it provides customers compared with more established brands of similar quality, whose goods are usually purchased on retail shelves. Brandless calls this mark-up a “brand tax” and has trademarked the term.
Sharkey is also quick to note what else Brandless does for its customers. For example, in addition to selling affordable products that it says are better for users, Brandless has partnered with the charitable organization Feeding America, a nationwide network of 200 food banks that’s trying to fight hunger in the United States. When customers check out, they are informed that they’ve just purchased a meal for someone, which, according to a footnote on Brandless’s website, is the equivalent of just 9 cents per order.
Sharkey is finding other ways to shape Brandless’s positive narrative, too, including Brandless Life, a content-rich initiative that’s currently in beta and designed to both keep shoppers engaged and sell them more products.
As Sharkey explained it, the company already has at its fingertips a lot of data to put to further use, including about what attracts visitors, how often they return to shop, and what drives them to either try new things or replenish items they’ve purchased in the past. Why not use it to boost sales?
By way of illustration, snacks falls into the “expandable consumption” category, Sharkey said, adding, “If I send you a huge box of snacks, you’re likely to eat them or share them at the office or soccer game.” On the other hand, she’d said, “If I send you a huge box of our peppermint mouthwash” — which Sharkey observed is “alcohol- and sulfate-free and just $3” — a shopper “is not likely to gargle more.”
Largely, it’s such “one-and-done” products that Brandless believes it can sell more of, including by proposing new uses for them via breezy articles and videos. As it pertains to that mouthwash, said Sharkey, “Did you know you can clean your washing machine with it? Did you know you could soak paper towels with it and put it at the bottom of your garbage?” Users will soon, she suggested.
Of course, whether Brandless succeeds or fails will ultimately depend on the quality of its products and how many people it persuades to try them. For all of Sharkey’s talk about community and content and Brandless’s mindfulness about those in need, the company’s Brandless products better taste and perform better than everyone else’s on the market in a similar price band.
Roughly $50 million in funding from investors, which Brandless quietly closed before hitting the market last summer, should help get them there.
But Sharkey is a powerful force, too. Though we would have preferred learning more about the company’s inner workings — and its challenges — Sharkey’s marketing approach, her avowed belief that sales come from “understanding people, first and foremost” and her emphasis on “connecting people around their affinities and passions,” may well be a strategy that pays.
More than an hour after wrapping up her talk, numerous attendees could still be overheard singing Sharkey’s praises. “Ugh, I just loved Tina’s talk,” one of them told us on her way out the door. “I hadn’t even heard of Brandless until tonight. I’m definitely buying something from that woman.”