From cleverly curated content to custom art and an endless array of colorful SKUs, brands are discovering new ways to differentiate and win market share.
But no two growth stories are the same.
In this article, we’ll dive into the strategies of three of 2023’s leading retail brands and reveal the practical lessons and takeaways to help you scale your business.
A thermos invented in 1913 and favored by World War II pilots may seem like an unlikely contender for the role of overnight viral sensation. But between 2020 and 2023, the 110-year-old brand’s annual sales grew from $70 million to $750 million.
The massive growth was due in large part to the launch of dozens of new SKUs, especially in the brand’s TikTok-famous Stanley Quencher category.
In 2023 alone, Stanley saw a 275% year-over-year increase in Quencher sales and a 215% lift in the hydration category. As of early 2024, Stanley stans are camping out overnight and physically tackling other shoppers just to get their hands on the $40-50 steel cup.
New drops of the Quencher, featuring never-before-seen colors or designs, often sell out in minutes. The cups then resell for hundreds of dollars. The Winter Pink tumbler, part of a collaboration with Starbucks and Target, is listed at nearly six times the original price on eBay.
So how did Stanley win in 2023? Let’s take a look at some of the key factors driving the brand’s success.
Winning with Women
In 2017, the three women founders behind The Buy Guide featured the Stanley Quencher in one of their posts. They told followers they thought the Quencher could be “going away” (a detail Stanley SVP of global commerce Matt Navarro later said wasn’t exactly true). The Buy Guide purchased 10,000 of the cups wholesale and sold out within five days.
This initial push jolted Stanley’s brand image from that of an outdoorsy, male-oriented technical vessel to a smart hydration device working mothers might want at their desks. As women from all walks of life started to take interest, the brand began releasing an array of new colors and sizes, fueling its transformation from camping companion to stylish everyday accessory.
Pay close attention to who’s buying your products. You may be targeting one market segment while quietly attracting the interest of another. Be willing to adjust your marketing and product strategy to expand quickly in new demographics or market segments.
Limited Edition Drops
With a wide array of colors, patterns, finishes, and brand collaborations, Stanley added another tactic to its arsenal. The company began releasing limited-edition drops to heighten the buzz and maintain a sense of scarcity. The products rapidly sell out online, sending shoppers to physical stores where reports of long lines and customer quarrels lead to even more press.
These special edition releases have raised Stanley Quenchers to collectors’ item status, fueling ongoing hype and transforming fans into loyal customers. The brand’s Cyber Monday stocking stuffer drop, the Mistletoe Twist Quencher, reportedly sold out in under 20 minutes. Fans who couldn’t get the cup fast enough turned to eBay, or opted for another Stanley holiday design.
In some cases, it could pay to limit your inventory of best-selling SKUs, while expanding your portfolio and marketing at full force. This approach can help brands build anticipation for new products, boost sales on launch day, and keep production and carrying costs down. Just make sure that if a product goes out of stock, shoppers are informed or offered a backorder option immediately. Having to explain you’re sold out after orders are already placed can have a big impact on customer trust.
There’s no diminishing the role of influencers in Stanley’s rise to mainstream fame and fortune. Stanley invested in an affiliate program and a campaign to introduce the cup to an “army of influencers” on social media, including partnerships with celebrities and influencers like Hannah Brown and Lainey Wilson.
Perhaps even more powerful is the organic content that continues to drive the Stanley craze. A viral video of a Stanley Quencher surviving a car fire was viewed over 60 million times, driving Stanley global president Terence Reilley to replace the owner’s car. User-generated content, in the form of thousands of TikTok videos, has become a key contributor to the brand’s popularity.
Key partnerships with the right influencers can help bring your brand further into the public eye. Create a viral-worthy challenge that encourages followers to post their own original content with your products. Repost the best content and watch as your brand awareness spreads exponentially.
Picture a sophisticated, Gen Z-friendly snack. We’re guessing canned sardines aren’t what you imagined. Yet the creators of Fishwife have managed to turn the tinned seafood category into one of 2023’s biggest foodie trends. A search for “tinned fish” on TikTok now yields thousands of video results and millions of views.
Founded during the thick of the pandemic, the company vowed to bring ethically-sourced “seacuturie” to the US. Less than three years later, Fishwife had become the leader of America’s “tinned fish renaissance.”
Thanks in large part to the brand, US canned seafood sales rose 9.7% to $2.7 billion in 2022. Fishwife’s own revenue doubled year-over-year in both 2021 and 2022. In November 2023, founder Becca Millstein told the New York post the brand’s sales were on track to grow another 150% by the end of the year.
Already available on DTC channels and high-end stores, the brand launched at select Whole Foods in early 2023, with plans to be in all Whole Foods globally in the first half of 2024. Fishwife has also partnered with Fly by Jing on a special smoked salmon collaboration, and garnered a recommendation from Allison Roman.
Killer Branding and Packaging
A huge part of Fishwife’s success is due to the way the brand has been able to repackage tinned fish to make it palatable to a youthful, upmarket audience. Fishwife partnered with graphic designer Danbo on a logo that paid homage to the classic European tinned fish brands, while modernizing its look with colorful packaging and Instagrammable cartoon graphics. The result is an image that positions the brand as something that far transcends the average can of sardines. Fishwife is a work of art that earns its $9+ price point per can.
You know you need a quality product to keep customers happy, but don’t let branding and packaging be an afterthought. Creative packaging can influence customer attention and a brand’s financial performance. Give modern consumers the sustainable design choices and a pleasant unboxing experience they’re looking for.
Fishwife’s products are ethically and sustainably sourced and “100% traceable on the blockchain, from egg to tin.” Its sardines are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council — a process that requires a comprehensive supply chain audit. And its rainbow trout is smoked, packed and canned by a First Nations-owned cannery in British Columbia.
These commitments matter. Customers place increasing importance on how brands approach environmental and social justice issues. Ethical brands with the receipts to prove it will win more trust and sales.
Don’t greenwash your products or production. Instead, look for areas where you can make a real difference. Vet your suppliers, choose eco-friendly packaging, prevent returns and optimize your last-mile to reduce emissions. Let shoppers know what you’re doing to make a difference, while remaining careful to avoid exaggerating claims.
Clever Content and Collabs
Fishwife took a unique approach to its social strategy, collaborating with women writers to compose original content. For instance, poet Natasha Roa was commissioned to pen a custom ode to the sardine, which was featured on the brand’s instagram.
Collaborations with influencers, female artists, and DTCs like Parade and Ghia have helped round out the brand’s marketing strategy. Up until mid-2022, the brand said it didn’t invest in paid marketing, preferring to send samples to influencers and cross their fingers that they’d write about its products. The brand says future marketing efforts will revolve around influencers, recipe makers, SEO, and affiliate marketing, rather than paid ads.
Smart organic marketing can earn your brand just as much traction as paid ads and sponsored content. Seek out mutually beneficial partnerships with artists, creators, and other brands in your space. Focus on building clever campaigns that will reach your target market organically.
Where Stanley succeeded by expanding its focus to include women, Vuori won big by honing in on men. Much of its success has hinged on targeting the often overlooked corner of the athleisure market, upscale Lululemon-esque fabrics with a less traditionally “feminine” focus.
While the digitally native brand struggled more than other well-known DTCs to win initial investor support, Vuori became profitable within just two years of its founding in 2015. And it has reportedly remained profitable ever since.
In 2021, Vuori was valued at $4 billion after a $400 million funding round. Fast-forward to the present, and the brand has 35 retail stores and a goal of reaching 100 stores by 2026. As of late 2023, it was also reportedly on track to an IPO, which could happen sometime in 2024.
Listening to Customers
In the early days, things weren’t so easy for Vuori. Within a month of running out of cash, founder Joe Kudla turned to his customer base for direct feedback. At that time, Vuori was selling its products on site at yoga studios and gyms — but customers wanted products for all-day wear.
Vuori quickly pivoted to a DTC e-commerce strategy. It launched targeted, high-ROI social media ads, with a focus on customers who would use its apparel for more than just working out. Once online sales took off, physical retail sales were quick to follow. But the company might not have made it that far without valuable customer insight about its product-market fit.
Sometimes, you need outside eyes to tell you what is or isn’t working for your brand. Survey your customers and prospects, or use tools like social listening to get deeper intel. Once you get the insights you’re after, be willing to adapt based on what your audience really wants.
Expanding into New Channels
When brick-and-mortar wasn’t working, Vuori was quick to pivot into online sales. But it was also just as quick to move from pop-ups, gyms, and e-commerce into wholesale. By 2018, the brand was already selling into retailers like Nordstrom and REI. Kudla calls this wholesale arm part of the “omnichannel holistic strategy” that the brand has embraced since its founding.
Now Vuori is once again focused on growing its DTC brick-and-mortar presence. Its consistent willingness to explore a variety of channels continues to be a major factor in its growth. That said, the brand remains conscious of where it chooses to sell. You’re unlikely to find it on a marketplace like Amazon anytime soon.
Adopting a multichannel or omnichannel strategy right out of the gate can fuel your brand’s rise to the top. While you don’t need a flagship store on Madison Avenue to drive traffic to your e-commerce site, a willingness to experiment with new channels and regions could bring you a significant boost.
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