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Jenny Gyllander: Brands, What’s your Relationship Status?

An interview with Thingtesting’s Jenny Gyllander on brand relationships in a direct-to-consumer economy

We talked to Thingtesting founder Jenny Gyllander at an important turning point for her project. Thingtesting started as an Instagram profile where Jenny shared her product reviews and investor views on emerging direct-to-consumer brands. One year in, as her hobby turned into a 27.000 people community, she’s leaving her full-time job as an investor with Backed VC to focus on Thingtesting.

The growth of Thingtesting is significant not only for Jenny and her fascinating professional journey, but also for the future of consumer brands. Today, companies have more control over how they build, market, sell, and ship their products. Consumers have more control over how they find new products and decide which brands to trust. The result is a closer, more direct relationship between brands and users, with a stronger focus on participation on both sides. In this dynamic, initiatives like Thingtesting become a springboard for positive founder stories and brands that stand for something.

 

First things first. What is a direct-to-consumer brand and what makes it special?

Jenny: Direct-to-consumer is a bit of a hyped concept right now. What’s happening is that retail and CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) brands are experiencing the same type of change that all other industries are going through: digitalization. A result of this change is the emergence of direct-to-consumer brands.

One reason D2C brands are on such fertile ground right now is that launching a consumer brand is a lot easier than before. Hundreds of new brands launch every month, all around the world, because both manufacturing and distribution have gotten much easier than, let's say, 15 years ago. Through social media, performance marketing, third-party logistics providers, you can launch a brand with a very small budget and grow a lot faster. As an example, Away–the luggage brand–reached $10 million in revenue in their first year.

The second reason D2C brands are growing in popularity is the increased focus on customer relationship. Instead of products being sold through retailers, D2C brands keep the whole relationship and control around the customers, including customer service, after sales support and all. This means higher margins, better feedback loops, and overall more customer-centered design decisions. A good example of this would be Public Goods–a personal care brand in the US. They realized that their customers wanted white, minimalistic bottles in their bathrooms, instead of these crazy colorful bottles that we see in grocery stores. So the packaging is designed not to stand out among competitor products in the grocery store and fight for the buyer’s attention, but to just look good in their homes.

The third thing that makes the whole consumer economy special today is that, in order to compete in this jungle of new brands, companies need to stand for something. To launch a new brand, you now need to have a strong value propositions nailed down, and decide on either communicating convenience and low prices and transparency, or–at the top–quality and meaning. By communicating your mission loud and clear, you become some sort of hybrid of brand, retailer and media company. Consumers just have access to so much more information, so it’s now harder to survice as a company if you don’t align your financial performance with your impact in the world. On that note, The Upright Project is worth checking out, they are building a model for measuring the net impact of companies.

Public Goods chose to stand for both convenience and sustainability.

Do you have any specific brands in mind that are nailing the customer relationship and value alignment well?

Jenny: What Away is doing with their travel magazine, Here, is a good example. Outdoor Voices organizes a bunch of sport events around the world. The data that D2C brands have at hand make these initiatives more efficient, because it allows brands to choose who to target and activate for these kinds of events or content. But creating a meaningful consumer relationship is not exclusive to new brands. Patagonia, a 50yo brand, is a great example of doing brand investments in this sense. billie razors–their whole mission and brand idea is to bring razors to women without the pink tax. Organic Basics, Oatly are also great examples for sustainability.

Picture shared by Tyler Haney, founder and CEO of Outdoor Voices, of her with friends and followers of the brand. Outdoor Voices Joggers Club organizes regular running events in Austin, TX, the brand’s headquarters.

Do you notice a pattern in terms of the skillsets, identities or backgrounds of successful D2C brand founders?

Jenny: With any type of company or industry there are many risks involved. There’s market risk, product risk, the question of traction, of defensibility against competitors, the team, and especially the founders. Starting any company, going on this whole entrepreneurial roller coaster, requires a certain grit, imagination, execution skills. These characteristics hold true with direct-to-consumer founders and teams as well. But the founder-market fit is especially important. Having a certain kind of understanding of the user, speaking the same language and being able to act as a front figure for the whole company. I met a lot of the founders behind the brands featured on Thingtesting, and I’ve been blown away by how super smart and hardworking they are, how they relentlessly believe in their mission. It’s especially inspiring when they are on a mission to solve a problem they’ve personally struggled with.

Speaking of inspiring founders, what is the story of Thingtesting and where are you taking it?

I started Thingtesting as a side project, half by mistake you could say. I was working with Backed VC in London and got really passionate about the intersection of consumer brands and startups. We were seeing a lot of these brands coming in and pitching to us, I was walking around and testing all these products, and I got really excited and wanted to share my thoughts on it all. So I started instagramming about these products I was reviewing. I decided to have two different sections in my review: one about how the product works and my experience using them, the other section–called Notes from the VC– basically the story and how these companies were built. And I think the combination between the honesty and the insights from these companies, as well as showcasing products that maybe weren't that well known, was well received. The traction really took me by surprise, and I never ever thought that this would become a full time gig, but here I am. One of the really interesting things I’ve seen with Thingtesting is that people are applying for work and finding new jobs at companies that they've found through Thingtesting. I think this has to do a lot with some of the stuff we were talking about earlier, in that millennials not only want to buy products that stand for something, but they also want to work for these types of companies. Another thing I’m looking at a lot is how hard it’s becoming to find and trust new brands and products, with all the Instagram ads and content promoted by influencers these days. I think that how we discover new brands and how we shop is being turned on its head. You know, I make this analogy sometimes, this might sound a little cringeworthy, but people say that Instagram is the mall of the future. Brand pages are now shoppable, and influencers are highschool girls that point you what pants you should be wearing. In this mall, I think Thingtesting could be like this small secret backroom, where new products flow in, a sort of laboratory where products are being tested and investigated before they go public.

Product reviews on Thingtesting's Instagram profile

How are you building participation into the relationship between Thingtesting and its audience?

I just launched a Close Friends group on Instagram. People can subscribe to participate in this very abstract-sounding laboratory of sorts. They get access to discounts for my favorite products, meetups, but also behind-the-scenes content. I write about two reviews per week, but I actually test more products. The Close Friends get to see the full pipeline of products that I’m testing. With the Close Friends membership, people are ultimately becoming patrons and help Thingtesting exist. You know, these small communities that are formed online around different topics–in my case, discovery and curiosity–it's fantastic to get into the same room with them, meet the people you previously knew only as their Instagram thumbnails. I had a wonderful experience meeting some of the Thingtesting followers in London, a couple of weeks ago, and I’m really excited for more to come.

Name 3 brands that you're currently excited about.

Klarna, a fintech company out of Stockholm that took a really boring product and made it fun. They have this whole thing about “smooth payments”, and it’s funny to see how they put the “smooth” in everything they do: their ads feature Snoop Dogg rebranded as Smooth Dogg, cashmere toilet paper–it's just brilliant branding.

Byredo, a fragrance brand. It’s a perfume that I can afford to buy once a year, but I just find their process fascinating, how much time, investigation and testing goes into the products, how they built the brand not around celebrities but purely around scents and memories.

Maude, a unisex sexual wellness company, is doing a really important job in talking about sex to consumers in a different way compared to the giants on the market, in destigmatizing sex and making it very normal.

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