Truman's: A Sustainable D2C Brand Needs a Sustainable Model

I have to give Alex Reed, co-founder and CMO of D2C cleaning product brand Truman’s, credit. He is one of the only marketers to give me an honest and nuanced answer to my cynicism about “brand love.” He gets it.

There really is no love lost between most of us and the spray we use to clean our countertop. Yes, even if it is non-toxic, sustainable, or branded, to recall our favorite, plain-spoken President.

Nevertheless, Truman’s is trying to build a different kind of CPG relationship with consumers that is based on all of these qualities.

But, as we discuss with Reed in this week’s Brand Insider, you can’t save the personal and global environment without an equally sustainable business model that looks beyond ad-bombing Instagram.     



MediaPost: How does Truman’s differentiate from both legacy brands and newer D2C players in the cleaning goods market? 

Alex Reed: As a marketer by background, I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that brand is certainly part of it. That said, there can be commoditization, and I think the question of differentiation really boils down to technology. We have focused an awful lot as a company on developing new technology that's patentable; that not only adds value for consumers, but is differentiated and can be protected in the marketplace. When you think about pods, Tide didn't invent them, but they certainly drove that marketplace a dozen years ago or so. 

What we did with our pod-based cleaners is we looked at innovation from a packaging perspective -- how they're packaged and delivered. When you look at spray cleaners, we have really focused on convenience and safety, having concentrates that are not easily ingested or spilled or whatnot, and still get a good delivery experience and the value proposition of sustainability.

When you look at that space, compressed tablets have been around for about a decade now, so there have been solutions in the marketplace and for a number of factors they've either been slow to be adopted or they're just not as efficacious -- meaning the end-cleaning product doesn't end up being what the consumer wants.

And sofor us, we really think about using technology as a differentiator. And that's not necessarily to say technology from a formulation perspective because we are delivering commercial grade cleaning products, but that's not part of our core DNA. My co-founder and I are not biochemists, I'm not saying that we're heads and shoulders above Windex, per se. I think we compare comparably, but where we've chosen to differentiate is really in the packaging and delivery method of the products.

MP: How do you manage customer acquisition costs?

Reed: It is a total challenge to manage costs. We've really decided to double down on diversifying go-to-market strategies.

When you have technology that is proprietary it really opens you up [to] a number of things. It opens you up for licensing. It opens you up for private labeling. It opens you up for potentially doing international deals.

Of course, retail is always on the table. Don't be completely reliant on digital media spend for growing your business. I think brands sometimes just spin out product.

The classic example is ‘we're not a mattress company, we're a sleep company,’ I don't believe that. I don't believe that company was founded on we're going to solve sleep. I think it was founded on the 'we're going to disrupt the mattress' category. But then when that wasn't a profitable endeavor -- it was, well, ‘we're a sleep company,’ so we're also going to throw in some pillows and all these other bundles and sleep masks because we have to get our LTV to CAC ratio in a better place.

I think a lot of companies are very, very talented at acquiring customers at a low cost. And if you don't have either a very high initial order value or a very strong repeat customer rate, it really is not going to make economic sense in the long term.

And so, I think whether customers double down on retention or whether they do things like I suggested, which is diversifying the revenue streams, not just pounding the Facebook pavement to acquire customers, I think there's going to be a shift in the coming years. 

MP: You're in a category that obviously benefited from the pandemic -- cleaning products. But disinfection isn't actually one of the features that you tout. How did Truman’s navigate the pandemic both in supplying demand and messaging?

Reed: The first positive was that we run a business that still made sense. People were still going to buy cleaning products. They were especially going to shift to more online purchasing of cleaning products. So that was, the first one was, just being able to keep the lights on by nature of good fortune of what business we were in. The second thing was that CPM dropped precipitously in the beginning, by 50% or more in certain cases. If you were spending on these core digital platforms you were benefiting from greater reach at a lower cost. 

That said, there were supply-chain challenges. We launched our new laundry dish and toilet products right at the beginning of this, and we got bumped from production.
We launched because we had advertising commitments, and in the 11th hour our manufacturing partner said, I'm sorry, I'm also having to produce the sanitation products for hospitals and first responders. Which of course we understood, but it was a challenge nonetheless. We experienced longer lead times on things like bottles and sprayers and whatnot. 

You're right -- when you look at the shelves; it's the Lysol, Clorox, 409, the disinfectants being stocked up, and we looked at that as an opportunity. This was something we were already doing because it's like a generational shift. A lot of people think if you're not disinfecting you're not cleaning, you're not doing anything. And what we've used it as, as an opportunity to educate via our own properties like social, email, and blog; and really be out there on the media as much as possible talking about the benefit of cleaning vs disinfecting.

If nobody's sick in the home -or there wasn't raw chicken on the countertop, cleaning -- which is the act of removing germs, dirt, impurities, whatever from a surface -- is the better way to go. You're not putting harsh substances in your home.

Which isn't to say you should never disinfect, but we used it as a springboard to really highlight that. Now, of course, you have some customers that still say for peace of mind, I want to scorch the earth. 

MP: What's the biggest surprise from the pandemic experience?

Reed: I think it's that customers are really understanding. We encourage our customers to engage with us. We don't look at customer service as a cost center that we want to minimize. And when we've had disruptions; longer lead times, slower shipping because of the Postal Service issues, our customers are really understanding when you communicate with them and when you're transparent. The circumstances of the pandemic, I think, has created more empathy on both sides. People understand now that there are challenges that we're all dealing with. 

MP: Truman’s came into the market seeing space for a more personable relationship to cleaning brands. I still believe consumers are indifferent to most products they buy. Only a CPG executive could honestly believe anyone can ‘love their brand.’ Want to talk me down for my cynicism?

Reed: I think your cynicism is warranted. My co-founder [would] probably kill me for saying this; 99% of our customers would probably be fine making a switch if all things were equal, and you were kind of discounting brand. But my point is that 1% matters.

You don't need this love, this passion, this enthusiasm from all of your customers. I think you've got to deliver these great experiences, and again for 99% of our customers it's going to be transactional: you’re going to pay for your cleaning product, it’s going to arrive on time, it’s going to work, you’re going to keep going as long as the value is there for you.

But I think when we have these one-offs where we did something special for the customer, or we screwed something up and we made it right in a really special way, you build that sort of brand advocacy that I think gets amplified. That matters.

And that's where the appearance of brand love comes out in social media and reviews and things like that. And again, it's not the majority of customers because you can't, especially as you scale, have those special one-to-one interactions with every single customer. Certainly not in a meaningful way. And so I think your cynicism is warranted.

I think when people speak in generalities about oh, their brand affinity or their NPS score, what they're probably referencing is that they've got a small group of super fans within their customer base that really sings their praises in a vocal way.

Which is what you want -- which is all you can really hope for. Because you're right -- there's indifference. I mean, it's cleaning products.

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