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March, 2024

Lessons from an ‘old’ start-up: Frank Body revenues top $30m, led by product and performance marketing, now for the brand build but not as you know it

We had the Meta phase where it was great. You put in $10 and you get back $20. That doesn’t really happen these days. We’re looking more as you have to hit them two or three times before you get that transaction.

Bree Johnson, co-founder, Frank Body

CFO arm wrestle

Bree Johnson and her partner Jess Hatzis had been in an arm-wrestle with their CFO Gerdus Buitendag for some time on the need for Frank Body to push beyond product-led marketing and invest around the Frank Body brand to broaden awareness and build consideration in the minds of non-customers.

It’s the same tension for companies large and small – upper funnel for brand, lower funnel for conversion. 

But the pressure to put “more and more money into that middle funnel and digital advertising where you can track direct return on investment” was immense, says Johnson. Until Buitendag came back with a solution.

“He was like, ‘you guys keep coming to me saying you need more money for brand. I keep telling you what’s my return on investment?’” recounts Johnson. “It’s really hard to track that traditionally because as a start-up, we couldn’t afford the really expensive, more traditional brand tracking data. We looked at market research, it was unattainable for us; it wasn’t a cost we could justify.”

But Johnson says Frank Body’s problem was that all of the data they had was from existing customers which was like “looking in a mirror. Everything we were doing, the decisions we were making, were really influenced by the bias of our customers and by the bias of our internal team because we didn’t have that external feedback. Tracksuit was amazing for us because it showed our CFO if we do invest in brand, this is how we can change our messaging. This is how we can attract new customers and change our perception in the broader market.”


WTF is brand investment?

But what defines “brand investment” for Johnson and Frank Body? There’s a vocal band of critics challenging the brand building advocates – one agitator is a former Silicon Valley growth hacker John James, who is all but scathing of the “brand crowd” although the debate is nuanced per this Mi3 podcast and feature on “double duty” in which James Hurman (Previously Unavailable), Rob Brittain (advertising effectiveness advisor) and Pippa Leary (News Corp) duked it out with James on whether search, social and e-commerce ads can build a brand and drive sales in the longer term.    

For Johnson and Frank Body, it sounds like this: “I think that in really simple terms – talking about the product or talking about the brand. Like a lot of businesses, we’d fall into this trap of just talking about our products, talking about the benefits, talking about what it’s going to do for your skin. Whereas as a brand we’re about so much more than that. We’re about the emotional benefits. We’re about making the world better in all different aspects. And so it was really shifting our focus from just being really like sell, sell, sell, to being more about the experience. And it was investing in more traditional outdoor activations, so like brand activations, events, PR and more content. And not just content that was how-to videos, but content that was talking to our customers about topics that they’re interested in that weren’t necessarily our product. I love skincare but even I get bored hearing about what the different scrubs can do for your skin type. And so for us, it allowed us to talk about different things that relate to our women.”

One was the launch of a podcast about “self wealth” where it wasn’t talking about Frank Body products but about topics customers were interested in beyond beauty products.

“The podcast was more top of funnel because we’re looking at a different audience and how we could reach them through different channels,” says Johnson. “The same for brand activations and those kinds of things. We look at them more as top of funnel and then we look at digital advertising where we’re retargeting as more of our middle funnel. That was where the majority of our budget was going – into performance marketing, search and social was it and Meta predominantly.”

Johnson says when Tracksuit landed abut a year ago the business got visibility from the outside world on on Frank Body. 

Awareness v consideration

“What was really interesting for us was looking at the difference between our customers in America and Australia as well and looking at where they were in the funnel. So in America, our brand awareness is where we need a lot more love whereas in Australia, brand consideration is where we need people. They know us but they’re just not buying from us. And so it allowed us to swap our strategies per country, which was also really interesting to see.” The revenue split between Australia and the US is about 50-50 – in North America Frank Body is now in Wal-mart and Amazon along with a DTC offer.  

One of the things we identified in our data looking over over last year, everyone thinks of us as coffee scrub, which is our original product. Now we have 30 different products but they’re not coming up so we’re like okay, we need to let people know that we’re more than just one product that we have all these other products. So that’s one of the goals for our marketing team this year. 

In the US Frank Body trialed some brand building efforts via PR and TikTok in Texas – TikTok worked, PR didn’t. 

“It’s really informed our marketing strategy this year,” says Johnson. “And what we’ve been really pleased with is being able to see what works and what doesn’t work. Last year when we launched into Wal-mart, we made a really big investment in the US, and we could actively see that investment increase our brand awareness. You can literally see it like on the timeline and so we’re like, okay, we know that that activity worked. So we can repeat that again.”

Less Meta magic

Interestingly, Johnson says the role of Meta has changed for the business. When Frank Body launched, there was no ads on Instagram and influencers were cheap, if not free. “It was just free money. Our journey has really evolved because we were bootstrapped to begin with. We had the Meta phase where it was great. You put in $10 and you get back $20. That doesn’t realy happen these days. We’re looking more as you have to hit them two or three times before you get that transaction.”

So Johnson’s advice to start-ups and young companies? “There are definitely companies out there, particularly pure digital players, who are amazing at their performance marketing and can build a business off that. But the market is changing. That change has already happened and so that model is becoming outdated. I always recommend for startups to continually think about the top of funnel and brand. We always like to say you can’t convert demand that doesn’t exist. And so you have to be building that demand, then you can convert it, whether that is at a retail level or whether that’s through performance marketing.”