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Direct Response Marketing

Cover Story: Balancing More Than Sheets

1 Nov, 2016 By: Thomas Haire Response

Boll & Branch’s husband-and-wife team of Scott and Missy Tannen is using performance-based marketing tactics — and a healthy dose of social consciousness — to revolutionize how people buy bedding.


When asked what his company’s success at building brand and driving sales via performance-based marketing methodologies means in the wider scope of things, Scott Tannen — co-founder with his wife Missy of Summit, N.J.-based Boll & Branch, the online retailer of bedding and home textile products — could not be more direct with his response.

“It probably says more when Fortune 100 brands are evaluating our media methods to inform the evolution of their media mix,” he says. “The days of advertising that doesn’t tie to a transaction are over — or at least they should be.”

When Scott — who serves as CEO — and Missy — Boll & Branch’s president — founded the company in 2013, neither had any experience in the housewares/textiles business. However, after searching for quality sheets for their family home (the couple has three daughters), they noticed a gap in the market for quality linens at affordable prices. They also noticed problems with unfair working conditions, unsafe factories, and dangerous toxins in the production of bedding and other textile goods.

They launched Boll & Branch in January 2014 with a three-pronged mission: fair pricing; meticulous craftsmanship using only organic cotton for their sheets; and doing good and giving back, serving their people and the planet.

In just two-and-a-half years, Boll & Branch — thanks to its belief in performance-based marketing methods, both online and off — has become one of the world’s leading online retailers in its category, profiled in publications like Forbes, Inc., Parade, and more.

“Long before the first advertisement was created, someone instructed someone else to ‘Fish where the fish are,’” Scott says. “When it comes to advertising, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that you also need to fish where the other fishermen aren’t!”

Better Bedding — and a Better Business

The Tannens got the idea to create Boll & Branch from doing something millions of Americans do every year — shopping for new sheets for their own beds and those of their three daughters. The duo had no extensive background in housewares and no distinct interest in marketing textiles.

“Missy was a third-grade teacher in Bridgewater, N.J., prior to staying home with our three daughters (Sophie is 12, twins Brooke and Hailey are nine) for the 10 years prior to starting Boll & Branch,” Scott says. “I have more of a classic marketing background, with an emphasis on digital marketing.”

Scott — whose role as CEO includes oversight of the company’s general operations — started his career at Nabisco/Kraft Foods at age 22, fresh out of college. “I had the great fortune to be tasked with leading some of the world’s most iconic brands — Oreo, Planters, Life Savers, and Altoids — into the digital age,” he says. “On a daily basis, I spent my time convincing people that the internet was here to stay.”

After five years there, Scott became the global head of digital at the Wrigley Co. “In addition to evolving the way in which the company engaged its customers by using technology, I was fortunate to gain experience in understanding consumer behavior outside the U.S.,” he says.

In 2007, though, Scott decided to go into the startup space by founding Funtank, which became a leading publisher of online, mobile, and social casual games. “By taking an extremely analytical approach to customer acquisition, we were able to scale quickly,” he recalls. “In 2010, we successfully sold the company to Publishers Clearing House (PCH). I remained with Funtank at PCH for 18 months to transition the business and was fortunate to be exposed to one of the most impressive customer acquisition teams in the world.”

After leaving PCH, Scott was looking for his next challenge. He didn’t know he’d find it in the bedding department of a local store while shopping with Missy, now Boll & Branch’s president, who oversees the company’s product design and development team. However, as she told Forbes in a 2015 interview, “We followed the thread from our conventional sheets, so to speak, into the depths of a problematic industry. Dangerous factories, bonded laborers, worrisome chemicals, and cotton farmers in India who have an average life expectancy of about 35. We decided it was time to offer a better solution. That day, we started Boll & Branch with a simple mission: to make better sheets by making a better company.”

In the same interview, Scott described Boll & Branch’s work as “category disruption 2.0.” He continued, “While we offer the same commercial disruption from a pricing standpoint that others do, that is where the similarities end. We realized that if we could take a similarly disruptive approach to the actual sourcing of products, that we could make a transformative difference in the world — without needing to pass those costs on to the consumer.”

In 2015 — when Boll & Branch grew its sales from $1.5 million in its first year (2014) to nearly $15 million — the company became the first in the bedding category to earn certification by Fair Trade USA, the leading certifier of fair trade products in the United States. The company works with its farmers in India to convert to organic farming and cut out middlemen on the supply side of the equation — Boll & Branch’s farmers receive money directly from the company via a group of cooperatives.

“In India, farmers that sell to Boll & Branch can earn 200-300 percent more than others,” Scott told Forbes. Missy added that the company’s more than 300 workers in its Kolkata, India factory are paid a fair wage (“200-percent higher than the average factory worker in Kolkata,” she said) and receive healthcare benefits, as well as educational opportunities for their children.

On the back end of its commitment to socially conscious business, Boll & Branch also donates a portion of the proceeds from every sale to Not for Sale, a group committed to ending slave trade and human trafficking.

‘People — Not Robots’

As the company has seen its success grow, it’s also expanded its product offerings from bedding to towels, knit blankets, knit scarves, and children and baby sheets and blankets. None of this success, though, would be possible without a powerful marketing plan to drive consumers to the company’s sales website, bollandbranch.com.

“From a media standpoint, we consider Boll & Branch to be a direct marketer,” Scott says. “We expect to see a positive return on every dollar we invest in customer acquisition. Unlike many startups that invest venture capital and are comfortable running an operating loss, we are largely self-funded. As a result, we are scaling much more sustainably than most in our category and, perhaps ironically, are actually scaling faster — and are already profitable.”

He adds, “Consequently, all of our communications are a balance between brand development and activation. We work very hard to maintain high creative standards without straying too far from a direct response archetype as we construct our messaging.”

The company’s marketing continues to take into account ongoing shifts in both online and offline marketing, as well as in consumer response mechanisms — applying its learning to all of its campaigns.

“It’s certainly getting harder out there, but I tend to think it is because most direct marketers are becoming much smarter and more sophisticated,” Scott says. “We use a term here at Boll & Branch — we ‘stay in our swim lane.’ Often, competitors, particularly in digital, are doing things that we believe to be inefficient. We focus on executing our own plan and put the blinders on a bit.”

He adds that the company remains focused on the people it sells to. “When it comes to ‘multichannel marketing,’ that is actually a term we resist using,” Scott says. “We sell products to people — not to robots. A consumer engaging with us on Facebook, through their TV, or when they listen to a podcast is still the same person. So, we tailor our message to the medium without speaking to the customer differently. It is a subtlety that we find very important.”

Boll & Branch’s mix of online and offline — TV, radio, digital, podcast, out-of-home, and more — is a major driver to its expansive growth in the past 30 months.

“Our head of media has been with Boll & Branch for just more than a year now, and we continue to enjoy the fruits of her hard work,” Scott says. “While we have had an omnichannel approach to customer engagement for quite some time, she’s helped us to prioritize focus on optimization and maximizing our returns — be it search engine marketing (SEM), digital retargeting, or national TV advertising.”

He continues, “Reliance on data takes the emotion out of media planning — something that is extremely difficult to do. Everyone dreams of seeing their brand in lights, but we try not to forget that there is not a shortage of places to spend money. We just need to make sure we’re picking the ones that work.”

Authenticity and Attribution

Looking back on his past career, Scott says that he was fortunate to work on campaigns for major branders. He carries what he learned in those days forward to Boll & Branch’s efforts today. However, one brand sticks out when he thinks about those lessons he still applies today.

“I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to have worked on the Altoids brand in its early-2000s heyday,” Scott says. “At a time when most mass-market food brands were prioritizing broadcast media and a very traditional approach to customer engagement, the Altoids team took a fundamentally different approach to advertising.”

He continues, “First of all, Altoids was one of the first major brands that embraced and engaged the gay community in the U.S. While it seems commonplace today, the team saw a tremendous opportunity to become involved in Pride events and tightly integrate the brand. Not only was the audience large, but it was largely untapped. Altoids stood tall among style-making consumers who appreciated the authentic way in which the brand became a part of their community. As a result, in a matter of a few years the niche brand’s ‘curiously strong and original’ approach to marketing and advertising propelled it to become one of the fastest growing confectionery brands ever.”

Scott also contends that Altoids’ recent “perceived” decline can be traced to changing its marketing back to a more traditional style. “You might argue that the point that mass-market advertising principles were applied to the brand lined up with its perceived decline over the past few years,” he says.

Another thing Scott learned during his earlier marketing efforts was the value of solid agency partners. Boll & Branch has surrounded itself with top-notch vendors, he contends.

“A good agency can make all the difference and, sadly, they’re few and far between,” Scott says. “We are incredibly fortunate to work with some of the absolute best in the world. Be it Oxford Road for direct response broadcast advertising, ROI Revolution on SEM, or YellowHammer on digital media, our partners give us a vastly unfair advantage in the marketplace, particularly when matched with our internal ‘Dream Team.’”

All of this adds up to making Boll & Branch a leader in its category and in the world of socially conscious marketers — as well as in its vision for how performance-based marketing metrics can build brand and drive sales.

“Given my background, I am still quite close with many marketing leaders at some of the largest consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies in the world,” Scott says. “Each and every one understands the importance of attribution, measurement, and — most importantly — driving a customer action every time that they touch them. Compared to just a few years ago, this is a massive change.” ■


About the Author: Thomas Haire

Thomas Haire

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