BRAND IDEN­TITY CRI­SIS HOT­LINE, PLEASE HOLD

Fast Company - - Contents - By Car­rie Bat­tan

Cre­ative agency Red Antler is the se­cret weapon be­hind beloved di­rect-to-con­sumer com­pa­nies such as Casper and All­birds.

In 2013, the patent for fi­nas­teride, the ac­tive in­gre­di­ent in malepat­tern-bald­ness med­i­ca­tion Prope­cia, ex­pired. This might seem an un­likely de­vel­op­ment to send rip­ples across the nim­ble, young world of star­tups, but within a cou­ple of years, a hand­ful of en­trepreneurs were ze­ro­ing in on hair loss as a zone ripe for dis­rup­tion. Among them were Steven Gu­tentag and Demetri Kara­gas, ex-google em­ploy­ees who were los­ing their own hair. Fi­nas­teride was there for the tak­ing, but it had deeply en­trenched as­so­ci­a­tions with a host of un­sexy things: emas­cu­la­tion, aging, in­fomer­cials, and even the pres­i­dent of the United States. (Sam­ple head­line from the past year: “Why I Would Never Take Prope­cia, Pres­i­dent Trump’s Hair Growth Drug.”) As Gu­tentag and Kara­gas set about launch­ing Keeps, a sub­scrip­tion ser­vice with fi­nas­teride- and mi­nox­i­dil-based prod­ucts, they knew they would have to re­frame hair loss as a nor­mal, pre­ventable

is­sue for young men, rather than a shame­ful in­evitabil­ity for the mid­dle aged. They needed, says Gu­tentag, a brand “that would res­onate and be ap­proach­able to the av­er­age guy.”

If Keeps had launched a decade ago, its founders might have had to solve these prob­lems in-house—or through a tra­di­tional ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign. In­stead, they tapped Red Antler, an 85-per­son com­pany with a hy­per­fluid set of ca­pa­bil­i­ties that all fall un­der the um­brella of “brand­ing agency.” Founded by JB Os­borne, Emily Hey­ward, and Si­mon En­dres—for­mer ad­ver­tis­ing pro­fes­sion­als with ex­pe­ri­ence at agen­cies like Saatchi & Saatchi and J. Wal­ter Thomp­son—red Antler helps en­trepreneurs build iden­ti­ties for their nascent com­pa­nies.

Though this sort of brand-first ap­proach is be­com­ing com­mon­place to­day, even into the mid-aughts the no­tion of brand was of­ten an af­ter­thought, some­thing to be de­vel­oped as a com­pany grew. But as sup­ply chains and ven­ture cap­i­tal have be­come more ac­ces­si­ble, en­trepreneurs have flooded into con­sumer goods. More com­pe­ti­tion means more com­pa­nies need­ing a point of dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion. “There used to be a much higher bar­rier to en­try,” Hey­ward says. “Now there are at least three busi­nesses in any cat­e­gory launch­ing at the same time.” (Keeps ri­val Hims, for ex­am­ple, de­buted in Novem­ber.) Mean­while, the rise of so­cial me­dia has mul­ti­plied the ways that brands are ex­pected to in­ter­act with con­sumers: One po­tent and ex­pen­sive bill­board ad or TV com­mer­cial will no longer suf­fice.

The Brook­lyn-based Red Antler, which launches dozens of brands a year, of­fers an immense ar­ray of ser­vices: de­sign­ing lo­gos, dig­i­tal ex­pe­ri­ences, and prod­uct pack­ag­ing; pro­duc­ing con­tent and ad­ver­tis­ing; and even com­ing up with names. It’s es­pe­cially ac­tive in the bur­geon­ing world of di­rect-to­con­sumer goods: All­birds, Casper, and Birch­box all bear the marks of Red Antler in their laid-back but di­rect mes­sag­ing and clean de­sign.

The firm has be­come so prom­i­nent in the startup ecosys­tem that ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists now tap it to bet­ter po­si­tion their port­fo­lio com­pa­nies. Af­ter Star­bucks chair­man Howard Schultz’s ven­ture fund, Maveron, in­vested in Keeps last sum­mer, one of the firm’s part­ners in­tro­duced Gu­tentag and Kara­gas to Red Antler. Within three months, the firm had for­mu­lated a core iden­tity for the com­pany. Led by Hey­ward’s strat­egy team, Red Antler’s con­sumer re­search had found that young men weren’t proac­tively en­gag­ing in hair-loss pre­ven­tion. Hey­ward ad­vised Gu­tentag and Kara­gas to use straight­for­ward mes­sag­ing to give men in their twen­ties a sense of ur­gency and con­trol.

By last Novem­ber, Red Antler’s de­sign­ers, un­der the di­rec­tion of chief cre­ative of­fi­cer En­dres, had de­vel­oped an en­tire suite of brand com­po­nents for Keeps, from pack­ag­ing (dis­creet, clean) and a color scheme (for­est green, bright coral red) to a logo that was wry and just shy of cutesy (a wide-toothed comb stand­ing on its side to re­sem­ble a crown) and a full-ser­vice web­site. When Keeps launched in Jan­uary with the words

DON’T LOSE IT splayed in large type across its web­site, along with a “Hair Loss 101” page, it helped in­cite a con­ver­sa­tion on­line about how millennial men think about their hair. “You come to Keeps, you use it, and you move on with your life,” Kara­gas says.

Red Antler’s founders rel­ish be­ing able to de­velop a brand from the start. “In ad­ver­tis­ing, some­one comes to you with a prob­lem, but you can’t ac­tu­ally fix it,” says Os­borne, who serves as Red Antler’s CEO. “They just want you to layer a cre­ative idea on top if it.” In 2007, Os­borne and his fel­low prin­ci­pals had left their big-agency jobs and were a scrappy team try­ing to find busi­ness wher­ever they could. Some­thing clicked dur­ing con­sul­ta­tion meet­ings with Zoc­doc; they re­al­ized that there was a sur­plus of up­start com­pa­nies grap­pling with the chal­lenge of brand­ing be­fore they’d even launched.

By 2010, the trio had de­vel­oped the ex­plicit mis­sion of soup-to-nuts brand­ing for new com­pa­nies. One of the agency’s big­gest early clients was Casper, whose founders

“FOR EVERY BUSI­NESS WE’RE WORK­ING WITH,” SAYS RED ANTLER COFOUNDER JB OS­BORNE, “WE’RE LOOK­ING AT, DOES THIS [BRAND] STRETCH?”

turned to the firm in 2013 be­fore they’d fully de­vel­oped their first mat­tress. Casper’s mod­ern ty­pog­ra­phy, its soft and fa­mil­iar one-word name, its fo­cus on the con­sumer’s life­style, and its con­ver­sa­tional ap­proach to ser­vice are now glob­ally rec­og­niz­able and widely repli­cated. (Casper­core, as some have called it.)

There are less ob­vi­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions of Red Antler’s work, such as Casper’s grow­ing num­ber of re­tail stores. Red Antler’s brand road maps of­ten in­clude big, am­bi­tious tran­si­tions that un­fold over years—such as brick-and-mor­tar plans for e-com­merce com­pa­nies whose web­sites haven’t even gone live. “For every busi­ness we’re work­ing with,” Os­borne says, “we’re look­ing at, does this [brand] stretch? Is it go­ing to work as the busi­ness grows and scales?” And be­cause Red Antler of­ten takes equity in ex­change for ser­vices, it is in­vested in its clients’ long-term suc­cess. The re­wards can be great: Red Antler won’t re­veal its stake in Casper, but the mat­tress com­pany was last val­ued at $750 mil­lion.

“Some­times you do projects, and later you look back and think, What the hell were we think­ing? But Casper has re­ally held up,” says Ben Lerer, founder of Thril­list and the ven­ture-cap­i­tal firm Lerer Hip­peau, which backed Casper and a num­ber of other Red Antler com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing All­birds and Birch­box. In the world of ven­ture cap­i­tal, dis­cus­sions about brand iden­tity are “100 times more im­por­tant than ever be­fore,” Lerer says. “When we’re in­vest­ing in con­sumer com­pa­nies, we’re look­ing for founders who un­der­stand just how ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal brand is.”

And so Red Antler has be­come a kind of gate­keeper for en­trepreneurs, who seek it out for pre-seed con­sul­ta­tions and in­tro­duc­tions to in­vestors. The firm of­ten finds it­self in the po­si­tion of back­ing one en­trant over oth­ers in the same cat­e­gory. Oc­ca­sion­ally, Red Antler even puts money into a brand it­self, as it did with the new on­line butcher Porter Road. But as di­rectto-con­sumer star­tups scram­ble to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves, brand de­vel­op­ment can some­times out­pace prod­uct in­no­va­tion. Red Antler worked on Maria Shara­pova’s highend candy com­pany, Su­gar­pova, in 2012. So­phis­ti­cated pack­ag­ing not­with­stand­ing, the com­pany’s sweets haven’t taken off with the same ve­loc­ity as lux-gummy pi­o­neer Su­gar­fina.

Some­times the brand it­self is the in­no­va­tion. Last year, Red Antler helped launch Brand­less, a di­rect-to-con­sumer com­pany that sells high-qual­ity goods (dish­wash­ing de­ter­gent, sham­poo, ce­real, and more) for $3 an item. For Brand­less cofounder Tina Sharkey, the dilemma was how to craft a brand that is al­lur­ing and stokes con­sumers’ ap­petites while strip­ping it of pre­de­ter­mined as­so­ci­a­tions. “It’s not generic, it’s brand­less, which stands for some­thing big­ger,” says Sharkey, who de­vel­oped the idea while she was CEO of the startup con­sul­tancy Sherpa Foundry. Early on, she con­nected with Red Antler. “I’ve al­ways set out to meet the ex­tra­or­di­nary pit crews,” she says, “the peo­ple work­ing with en­trepreneurs and giv­ing them an un­fair ad­van­tage.”

Red Antler re­sponded with some­thing of a mis­sion state­ment—“life, Lib­erty, and the Pur­suit of Fairly Priced Ev­ery­thing”—and cre­ated the com­pany’s sig­na­ture look. Each prod­uct is dressed in a sin­gle color and given a straight­for­ward de­scrip­tion. From the front, the only in­di­ca­tion of the com­pany is a sim­ple trade­mark sym­bol, re­fash­ioned—by En­dres’s light touch—into a logo. “Si­mon and I laughed,” Sharkey says. “This is like Zen and the art of brand­ing.”

Red Antler’s founders (from left: Si­mon En­dres, Emily Hey­ward, and JB Os­borne) help star­tups build their iden­ti­ties from the ground up.

Red Antler helped men’shair-loss startup Keeps de­velop ev­ery­thing from its crown­shaped logo to the con­tent on its web­site.

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