Ep # 102 | The Voice Behind the Brand

BRANDON LEIBEL.jpg

BRANDON LEIBEL

Founded in San Diego, California, by three friends with a passion for the ocean, Sand Cloud is a charitable beach lifestyle company, best known for its colorful handmade Turkish beach towels and its massive social media ambassador following. In the summer of 2013, fate lead two San Diego State college grads and roommates, Steven Ford and Brandon Leibel, to take jobs at a local San Diego call center where they would meet their future business partner and lifelong friend, Bruno Aschidamini. Since its founding in 2014, Sand Cloud has consistently been a beacon of awareness for marine life preservation. They donate 10% of their earnings back to nonprofits that support their cause for preserving our oceans and its inhabitants. 

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Sophie: Hey, Brandon. Welcome to the show. We're so excited to have you.

Brandon: Thank you for having me.

Sophie: Awesome. Well, we're so stoked to hear about Sand Cloud and how you came about, so I'd love to kick things off by just hearing the story behind the company in abbreviated form because I know it's a long one.

| GRASSROOTS GROWTH |

Brandon: It's honestly not that long. It's pretty much me and my two... I grew up in New York, and I went to college in San Diego. Wanted to get into the sunshine, enjoy the beach life during summer. Went to school in San Diego State. Graduated with my best friend Steven who was my co-founder of Sand Cloud. We actually got a job together at this insurance company in San Diego at 21 years old. After about a year, we were just miserable there so we quit and decided that selling beach towels on the beaches of San Diego would be a good idea of a brand to start. This was around 2014 when social media was just in its glory days and just really picking up steam. Since we had no money, we just used social media and all the free resources we had available to grow the brand organically without any money by just walking up to be people one by one, having them follow us, talking about our mission and our ideas of growing a brand around sustainability. Then we brought in Bruno, who is our third co-founder who is five years older than us. He had a little more business experience, so he was pivotal in helping us get on track business-wise. Fast forward four years, we grew the brand grassroots through just person to person, going to them and talking about the brand and growing it from towels to clothing to accessories. Now we're selling in over 50 countries through our website, and we're in about a hundred stores in North America.

Sophie: Awesome. I do love that story so much. We are so excited to learn more about the social media efforts behind it, but just to kick things off, I know one of the first questions probably popping into users' heads would be why towels, what did you do differently than all of the other towels that were probably on the market at the time of your beginnings.

Brandon: We chose towels because we felt that that was the path of least resistance as far as saturation. Starting a lifestyle brand, there's just so many sunglass companies and bikini companies and bathing suit companies for men. There's just so many players in the game, and we saw a niche with towels because we felt like nobody had done towels the way we have, kind of just doing towels and that's it to start and just really honing in on that and becoming a kind of a, our goal was to become the coolest towel company in the world. We did that. We invested in really nice patterns and colors and made sure everything photographed well on social media. We flew to Turkey to find a manufacturer who actually still work with today. That's pretty much why we started with towels because we felt like that was our in, and it proved to work out.

Sophie: That's so neat. Tell me a little bit more, I know you touched on the piece that you wanted something that would look good in photos. How did you bring about the community and use them to fuel your branding?

| USE YOUR COMMUNITY |

Brandon: It goes back to the early days when we just had some samples that we had flown in from Turkey. We just walked our local beach in San Diego and went up to people that were our target market, girls on the beach and some guys, and approach them and asked the what they thought. We took pictures with them. We had them post on their social media. We ran contests and giveaways. This was just the time when we were learning about the power of social media sharing and user-generated content. We just used our community to tell us what they thought, give us feedback, and then see how they performed online and just A/B tested between colors and patterns and different shapes of towels because we're not towel experts, we listen to the community that is in line with our product and our mission, and we just let them tell us what to do.

Sophie: That sounds like a perfect strategy as far as deciding what changes to make in the product and really feeling the community to ask them questions. I'd love to hear more about user-generated content strategy and how you began that and now how much it's transformed since the company began.

Brandon: From the very beginning, we didn't have money to pay models and pay influencers to take pictures with our products. Luckily because, like I said, towels was a bit of a niche and still is a niche product, we were able to get some influencers and celebrities to post pictures with our product because they liked the fact that it was unique and it had a good mission behind it, but at the end of the day, we rely on our customers to send us pictures and videos from around that world. We get sent probably hundreds of pictures a day at this point, but we... From the very beginning, our goal was kind of, we didn't want to seem like a brand that was VIP or only for the, quote-unquote, "cool kids." We wanted to appeal to everybody, every body type, every race, every religion, every country, so we felt like there's no better way to do that than let our models be our customers. That's really the mantra behind our brand. We love posting pictures of our fans and ambassadors around the world, and we see that those pictures actually have the best engagement because it's the most authentic.

Sophie: That's super interesting that the stylized photos are getting more engagement. I'd love to learn more about the difference between the user-generated content, and then I know that you have a pretty extensive team of ambassadors that you've also collected over the years.

Brandon: The ambassadors are, they're the people around the world that are the voice behind our brand. They're the ones telling us what they want us to make, what colors they want to see, what marine animals they want on T-shirts, what new products they want us to make, and not only are they our subject, the market that's telling us what the trends are and what they think, it's like a focus group for us, but they're also our customers. They get lifetime discounts. We also do promotions where we send them free product. There's not really a difference between an ambassador and user-generated content. It's pretty much one and the same. Anyone could be an ambassador is what we go for. We don't put rope up. We don't deny anybody. If you are in line with our mission and you support what we stand for, then we want you to be part of the brand.

Sophie: That's awesome. The inclusivity I'm sure is so important in this day and age. Can you touch a little bit more on the community voting aspect, how you developed that strategy and how people are engaging with you in the voting process?

Brandon: This came about pretty early on. It's me and two other guys who started a brand pretty much with. I'd say 95% of our customers are women. We don't know everything, obviously. To avoid arguments between the founders and ultimately to come up with a better product, we leave it in the hands of our ambassadors and people around the world that want to vote. We utilize Facebook groups. We utilize Instagram polls. We even do email surveys. At the end of the day, any decision that is made and any product that is produced is voted on. That avoids a whole lot of conflict. It avoids us coming out with product and being stuck with inventory because it doesn't sell. There's a lot of benefits to it.

Sophie: That sounds like a great way to compromise among three founders because I can imagine that's always a challenging situation to be in.

Brandon: Yeah. It's sweet. Very good.

Sophie: I'd love to hear more about Save The Fishies campaign and how that has also gained a social media following but the incredible impact that it has had.

| THE MISSION IS NUMBER ONE |

Brandon: Our mission from day one... Pretty much when we started the brand, we knew that our best odds of becoming successful and building a loyal fan base was to have a mission attached. We were inspired by brands like TOMS, especially because of their One for One giveback and how big of a community they were able to build around the world because people that gravitated not only towards their shoes but because of their mission. We felt that marine life was the best, most relevant mission for us to have, starting on the beach on San Diego and the beach towels, especially. We did that, and we've partnered with a few nonprofits when we first started that were similar to us, very grassroots. We knew every dollar that we donated where it was going, really great community, really great people, and now, we have over five nonprofits that we work with regularly spanning from animal hospitals to organizations that work on legislation for marine life conservation and the rescue groups that work on the coast of southern California rescuing seals and sea lions. We're pretty diversified in that area. It's a big part of what we do. Everything, all the products that we have are, in some way, inspired by marine life, whether we throw a whale tail on it, we throw a turtle. Everything that is on our website has some kind of marine life element to it.

Sophie: Awesome. Tell the audience a little bit more about how you dig deep for that strategy as far as communicating the messaging across your social media channels because once you give your Instagram a scroll, it's very clear that you're not just trying to sell a product. You're really building the community around the care for animals, particularly marine life.

Brandon: It really comes down to the books that we've read and the mentors that we've had. The three of us, we stumbled upon... He's a famous guy now, Simon Sinek, The Golden Circle, The Power of Why. That's pretty much the bedrock of our company and thought process behind what we do is people buy into why you do something, not exactly what you do. The why behind Sand Cloud is obviously marine life and saving the fishies. That's something that we try to remind ourselves every single day is that's the forefront of Sand Cloud. The products are important, the quality's important, but the mission is number one. As long as we stick to that, we will continue to grow and gain loyal followers that are in it for the bigger purpose, which is saving marine life, and then hopefully, they can find a product to buy that's going to help support it.

Sophie: That's awesome. Yeah, we've found that as well, explaining to our clients that the "why" behind their business is so important, to know that right off the front and so that we can make sure that we're crafting that strategy around it. I would love to learn more about how the social media team has grown since you began because I'm sure for the first few years or months, it was just the three of you, but how have you onboarded new people?

Brandon:  Yeah, so we've been very fortunate in growing our team with really great people who love our mission, obviously. They believe in the why behind our brand. Yeah, it started with just the three of us, and now we have 10 full-time employees in the US, and then we have a team of 15 virtual assistants overseas that primarily do customer service. But now we have some of the key members on our US team is head of logistics, Maxine. We have head of marketing, Julie. We have a CFO/COO, Tim. He is kind of the old guy on the team. He's 45. So he has a ton of experience, and he's really, really awesome and amazing to work with. And then we have a few other people who are in marketing and kind of admin. So it's still kind of small, but it's definitely more than it was back when it was just us three.

Sophie: Yeah, that sounds like an awesome team that you guys have grown. I'd love to learn also how your strategy has changed on social media. I'm sure in the beginning it was a lot of kind of pulling from those ambassadors, but do you guys now do photo shoots? Do you create your own content at all? How does that look kind of behind the scenes in those processes?

Brandon: Yeah, so for the most part we are still relying on user-generated content, not only because we have so much of it but because like I said we like to feature them, but we do have an in-house photographer that works full-time. He does a lot of photo shoots with local people. He does product shoots. We do work with some lifestyle photographers around the world that we've worked with from Instagram. Yeah, it's nothing crazy. We're not doing daily photo shoots, but it's definitely a big part of what we do because that's how social media marketing is. You need good content, as you guys know.

Sophie: Absolutely. What other marketing efforts do you guys use to supplement the social media? Or have you found that all of your success can truly rest within social media?

Brandon: So yeah, that something that we're working on is trying to find other scalable platforms to advertise on. We do a lot of Facebook and Instagram, obviously. We do some Snapchat and Pinterest, a little bit of YouTube, but the bread and butter is still Facebook and Instagram. It gives us the best return, but email is good too. We've managed to collect over a million email addresses in the last five years, so that's really powerful, especially during big sales and promotions and new products. So yeah, we're always trying to test out new platforms that we can scale and prospect new costumers and introduce them to our brand. So it's a never-ending testing phase, really.

Sophie: I feel you on that. I'm glad you mentioned the email marketing, though, because I recently took a class on newsletters, and one of the opening statements was talking about how what if Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and everything disappeared tomorrow? How would you reach your audience? And an email list is really one of the things that you can truly own and capture, which I thought was a really jarring statistic.

Brandon: That's true though. The email list, they're undervalued.

Sophie: For sure. Yes. So I would love to learn more about the community management piece. I'm sure with so many people chatting with you online, how do you keep those conversations going and make your audience feel engaged?

Brandon: So we try to get back to all comments and messages. They are very important. We feel that costumer service is very important. We want to make everyone feel special and heard for the most part, so it is a big part of what we do. We have some of our virtual assistants overseas; THEIR job is to comment back to people on Instagram and Facebook and answer costumer inquiries on Facebook and email. And we try to train all of our staff to really come off genuine, even though you can't train that, but it's in the interviewing as well. We want to feel as human as possible. Our brand, we want to feel like it's authentic, and that's something that we really are committed to. So we definitely try to get back to anybody who messages us anywhere.

Sophie: That's awesome. Yeah. That's obviously something we've found so much success in as well and just the importance of keeping that community engaged will really make your followers feel loyal and then of course turn them into brand ambassadors. How do you train for that brand voice? I'd love to learn more. It sounds like you have teams kind of spread out and some probably working remotely, so how do you make sure that they're infusing the correct brand voice into how they're communicating with that audience?

Brandon: Yeah, good question. It's pretty much a mixture of training and just finding the right person who kind of gets it. At this point, it's pretty crazy. Some of our virtual assistants overseas almost... They have a better brand voice than me and the co-founders. It's pretty incredible. It comes down to interviewing and training. That's what it comes down to. So ideally we find someone that is already in line with our mission and understands it, but sometimes we're kind of first educating new hires on the mission and why we're involved in sustainability, and then they become ambassadors themselves.

Sophie: That's awesome. Yeah, the training piece I can imagine is super important. How do you kind of make those selections in the hiring process? Are there any go-to questions that you ask or key indicators that you're looking for in those people who will be representing your company?

Brandon: It's not so much the questions we ask. We're super transparent, and we want to, obviously, not waste anybody's time, so we send them the summary of Sand Cloud; we send them our videos; we send them the articles we've been featured in just so that they're really, really well versed on the brand and they know what they're getting themselves into because ultimately it works itself out from there. So if they want to join the team, we give them all the information upfront to know exactly what they're getting themselves into, and then if they come back and they're interested, than for the most part it's worked out.

Sophie: Awesome. So switching gears a little bit, I'd love to kind of do a little reflection and learn what you wish you had known when you first started your company and how you would kind of apply that to today's workings?

| BUILDING A BRAND |

Brandon: Where do I begin? I guess... That's a tough one because it's hard to think of, I know there are so many. It's just hard to think of one specific one. There's so many rattling around. I guess when we first started, I guess I wish that somebody would have told us that it could take years before you make any sales. And that's pretty much what happened. I don't think we made a single sale for like a year and a half. That's when we were walking the beaches and building a brand and learning about social media and getting the product and talking to people. I don't think we made any sales, so that's something that I wish someone told us about. It would have helped with the anxiety and the stress, but now I know, and I try to tell people that it takes time to build a brand and to get people to take out their credit card and spend money on your product or service. It takes time. It doesn't come easy.

Sophie: Absolutely. Maybe the less glamorous side of entrepreneurial life, I'm expect-

Brandon: It's not glamorous at all. Nothing about it.

Sophie: I would love to know what you guys have planned for the future as far as your marketing efforts go. If you anticipate a shift or anything exciting on the horizon?

Brandon: Yeah, so some exciting thing we have on the horizon is we're working on a fully recycled kids clothing line. T-shirts and long-sleeved shirts made out of 100% recycled material, that's something that is pretty exciting. We're also working on recycled sunglasses and bikinis for next summer. So we're trying to focus on sustainable products. We're trying to shift entirely to that. We want all of our products to be in line with our mission, and ultimately we see that the more we focus on eco-friendly products, the better they sell. It makes sense, but it's not always easy to source it, but we're becoming more strict with ourselves, and we're really buckling down on that.

Sophie: Awesome. That sounds super exciting. So I'd love for you to let our listeners know where they can follow Sand Cloud and how they can get involved.

Brandon: Yeah, so I guess the best way to follow is on Instagram and Facebook. Sand underscore Cloud on Instagram and then just Sand Cloud on Facebook, and then our website is just sandcloud.com. And yeah, if you apply to become an ambassador, you get 50% off your first purchase and then 25% off for life, so you'll see a tab on the top of the website for that. And yeah, that's where you can find us.

Sophie: That sounds like a great perk. Well, thank you so much for being on the show, and we really appreciate your time.

Brandon: Thank you.