They Have Consumers at “Hello”
February 14, 2014
Craig Dubitsky says his personal mission in life is to elevate the everyday, to see the invisible and make it real. It’s a lofty ambition, for sure, but one the serial entrepreneur continues to bring to fruition. Dubitsky was an early investor in Method and the cofounder of Eos — two transformational brands — and, most recently, launched Hello, a line of “seriously friendly” oral care products made in the U.S. In less than a year, Hello’s retail distribution has grown to more than 18,000 stores across the country.
“There’s a real affinity for the word “hello” in the oral care category because it’s simple,” says Dubitsky. “We’re focused on making simple, yet functional and elegant, products. In many respects a true startup entering such a mature category borders on lunacy, but the reception we’ve received from retailers has been unbelievably encouraging.”
Dubitsky, a former chief marketing officer of Popcorn, Indiana, explains how he has built buzz for hello products with limited marketing, why great design is a great differentiator, how he keeps creative ideas flowing, and more.
Q. Your company has fewer than 10 employees and operates on a limited marketing budget. How are you differentiating Hello products from your competitors’ and building awareness?
A. The global oral care market is estimated to be about $30 billion. While that’s very large, the actual number of choices is rather limited. In a sea of sameness, most people buy what’s on sale, and they tend to make buying decisions on-aisle. Given our size and limited budget, we decided to focus not only on our product formulations, but on the packaging as a way to really disrupt the market. The packaging became the media, the attract mechanism. To me, the category seems very masculine; the products have a lot of hard angles and edges, and typical positioning is extremely aggressive, often touting messages about “killing” and “fighting.” We wanted our packaging to be disruptive, visually striking, interesting, and appealing on an emotional level, with copy that doesn’t play on fear and shame like the classic participants in the category. So we designed our packaging to be softer, more feminine, and prettier to display on your countertop. The copy doesn’t scream about all the things the product kills and fights, but it does mention that it cleans, freshens, and improves dates, which seems to be what most people care most about.
In a broader sense, a big part of our plan was to make personal care personal again. For example, we have a Skype button on our website that allows people to video chat with me. We want people to know that we’re a real company of real people, not some anonymous giant behemoth cloaked in secrecy and anonymity. I also personally respond to every single consumer inquiry — and pretty fast. Most people want to know if our products are tested on animals. The answer is no, and we are cruelty free. We also get inquiries from significant retailers and/or distributors from all over the world inquiring about how they can carry the brand. While we love what the technology enables us to do, we feel that the bigger idea is to create an emotional connection that generates honest engagement and, in turn, attention and loyalty.
PR and earned media are very important to us because we believe we have an authentic story to tell. It’s about the people who use our products and the people we’re lucky enough to partner with, like William Morris Endeavor. The idea is that in a connected world, the more positive and passionate news you can put out there, the more it spreads. If you do something in a very earnest and honest way, especially when you’re the little guy, people really feel it. I know that’s a luxury because we’re small, but it’s something we can certainly take advantage of now. I think the notion of outsourcing soul is impossible. As companies grow, they have layers of people and legacy to contend with, and that’s really hard to manage. We’re fortunate at this stage in our company’s life to be able to do a lot of things on our own internally, and that makes a big difference. We can write copy, and we can develop new products, formulations, and packaging fast.
Q. You say that you’re “obsessed with design.” Why is that?
A. Most people tend to think of design as just the way something looks, but to me, design is about being as thoughtful and hyper-sensitive to emotional connections as is humanly possible. Design includes how a product looks and feels in your hand and in your personal environment, what materials are used, what the copy says on the bottle, as well as how responsive we are to people who want to interact with the brand. When a person takes the time to write to you and you write back right away, that’s good design. Most people don’t have the ability to experience as many things as they would like to in life, so if they can have an experience with your product — however small — that’s like receiving a polite pat on the shoulder from a friend. Perhaps it comes in the form of a bottle color that matches their environment, or a flavor that makes them go, “Wow!” Design is about how something looks and makes people feel. I’m in the magic business, not the math business. We partner with BMW Designworks — and not because they have lots of people who draw pretty pictures. Their deep understanding of design and how it can stir emotions is an important part of the process, as our products are used on a daily basis in an intimate way. They understood that we wanted to bring passion, precision, and performance together in a way that defied expectations in the category.
Q. How are you able to continually push the creative envelope at Hello?
A. One of our pillars is unbridled creativity and passion and a sense of curiosity and fearlessness. I think the only fear I have is not trying. It’s important that we have a sense of what the world is telling us and respond accordingly. I’m always keeping my eyes open and going places to keep the ideas flowing. Whether it’s hanging out at a museum, riding the subway, or watching people in a store, I’m constantly out there observing. And because we’re fearless, we’re willing to develop things really quickly and see how far we can push them. No one has sole dominion over good ideas at Hello, and there is no “innovation team.” We have an open and fun office environment with a different kind of vibe. It helps us spark ideas, and we never stop. We’re like a head without a body because there are certain things we just don’t need, like our own proprietary manufacturing facility. We work with partners that are flexible, robust, and highly capable.
Q. What are the key characteristics of a truly transformational consumer brand? What do Hello, Method, and Eos have in common?
A. These brands have a level of thoughtfulness, playfulness, and humanity to them. They are all friendly. And in a connected world, people are excited to let other people know about brands they find appealing. It’s cultural currency. People like to discover things first; they find great value in it. It all harkens back to emotion. If you can get your brand to the level where it basically becomes a noun — or a verb in some cases — that’s an incredible feat. I don’t take that lightly. I think the common thread between Method, Eos, and brands like Warby Parker, Jawbone, and Tesla is that they were started by fearless folks willing to bring a different point of view to a very mainstream category. They understand the emotional state of affairs and are willing to make improvements, however slight. If you can make something that has an emotional spark to it, that has passion behind it, people are willing to talk about it. And that allows an upstart like Hello to exist in a mature category. I cringe when I hear people say, “It’s just toothpaste,” or “It’s just mouthwash.” Every category has something redeeming and interesting to offer.
I often hear the phrase “David versus Goliath,” but I don’t think we’re fighting against anyone. We’re just trying to do something a little different, in a category where’s there’s certainly room for different. We seem to live in a red-and-blue world: Coke is red, Pepsi is blue. Wal-Mart is blue, Target is red. United is blue, Delta is red. Walgreen’s is blue, CVS is red. Crest is blue, Colgate is red. I think there’s a bigger world out there beyond red and blue. We want to make something that hasn’t really been so fun just a little bit more fun. Things should change and evolve, especially when it comes to things we use everyday. And at Hello, we’re on a mission to elevate the everyday.
"They Have Consumers At 'Hello.'" Ken Beaulieu, 2014.