Bree Johnson is a 2017 winner of the Veuve Clicquot New Generation Award for showing “innovation, audacity, and fearlessness”. She is also the co-founder of the sassy beauty brand Frank Body. Here Johnson shares how to leverage simple yet distinctive design and social media to build a cult-like following.
While finishing her Journalism degree, Johnson met her co-founders, Jess Hatzis, Alex Boffa, and Steve Rowley at her part-time job. As with most successful startups, Frank Body began as a way to answer a need in a founder’s life. Both Johnson and Hatzis “were disenchanted with the way big beauty brands talk to their customers, using a lot of hyperbole and inflated claims.” They craved a natural beauty solution that was both honest and fun.
Meanwhile, Rowley had moved on from his part time job and was running his own coffee shop. Several female customers asked Rowley if they could have the leftover coffee grounds to use as a body exfoliator. This idea became the catalyst for Frank Body. The co-founders began concocting body scrubs in their kitchens. Each would take home a small amount and report the results back to the team. “We felt ridiculous covering ourselves in coffee [but] when we washed it off, our skin felt amazing,” Johnson says.
Frank Body was born with the idea that the brand and the products would be honest, natural, and “frank” about their ingredients and claims. The “let’s be frank” movement quickly took hold as the Johnson and Hatzis personified Frank. “When we launched, [Frank] was a one night stand and now he is more of a committed man, but still very cheeky and very flirty,” Johnson says. “Frank is the man inside our head – sort of our alter ego.”
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Since launching in 2014, Frank Body has grown their team to just twenty. “We are a small team with above average results,” Johnson says. Frank Body has sold more than 2.2 million units of its flagship, coffee grounds-based body scrub, shipping to more than 149 different countries and bringing in $20 million in brand sales in just the last year. Johnson stresses that “culture fit is very important,” when looking to recruit new frankfurts (members of the Frank Body team – both customers and employees). “We want everyone to think entrepreneurially – we want people who will push us to be better,” Johnson says.
Building the Frank Body brand did not occur by accident. Before starting Frank Body, Johnson and Hatzis co-founded Willow & Blake, a content agency that focuses on building tone of voice and forming brands for businesses. Now, as Frank Body enters increasingly larger arenas, its branding is invaluable. “It was really important for us to have a consistent look and feel from the very start…even though we only had one little packet, we wanted it to be very distinctive. People can copy your product, but they can’t copy your brand,” Johnson says.
To that end, Johnson and Hatzis are still intimately involved with Frank Body’s image, “we are a little obsessive about checking everything that goes out. It is so important – the brand, the tone of voice – for us to make sure that everything fits.” It is that obsession that infiltrates the entire company and feeds into the world of all frankfurts.
Lack of budget or skill can make fledgling entrepreneurs feel like they don’t have what it takes to develop true “branding” for their product. Consistency is the key; Frank Body developed the core values of their brand early on; and while the company has evolved those core values and the brand elements that surround them remain the cornerstone of the business.
The Frank Body brand is based on the company’s core values, “we want to be the most fun you can have in a bathroom and always make babes feel great – we make seriously good skincare, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.” Every piece of content embodies these values; it makes readers smile, laugh, and feel a bit naughty. The Frank Body brand has a playful nature and is, of course, a bit cheeky.
To get Frank Body up and running with little more than $10,000 and easy access to coffee grounds, the team tapped into the world of influencers. “When we first launched, we sent our product to a whole bunch of people we thought were influential – makeup artists, beauty bloggers,” Hatzis says. While that helped some, their “most important and valuable ambassadors” are their customers.
For the most part, the Frank Body customer is its co-founders, 18 to 25-year-old women who like to eat natural foods and are always evolving. This made it easy for Johnson and Hatzis to “get inside their heads and their interests outside of [Frank Body] products.”
Listening to customers, responding to feedback, and not spending too much time talking about yourself is the perfect way to learn more about your audience. It has allowed the Frank Body team to learn what their customers like and don’t like, where they shop and what they buy, who they talk to and what they talk about.
Now their brand content includes conversations about health, food, fitness, and celebrities. However, they maintain a rigorous and continuous testing schedule because as they know – like them, their audience is always evolving.
To get inspired for a new message, Johnson and Hatzis look to fashion photographers, Instagram, Pinterest, coffee table books, podcasts, and magazines. The two work together to develop a brief and then present it to the team. After taking the time to digest the material, each member of the team responds – the social media manager, the influencer manager, the brand partnership manager – each takes the idea and incorporates it into their domain. The approved content is scheduled on a monthly editorial calendar. Of course, that is how things would work in a perfect world.
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In the real world, Johnson and Hatzis don’t currently have a social media manager, which means that they are often creating content on their own and posting it the same day, much like they did in the early days of Frank Body. “It feels good to get in there and work with the tools again,” Johnson says. However, it does require a lot of time which means the process is a little chaotic for now.
The chaos is offset by the support of their team. Growing a business that is enfused with your personality can make it tough to let go of any decision. However learning to let go was the only way the business could grow. To make this easier to take, Johnson held on to areas that she loves and where her greatest strengths lie, i.e., writing and both Johnson and Hatzis maintain control over the creative direction of the brand.
The company also gets help from their trusted toolset, relying on Google Analytics to track website activity and Iconosquare for Instagram analytics. The team uses Photoshop, InDesign, and Canva to create brand images and tags to curate all of that beautiful user-generated content.
A large part of the success of Frank Body is due to their massive social media presence, especially on Instagram and Facebook. Frank Body is much more than the products they offer; the real magic is in the brand.
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From the start, user-generated content has played an immense role in Frank Body’s marketing strategy. The team encouraged customers to share photos of themselves covered in Frank’s coffee grounds body scrub with the hashtags #frankeffect and #letsbefrank. These images became the faces of Frank Body, and there are over 100,000 user-generated images living under the hashtags.
Even with all of these content creators, the images manage to stay true to the carefully curated brand. Each image showcases women smiling, laughing, making silly faces, and reflects a natural vibe that is complemented by peachy/pinky hues. These underlying aspects of the brand unify the different shapes, sizes, and skin tones of the women in the photos.
Most importantly, the women in the photos are happy, “it comes back to that fun element. When you are covering yourself in coffee, you can’t take yourself too seriously. My favorite parts are the captions – how they sometimes take on Frank’s tone of voice and get a bit flirty and a little bit cheeky. There is always that little Frank wink in the eye that comes through,” Johnson says.
Developing “seriously good skin care” takes time, which is why Frank Body provides a limited SKU set, offering just thirteen products. While the marketing and branding behind the company are pure genius, it would all be for naught if the products were only so-so.
Frank Body products are a total sensory experience. Instead of focusing on outer beauty, which is entirely subjective, the products generate positive feelings. From the boost you get by being one of Frank’s babes to bringing the scent of freshly baked chocolate cake into your bathroom when you indulge in a Cacao Coffee Scrub, everything about Frank Body makes you feel good.
Communicating that sensory experience online is getting tougher. The “online market is increasingly saturated,” Johnson says. “We initially planned to be purely an e-commerce, direct to consumer business.” However, going into retail gives customers another way to “experience Frank.” In a retail setting, customers can feel and touch the product. They can interact with the retail team and start plugging into the Frank Body community on a personal level.
Frank Body products are now available in MECCA Maxima in Australia and Urban Outfitters, Ulta, and other select stores in the USA. One of Johnson’s biggest thrills was seeing Frank Body in the window of a MECCA Maxima store. Although, she admits that now, the product often sells out before she can catch a glimpse, not a bad problem to have if you are a co-founder.
For those looking to embark on their own entrepreneurial journey, Johnson suggests starting sooner rather than later.
Don’t wait for the site to be perfect or for the brand to be perfect. It is better to do something than to do nothing.
She owes part of the success of Frank Body to being early to market, “being there first was really important for us.”
Frank Body has proven that high quality, consistent messaging does not have to be complex. Their designs are simple yet distinctively “Frank.”
Finally, Johnson relies on her favorite saying, “risk it to get the biscuit.” Don’t copy what everyone else is doing and don’t be afraid to ruffle a few feathers.” Johnson says that one of the biggest advantages of being a startup is that there are no a people telling you what to do and you really don’t have much to lose – “use that and be fearless!”