Inc · “How to Build a Cult-Following Wellness Company Using Your Story as a Founder”

By SMAKK’s CMO Anna Kavaliunas

Everyone loves a great founder's story: The investment banker who leaves his stressful job to found a dog wellness brand, the cancer survivor who makes it her mission to create a skincare line free from toxins or chemicals, the mother who couldn't find a clean snack for her kids in the grocery aisle so she made her own. As consumers, and humans, we love to see ourselves in someone else's journey, to be part of a greater story, to be given the ability to relate to universal challenges, and to see what lies on the other side. It's inspiring, authentic, and gives a greater purpose to a product.

Founder stories are especially popular in the beauty and wellness space. Countless brands and products have found great followings, not just because they're offering an entirely new solution or have discovered the fountain of youth, but because when people are invested in a founder's story, they want to see them succeed and participate in that success. And as consumers continue to demand that their brands be more value-driven, with many consumers willing to pay more for brands that take a stand, we're likely to see more founder's stories as a result.

In a way, it's a win-win. That little bit of vulnerability, with brand spokespeople who aren't afraid to say, "There was something wrong with me, with the industry I'm a part of, and I decided to make a change," actually drives the entire wellness industry in a positive direction. It's a rallying cry that people devoted to the betterment of both themselves and the world can get behind. But it's not exactly foolproof.

Making It All About You

Having a single person become synonymous with a brand has some obvious downsides. For one, when you become the face of a brand, you're held to the standards of that brand. We have seen examples where founders have gotten negative press for everything from personal failings to personal statements that are not aligned with the brand voice or identity. Then both suffer as a result. And now, because of the huge variety of social media options and the ability to interact publicly with a brand, wellness enthusiasts can be pretty brutal. Vegan skincare brands that post a picture of charcuterie be warned. Putting yourself out there is high stakes.

Another thing that happens with founders is they become so tied to their personal story that it can be difficult for them to separate themselves from the brand. As a result, it's hard for them to evolve as their category (or the world at large) does. A lot of times, they have such a heartfelt reason for why they founded the company and such a clear positioning or mission, that it makes them resistant to pivoting or quickly evolving. They may have led the conversation when they first launched, but once other brands start joining the conversation, consumers need to hear something new.

Wellness and beauty are sectors filled with their own rapidly changing trends, terminologies, and storytelling arcs. When clean beauty first entered the landscape, brands could hang their hats on simply being "natural," without a clear definition of what that actually meant. As consumers got smarter and more informed, the looming idea of green-washing further evolved the story into "natural, but it works" and later "clean" or "non-toxic." Eventually, it became a list of no's: no synthetics, no fillers, no additives. All these conversations have now become table stakes in the wellness and beauty industry, the minimum to compete. This constantly evolving storytelling means that if you can't evolve as a brand, you can't be successful. Founder's stories that rely on a fixed narrative, can over time become stale and a liability.

Making a Change

So if the goal is authenticity, safety, and flexibility, how do you craft a founder's story in the wellness space? Firstly, make sure to create a story that prioritizes curiosity. We can't talk about the wellness space without talking about the crown jewel that is Goop. Despite the naysaying and eye-rolling that often comes from the mere mention of the brand, Goop has built an empire on being curious. Yes, part of its success is that there's a celebrity behind it, but founder Gwyneth Paltrow comes across as authentically curious, willing to try each and every out-there beauty or wellness product she offers. As a result, when she champions something, you're convinced it's the real deal.

That same curiosity means that as she shifts back and forth, jumping from the latest wellness trend to the next, the brand doesn't suffer. Instead, Paltrow's earnest approach to trying out new ideas makes her relatable despite her high price points. And it turns self-care into a lifestyle brand that can adapt as needed, dodging controversy after controversy.

Brands looking to build a strong founder's story should also consider giving that founder a separate, secondary purpose. In some cases, founders can be the best brand educators. A great example is the health and wellness food brand Moon Juice. When it first launched, people mocked it for its "dusts" that claim to help everything from brain function to energy levels, to skin quality and sex life. But instead of remaining locked into her personal story, founder Amanda Chantal Bacon went into stores where Moon Juice was sold and educated retailers on the language to use, how to showcase the product and talk about its purpose. Over time, her personal story and the brand's story took on separate but complementary roles.

In wellness, with its countless brands and repeated trends, it's easy to fall into the trap of saying the same thing as everyone else. That's the beauty of a founder's story: It seems to offer a unique differentiator tied to a founder's real history. But even founder's stories need to be disrupted from time to time, so founders shouldn't be afraid of evolving along with their brands.

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