How to Launch a Subscription Box: Lessons from a Successful Korean Beauty Business

How to Launch a Subscription Box: Lessons from a Successful Korean Beauty Business

I forgot to buy toothpaste again. While I’m using baking soda in an all-too-frequent pinch, essentials like razors and protein powder and, yes, toothpaste appear as if by magic, on other people’s doorsteps everywhere.

They’re not running out—these savvy consumers are shelling out their yearly budget in one transaction, paying for the convenience of an uninterrupted supply of commodities. Welcome to the $5 billion dollar subscription box industry.

Leading the pack of consumables delivered by mail is, unsurprisingly, beauty. I spend no less than $30 every time I so much as walk by a cosmetics counter. I bleed money in the presence of new mascaras that claim to give my straight lashes rollercoaster curves, or creams promising fountain of youth results. I know it’s all marketing, but there is joy in the discovery, in the pursuit of making my morning routine more effective. Or at least more fun.

In 2010, arguably the birth year of subscription boxes, the founders of Birchbox cashed in on this affliction (I was apparently not alone in my weakness) and hit the market with a simple idea: makeup and skincare sample boxes at $10 a pop, delivered monthly to beauty junkies across America.

In 2012, Birchbox went global, acquiring French company JolieBox and in 2014, the brand reported $125 million in annual sales.

Naturally, copycats and derivatives followed closely—the beauty industry becoming saturated—and it seemed that almost everything from socks to build-your-own electronics kits could be ordered by subscription. Subscription directory Hello Subscription currently lists over 4000 boxes, though the total number is much larger—there were an estimated 10,000 on the market as of mid-2015. Song, co-founder of MISHIBOX, imports and curates Korean beauty favorites, delivering them globally from her home in Virginia. She didn’t set out to run a subscription business, nor to become an entrepreneur. She was a science major, an accountant, a stay at home mom. Like Birchbox’s founders, she saw a gap and she filled it.

Korean Beauty

Last year, Korea exported $2.64 billion dollars in cosmetics and beauty products. K-beauty, as it’s nicknamed, has been steadily growing in popularity in North America since BB Cream—an all in one face moisturizer and makeup—hit the market here in 2011. American brands began selling their versions of the product, popularized in Korea, inspiring a devout following of K-beauty believers.

MISHIBOX Korean Beauty Subscription Box

The appeal of Korean beauty extends beyond the unusual ingredients like snail slime and bee venom and artichoke extract, and even beyond the innovative packaging and product design. K-beauty is an experience, says Sylvia:

“With Korean beauty, they push this multi-step routine. There are so many different types of products and you start thinking ‘I need all of them’. I don’t think it’s necessary to have all the different steps all the time, but it is fun.”

Ten-step skincare regimes, hydrating animal-print masks, and peel-off lip tints are selling the ritual as much as the results. A Korean beauty box will run you about $20 USD—a fraction of the cost of a day at the spa. The lower price points are also attractive to buyers, considering the average American woman spends $15000 on cosmetics in her lifetime.

“They’re effective, but also very affordable. There are a lot of dupes out there of popular American products—really good dupes and half the price of what you’d pay at Sephora.”

Korean beauty didn’t really hit Sylvia’s radar until 2014, but serendipitously, it happened around the same time that she discovered subscription beauty boxes.

“My friend gave me a bunch of Korean beauty products for my birthday. She knew I didn’t like my skin and I always commented on how perfect hers looked. I started using them and really got into it. Then, coincidentally, my husband gave me a beauty box subscription. I started thinking ‘I don’t really want all these beauty products. I just want Korean beauty products delivered to me every month.’ I looked for one that I could buy, but at that time, in early 2015, there were none. My husband said, ‘Why don’t you just make one?’”


Sylvia never imagined she’d follow in her father’s footsteps. “I didn’t really want to be an entrepreneur,” she tells me.

“My dad always told me, ‘You need to start your own business. That’s the best thing to do.’ I was always telling him, ‘No, no. That’s not for me.’ I didn’t want to prove him right so I resisted and I resisted. I talked to my sister-in-law who’s one of the co-founders now, and she was really excited about it. I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’ Before we launched, we sold hundreds of pre-orders right from the start. At that point I realized, I really couldn’t not do this.”

Before we launched, we sold hundreds of pre-orders right from the start. At that point I realized, I really couldn’t not do this.

Sylvia started her education in biology but eventually switched to biomedical engineering—a compromise that satisfied her parents as well as her own interest in tech. After graduation, she planned to move to New York to pursue nutrition, until her husband’s change of med school plans took them to Virginia.

Once planted, she discovered that there were no jobs in her field. She returned to school to study accounting, eventually working as an auditor for a CPA firm. “I decided to just look for a career that was practical,” she said.

Still, it seemed, she hadn’t found her calling. Her new career was causing her stress, too, impacting the couple’s plans to grow their family.

“I couldn’t get pregnant while I was working and I think it’s because I traveled so much and I was always stressed out. I’m a really bad driver and as an auditor, I had to drive to different states and I basically lived in hotels and I’d only come home on the weekends. That was really stressful.”

When her husband uprooted them again for his residency, Sylvia quit her job, and finally became pregnant. The birth of her daughter in late 2013—two months early—prompted a life decision: she would leave the workforce for good and be a stay at home mom. The gig was rewarding, but something was still missing.

“Being a stay at home mom, I love it, but I get antsy—I wanted to do something. I started blogging and then, when I discovered Korean beauty products, I blogged about it and saw a huge spike in my traffic. That’s when I realized that Korean beauty was starting to become a trend. At the time you still weren’t seeing the products in Sephora. Six months later, we launched the box. We got really lucky with our timing because we launched ours when there were no others.”

When I discovered Korean beauty products, I blogged about it and saw a huge spike in my traffic.

Korean Beauty

Along with her sister-in-law Juju, her husband Kyle, and their friend Andrew, MISHIBOX (named for the company’s bunny mascot) soft launched to pre-orders in early 2015. The response was overwhelming. Sylvia’s analytic nature meant that the launch was preceded by months of research to validate her idea, but in an instant, the pre-orders negated all of the up-front planning.

The team launched MISHIBOX on CrateJoy, but eventually moved to Shopify for ease of set-up.

“CrateJoy was really difficult. I don’t know what it’s like now, but their website builder was really hard to use and we even hired developers to help us. We could just never get it exactly how we wanted. I just got fed up and decided I needed something else. We were still on CrateJoy, but I opened a Shopify account—they overlapped. When I started making the website, it took me just a few hours to set it up. It was so easy. I decided ‘I’m going to switch right now.’”

The business launched from the townhouse where Sylvia lived with her husband and daughter. As it grew, so did the need for space. Boxes and inventory overflowed from one dedicated room to the entire first floor of the house. Recently, the couple moved to a larger house, and the business has its own dedicated space in the ample basement.

Everyone involved in the business is doing it as a side-hustle, even Sylvia who still lists “Mom” as her full-time job. As MISHIBOX grows, though, she realizes that something will have to give, and one of the founders will need to take the plunge.

MISHIBOX Korean Beauty Subscription Box

Sylvia admits that the business grew despite the lack of attention to marketing. The team decided to spend their freshman year working to “get it right”. Though they have competition now, they were the first to market with the idea, and tapped into a trend that’s affording them steady organic growth.

“Marketing is probably one of our weakest areas. We didn’t really prioritize it, especially since it seemed to just be growing on its own. We’ve just been focusing on execution because when we started, none of us had any experience or connections in cosmetics or ecommerce. We wanted to figure out the important stuff before we got too big. Also, we were limited by our previous location at the townhouse. If we grew any faster, we would have had to move earlier.”

We’ve just been focusing on execution because when we started, none of us had any experience or connections in cosmetics or ecommerce.

Now, Sylvia says, they’re getting serious about growth. MISHIBOX recently expanded to one-off products, accounting for 15% of the business’ sales. It’s a win-win: customers can buy more of the products they love or try out MISHIBOX’s offerings before committing, and the business can offload leftover product (ordered as buffer for defects or lost packages).

They plan to expand into other areas of Asian beauty this year, and have sights set on graduating from the basement to a dedicated warehouse space with full-time staff. [UPDATE: MISHIBOX has just confirmed plans to move to a commercial space in NYC next Spring, with Juju taking over operations.]

Well, I’m inspired.

Let’s take a look at the ups and downs of selling subscription boxes and the mechanics of running a subscription business on Shopify.

Subscription Box Businesses: The Pros

  • Predict revenue: a contract model allows you to see the future, and therefore plan/predict other aspects of the business (hiring, shipping costs, etc.) with more confidence
  • Easy math: calculating customer lifetime value is a snap with a recurring billing model, a fixed product cost, and a defined contract length
  • Shipping is streamlined: timed monthly boxes mean that all orders ship on the same date, in the same box, keeping shipping costs and logistics simple and consistent
  • It’s great for cash flow: some subscription businesses offer customers the option to pay for the full term up front (usually with a discount)
  • Low cost to retain customers: subscription customers are inherently “retained” for a fixed period
  • Reduce waste: you’ll buy only as much product as you need to fill boxes, eliminating the need to clear out inventory at low margins. MISHIBOX even added one-off products to the site to take care of the surplus:

“We started by just offering subscriptions but, we had a lot of inventory left over. Let’s say if we have 100 subscribers, then we’ll buy quantities of 120. The extra is for defective products or lost packages. The defect rate is lower than we thought it would be, and boxes don’t really go missing that often, so we ended up having a lot of stock. We thought we should just sell it instead of just holding onto it.”

MISHIBOX Subscription Boxes

And, the Cons

Beware that subscription businesses can also have their drawbacks:

  • Factor in churn: forecasting revenue can be misleading, especially if your policies allow customers to cancel subscriptions at any time.
  • Retention: onus is on the business to continuously keep the offerings fresh and the customer interested. Ask yourself: Can you source hot/new/exciting/unique products each month? What are the limitations of the industry? Do you have exclusivity with any brands?
  • While the cost to retain customers is much lower, the cost to acquire can be higher—consumer commitment-phobia is high with new brands that have yet to establish trust or social proof.
  • Merchants selling individual products can experiment with upselling and cross-selling to increase order value. It’s more difficult to increase a customer’s value in a fixed-price subscription model. You may need to get creative, says Sylvia:

“Recently, we started a new thing called add-ons, like the Amazon add-ons where you can pick something and it ships for free with your order. We allow our subscribers to pick what they want and then, it’ll ship free with their box. That’s been taking off pretty well, especially with our international customers because they save a lot on shipping.”

What’s Inside the Box?

Due to the recurring nature of subscription boxes, the best products for this model generally fall into one of two categories: consumables or collectibles.



Clothing, jewellery, and adult toys are other categories with significant potential for subscriptions. Remember: when choosing a product to sell in any business, subscription or otherwise, it’s important to evaluate its viability.

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Getting Started

MISHIBOX uses Recurring Billing by ReCharge, one of several Shopify compatible apps to help manage subscription box businesses. The app integrates with fulfillment apps, and others like Google Analytics and Referral Candy. The newly updated reports feature, ReCharge’s Director of Product Marketing, Chathri Ali explains, helps merchants track customer trends and revenue growth.

Founder, Mike Flynn offers some great tips for setting up a subscription on your Shopify store, including establishing shipping frequency by offering and testing multiple intervals when you first launch your business.

via: ReCharge Subscription Academy

As we’ve previously mentioned, customers can get cold feet in the face of a commitment. There is considerably more risk in signing up for a year versus buying a product once. When building your subscription business from scratch, ease customers’ decision making and grow trust for your brand:

  • Earn trust: rack up some social proof by building a community around your brand: incentivize social sharing, loyalty, and reviews by rewarding your earliest customers.
  • Work with influencers: you can’t afford Beyoncé, but new emerging YouTubers, Instagrammers, and bloggers will sometimes be willing to review your box for product alone, or a lower rate. Build relationships with influencers early on—as their audiences grow, yours could too.
  • Reduce risk: offer a substantial discount to customers who pay upfront for a subscriptions, or offer the first month free.
  • Partner with other subscription businesses: the customer who opts to have cosmetics delivered monthly may be the same profile of a potential customer for your wellness box—customers already comfortable with the subscription model are low-hanging fruit. Team up with complementary businesses by trading postcard inserts in boxes or mentions in email newsletters.
  • Provide options: like MISHIBOX, offer one-off products or single-month boxes as a preview for customers. Upsell them on the box or the subscription.
  • Offer gift subscriptions: expand your audience to the friends and family of your ideal customer. Allow customers to purchase gifts with shorter commitments and personalized messaging.

MISHIBOX Korean Beauty Subscription Box

Accidental entrepreneur Sylvia Song, finally found her calling in subscription box beauty. The business has been thriving under the direction of a team with no experience in ecommerce or beauty. The secret of their success is good timing—recognizing a trend early on—and a healthy balance of gut instinct and careful planning.

“Don’t quit your day job,” says Sylvia when I ask her advice for other budding entrepreneurs. While she’s conservative, she can see the other perspective.

“My sister-in-law’s different. Her advice would probably be not to overanalyze it. You’re never going to know if your business is going to be good or not until you actually launch it. We wasted all that time and money trying to hire developers and build that first website. I spent probably two months just analyzing whether this business would work when we could’ve just launched pre-orders. The orders would’ve flooded in that would’ve validated my idea right away.”

You’re never going to know if your business is going to be good or not until you actually launch it


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Lessons On Serial Entrepreneurship From the Collective Behind 8 Successful Brands

You’ve probably heard founder stories that either involve a single owner who orchestrates the various moving parts of a business, or a duo of co-founders, where one generally steers the product and the other manages the day-to-day operation.

But a third pattern is emerging, especially when it comes to serial entrepreneurship, and it’s driven by the idea of a “collective”: a group of friends or co-creators, each bringing their own skills and experience to the table to collaborate on a variety of ventures.

It’s these groups that are oftentimes the most well-equipped for serial entrepreneurship—starting multiple, different ventures more for the joy of building successful businesses than merely running one.

Serial Entrepreneurship: Why Stop at One?

Among the world’s 960 self-made billionaires, 830 are serial entrepreneurs who have founded multiple business. These include notable entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, and Elon Musk.

If anything, that’s proof that success isn’t the end-all of the desire to start that draws people to entrepreneurship in the first place.

As they figure out winning formulas, serial entrepreneurs hand off the day-to-day responsibility of running each business in favor of starting new ventures, collecting experience, resources and talent as they go.

Shore Projects is a successful watch brand, inspired by the beauty of the British seaside, that lets wearers easily swap out watch straps. It was also a past winner of Shopify’s Build a Business competition. But what many wouldn’t guess is that it’s only one of at least 8 other businesses their team has built.

I talked to James Street, one of the co-founders of Shore Projects, about his team’s past endeavours and their latest venture, Old Harry, to find out how they managed to build so many different businesses including:

  • Brydon Brothers: A quality handmade belt brand.
  • Whalar: An influencer marketing platform, a unique member of their portfolio.
  • Boho Chien: Collars and accessories for the free-spirited dog.
  • Koala Hoodie: A Kickstarter project for the ultimate hoodie for the practical traveler.
  • Ora Pearls:  A pearl jewellery brand owned by a jewellery designer.
  • Old Harry: Their latest foray into knitwear.  

This is a team that has built successful business after successful business, an example of serial entrepreneurship enabled by a like-minded, diversely-talented group of people building things together.

Where Did It All Start?

According to James, he and Neil Waller—one of his business partners for Shore Projects, Old Harry and many other ventures—first met in university.

“We quit the third year to start our own businesses, worked together and travelled around the world for a business we started called My Destination, an online travel guide, which took several years and trips around the world,” James said.

my destination
My Destination is a travel site that was James and Neil’s first business, and helped them ditch the 9-to-5 rat race altogether.

Shore Projects, however, was their first jaunt in ecommerce and was formed when Jono Holt, who was already involved in the marketing space, joined James and Neil.

Jono contributed a set of skills (branding) that complemented James (product) and Neil (operations) for Shore Projects.

And over the course of several years, the collective of people and talent they could draw upon has only grown as their portfolio of brands did too.

Why One Successful Business Wasn’t Enough

“I think annoyingly for me is that if I have an idea, it really irks me if I see it done by someone else,” James said when asked what motivates him to start business after business.

old harry
Old Harry is one of their latest businesses, this time building a quality knitwear brand.

“I like to feel like the first. Obviously I’m not not the first to invent a watch or start something like Shore Projects, but at least we saw a difference in the strap changing mechanisms and we were kind of the first to really push on that in the watch space.”

But it’s not just the desire to start that makes serial entrepreneurship appealing to James. It’s also that the foundation for starting new businesses became stronger with every attempt.

“You need the same sort of setup whether you’re running one business or three—so we needed a designer and we needed a developer. And we had those on hand full-time, so we felt we had the capacity to take on more brands.”

Serial Entrepreneurship as a Lifestyle

When asked if starting new businesses would be a recurring part of his life, James jokingly answered, “Annoyingly, yes. Definitely.”

And it comes down to the thrill of starting: “I have ideas every week that I want to execute because in all honesty the fun part is starting up the business, getting the brand out there and selling it to people and seeing if it works. It’s not in the day-to-day running of the business and that’s probably one thing that I need to get better at. Getting the right team around you helps with it.”

But not all of the ideas they work on are their own. They’re also big on helping other entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground.

“We’ve got another brand called Brydon Brothers that we work with in a slightly different capacity where a friend came to me and said, ‘I want to start my own belt business and I love what you guys have done.’ And we went, ‘Okay we’ll help you do it’.

brydon brothers
Brydon Brothers, a handmade belt brand, was a friend’s business idea they brought to life.

They gave them access to their designers and other resources and brought the business to life.

When building other people’s ideas, James stressed the importance of who you choose to work with: “It just depends on getting the right people behind that brand. You don’t want to end up running it yourself.”

And that’s a wise choice considering the number of businesses they’ve built and successfully launched.

Juggling Several Businesses And a Personal Life.

Starting your first business likely means you’re doing it all—at least until the money is right and you can start handing off aspects of it. And that can still be the case when you’re starting your second or third, at least until you figure out a system that works.

“Certainly the hours in the beginning were difficult,” James notes, “But again, it’s working on something that you’re passionate about. I’ve honestly now found a very good work/life balance. I don’t find myself working myself into the ground.”

Learning from their past venture, the group made the conscious decision not to over-extend themselves, spending a lot of time fulfilling retail orders and trying to “grow, grow grow as fast as they could” as most entrepreneurs might.

Instead they chose to focus only a few big retail accounts and their online store, taking their time to grow, which made their lives easier.

James says another helpful bit of advice was to be ever-aware of what you’re good at and what you’re not-so-good at. If you’re a better programmer than a salesperson, then you complement your weaknesses with the right people.

As a manager overseeing the whole company, James reflects, it’s about having a vision for the business and “not getting your hands dirty in every specific thing”. As a product guy, that’s where James gets his hands dirty. It’s his favourite part of starting a business, after all.

“I’m not a Facebook advertising specialist so I outsourced that side of the business. I’m not a great Google AdWords specialist, so I outsourced that side of the business, and all of those things kind of come together.“

Outsourcing, it turns out, was a huge part of the process when building their permanent team.

Read our Introduction to Facebook Ads for Ecommerce to learn how to do your own advertising on Facebook.

Building a Team That Builds Businesses

After ten years of working on their own businesses and outsourcing to various people, James and his business partners have managed to hold on to the best talent, the best people, to build out their team.

The process typically went something like:

  1. Hire talent on a freelance basis.
  2. Work with them over time and see how they do.
  3. If you like them, hire them full-time.

“We have two support people, we’ve got a marketing person who largely works with Instagrammers and manages the Facebook ads and stuff. And then we’ve got the designer and we’ve got a full-time developer, and myself that works on product design. A lot of them are used in different areas, in different businesses as well.”

They’ve also got a finance person who worked on their original business, My Destination, who James identifies as an essential part of their journey and growth as a collective.

With Shore Projects growing super quickly, one of the early mistakes James identifies was that they weren’t focusing on the numbers as much as they should have.

“I think that is key to any business so that would be a surprisingly good first hire. It’s certainly something that we learned at Old Harry that the cost is always double what you think it will be. You think you buy a product, say twenty dollars, but then you’ve got to ship it too—you’ve got to buy the labels for it and you’ve got to put it in packaging, then there’s the cost to post that package out to the customer, all of those things that you just don’t think of when you’re creating a business model and can add up very quickly.”

James deems this numbers-driven perspective an essential part of what they do: “My passion is developing new products. But then I have a finance person to tell me, ‘You can’t be developing new products all the time’, so there’s a nice balance.”

Standing Out From the Competition

The best competitive edge, according to James, is to not just offer a good product but a good “value-for-money” product as well.

He says the inspiration for Shore Projects came from a watch called the Animal Watch that made changing the straps really easy. But they hadn’t really seen this kit mechanism on higher end watches so they sought to make it happen with Shore Projects.

“I think that people do get bored with their watch quite easy and want to change it up and [Shore Projects] allows you do it,” James said, explaining the thinking behind the brand.

It was a similar story with Old Harry, as James has a personal interest in knitwear, but couldn’t see a brand that’s just focusing on knitwear, and felt that deeper focus was the direction more brands were going in.

“The way that we like to do it is focus just on doing one thing and doing one thing well so for instance you get your Ray Bans glasses or Calvin Klein boxers. You’ve got the Levi jeans. Those guys are doing one thing very, very well rather than creating a whole range of clothing. So we’re just going to focus on knitwear, focus on the detail and make sure it’s really, really good at a decent price.”

koala hoodie
Koala Hoodie is one of their latest Kickstarter projects and is the perfect example of going all-in on creating unique value at a reasonable price.

Cross-Promoting Vs. Keeping the Brands Separate

With several brands under one roof, it might seem obvious that they’d leverage existing audiences to promote new projects. But James says they try to keep their brands separate from one another as much as possible.

“We do a bit of cross-promotion but we just don’t actively say that it’s from the same team. We say things like, ‘Our friends at Old Harry’ when talking about another brand. Which it kind of is—It’s someone running Old Harry full-time, it’s not me running both businesses full-time.”

Check out our mates @shore_projects and use code ‘SHORE15’ for £15 off all OH purchases until the end of June ⚓️

Instead, it seems that with every new business they start, they take their learnings from the past. And in the case of marketing, it’s what they’ve identified as the best way to repeatedly leverage influencer marketing.

Influencer Marketing: A Versatile Strategy

We’re not ones that just splash the cash on people with millions of followers if they don’t look right for the brand.

“Getting the products on the right people” is how James describes their biggest focus when it comes to marketing across their various projects.

They’ve identified Instagram as a channel that they can continue to bet on for most of their ventures.

“We work with a tool called Whaler, set up by my business partner Nick Waller and created out of Shore Projects, which helps you search for Instagrammers easily and negotiate deals with them.”

Whalar is a unique member of their portfolio, an Instagram Influencer marketplace born out of their own influencer marketing.

While they do traditional Facebook and AdWords advertising, influencer marketing has been the most cost efficient way to promote their products, according to James.

But their approach comes down to finding influencers who look right for the brand, not just the ones with a high follower count.

“We’re not ones that just splash the cash on people with millions of followers if they don’t look right for the brand. I think that it’s detrimental to the brand if you do that.”

Read Nick Waller’s A Beginner’s Guide to Influencer Marketing on Instagram to learn more about how to work with influencers.

Beating “Shiny Object Syndrome” When Building Several Businesses

We’re basically an incubator and help each other get from one startup to the next.

Serial entrepreneurship can be a slippery slope as you lose focus on an existing business to pursue another one.

James, like many entrepreneurs, is always abuzz with new ideas and credits Evernote as his go-to tool for collecting his thoughts.

But to overcome the potential loss of focus in each business over time, James also says that behind each of the brands managed by the collective there is a trusted person in place who’s dedicated to running that business full-time.

ora pearls
Ora Pearls is another friend’s business idea given life, this time for a jewellery designer and pearl specialist.

It’s not like he’s juggling 8 different businesses himself. Rather, he says, “We’re basically an incubator and help each other get from one startup to the next. We’re all sharing some resources in a sort of ‘colony’ that shares the same office space together.”

Starting a Business Again. And Again. And Again

As James says, it’s the thrill of building something new that can be one of the primary forces behind entrepreneurship.

But what makes the businesses in the Shore Projects and Old Harry family so special, and so successful, is the team behind the execution as well as the environment of working with close friends in one office to bring ideas to life.

It’s the perfect example of serial entrepreneurship as a lifestyle you share with friends that’s about doing fewer things alone and starting more things together.

Branding Secrets from 14 Fashion Industry Experts

On my walk to work, a runner whisks past me on the left. She’s a blur of snug-fitting black and fuchsia performance fabric. At the intersection of the criss-crossed straps of her top, is a small, almost undetectable reflective checkmark.

That checkmark, dubbed the “swoosh” is the symbol of one of the most iconic brands in history. The wearer of this particular instance of the Nike logo embodies everything the brand aims to convey: strength, endurance, motivation. It’s not a check mark. It’s incentive to run one more mile. It’s teamwork and sportsmanship. It’s a reminder to “just do it”.

When does a sneaker become more than a sneaker? What makes a consumer choose one seemingly identical gown or coat or swimsuit over another? Emotion. Branding at its best, speaks to its intended audience like a BFF – it, like, really gets you. And in fashion, it stands up for you, becoming the outward-facing expression of your personality.

For small brands and emerging designers, widespread logo recognition is an unattainable (or at least very far-away) goal. But branding is more than a logo. It encompasses values, voice, and design choices that run like a continuous thread through product and packaging and online presence. Good branding is storytelling – a consistent and continuous message, weaving meaning into every piece.

How do your nail branding for your own fashion brand? 14 experts weighed in on the discussion. These are their words:

1. Joey Ng

VP of Marketing, Naja

“Branding in fashion is key to helping the customer solve the problem of expressing their individuality within the context of assumed dress codes. If you can’t communicate who you are as a brand and the type of person who would identify with your core values and aesthetic, then you won’t be able to sell it to them.”

“Whenever I approach a new brand or business that I’m working with, I always start with describing it in 3 words (or less!). Take the time to brainstorm every single adjective that you believe belongs in the world of your brand. Then keep eliminating them until you have 3 favourites left. I went through this branding exercise for a record label’s merchandise arm and we landed on “Y2K B.E.T.” In just 2 words, we had pinpointed the permeating theme of all the visuals, sounds, textures, and feelings a consumer would experience when engaging with their brand. Find your niche and define in very few words what makes your brand distinctive, then Pinterest and Tumblr away. If something doesn’t fit those original 3 words – even though you might like it – scrap it. Establish the core message, nail it, then expand.”

Tweet This

“Here’s a test: if you cover up the logo or name in the ad, can you still name the brand? Classic fashion ads from Benetton, Calvin Klein, and American Apparel come to mind for nailing this test. If you can spot the billboard image from a mile away without seeing the small print and know who is speaking to you, that’s effective branding. A lot of branding from emerging fashion, streetwear, or start up companies are becoming so interchangeable nowadays. How do you get your consumer to feel something differently instead of glazing over in the infinite scroll of their social media feeds?”

Here’s a test: if you cover up the logo or name in the ad, can you still name the brand?

2. Yan Wang

Founder, XYZ Impression

“Great branding can help with larger profit margin. There are a lot of identical items in the fashion industry. Often times, people are purchasing more for the label than for the actual product.”

“People spend more time with their computers and phones. Digital marketing is huge in today’s market. That’s why great online presentation and content is key for people to remember you. For startup companies, a good way to get traffic is through working with social influencers. It’s all about finding your niche market and exposing a good quality product or service to them.”

Often times, people are purchasing more for the label than for the actual product.

3. Gail McInnes

Communications Director, Stylist Box

“Having a strong brand with compelling messaging helps customers connect to the clothing and accessories they wear. If a consumer relates to the brand, it creates a connection; the wearer feels as though the brand is an extension of themselves or at the least what they wearer would like others to perceive in them. What we wear plays a big part into how we are perceived straight off the bat. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, first impressions do count.”

Branding should be established from the start; from the overall look of the product to social media content to how customers experience and shop the brand, but it needs to be consistent from the get-go. If you are an exclusive luxury brand, your language and imaging needs to reflect that luxury feel and voice – using blacks, golds and more refined and elegant language and tone. If you are an independent, ethically-sourced brand, you may want to use softer colours in your marketing material and have a softer tone in anything written.”

First impressions do count.

4. Dawn Del Russo

Fashion & Lifestyle Expert, Founder Bella Dawn &

“Branding is everything in business, especially fashion. It is part of the statement you make. It defines the brand more clearly. Keep your brand consistent on all social platforms. Consider the look, style, color of your branding – how are others affected by it? When starting out, ask what is the first thing someone thinks of when they see your brand. When you do finally have your brand image, get it out there. As much as you think you are marketing yourself, you can triple it.”

Keep your brand consistent on all social platforms.

5. Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart

Founder, President & Creative Director, Vaute Couture

“Fashion is an outside expression of who you are on the inside. So branding is everything for fashion. It’s how you shout to the world: if you’re like us on the inside, you might express that in the same way on the outside. For us, in production, it’s with ethical textiles, treating and paying workers fairly, fittings with an all female team trying things on our bodies. It’s serious, it’s playful, it’s geometry, it’s nature. It’s vintage-inspired and the future too. We are all about dichotomies and having it all. Being vegan isn’t a sacrifice. Caring isn’t a chore. It’s empowering.

We can’t outsource our voice. It’s our heart it’s our soul, it’s our story. It’s important to ask yourself as a label “what do I have that big corporations don’t?” Where do we win naturally where they will try to fake it and always fall short? This is where you have to go loud. We are here as activists who want to change the world of fashion for animals. We are currently an all female team in Brooklyn doing our best with limited resources. And it’s fun and it’s challenging. We find inspiration everywhere and our processes are experiments. And we love it. And this is what we can share that a big company cannot.”

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6. Chris Ngo

Owner, The Leverage Showroom; Co-Owner, Embellish NYC, Haus of JR, Crysp Denim, Lifted Anchors and Foundation Footwear

“Social media plays a big part in branding and it’s also the most inexpensive way to build a brand. You can reach a big demographic and audience virtually free. A garage t-shirt company that prints on a blank can build a following based off of their own Instagram. Instagram is the new print ad, it’s the new commercial in which you can utilize your followers as customers.

Today in this fast fashion market, they want to see what’s in now. So many brands are hopping on trends and pushing similar looks that it’s all about who’s first to deliver and first to market. But it’s not who makes it first – it’s who makes it better.”

It’s not who makes it first, it’s who makes it better.

7. Carolyn Delacorte

Co-founder, Boxwood Press

Fashion has long been an aspirational industry – many brands, from Chanel to Anthropologie, have developed a cult following so robust that just the mere sight of a logo inspires a feeling of tribal belonging. Nowadays, a collection is more about culture than it is about draping and perfectly sewn seams. With bloggers and reality TV stars usurping influence away from conventional magazines, TV shows, and celebrities, an infusion of meaning has come to surround each popular brand. The person who faithfully carries a Louis Vuitton bag is often expressing a statement about wealth and class, while the J Crew devotee is probably more about creativity and trend. These are all messages that have been expressed through branding and morph into a personal message for each consumer.”

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“Over the past ten years or so, we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in the number of fashion companies enter the marketplace. Differentiating a line from a plethora of similar brands is more of a challenge than ever. Unless there’s a frame of reference to attach to a name, it’s really difficult to navigate the congested buyer’s marketplace of boutique and store buyers. Buyers invariably want to introduce lines to their retail floors that will sell through quickly, and the fastest route to clearing racks is to ensure that there is a ton of brand recognition for a particular audience.

Trying to be everything to everyone is a recipe for disaster unless your brand has many, many extensions. Know who your buyer/consumer is and play to the elements of pop culture that appeal to them. This takes a fair amount of market research and marketing discipline, and does not happen overnight.”

Trying to be everything to everyone is a recipe for disaster.

8. Madelyn Chung

Style Editor, The Huffington Post Canada

“A great example of a brand that understands the social media scene right now is Calvin Klein. How many people do you see on Instagram posing in the classic cotton sports bra and underwear, tagging #mycalvins? By enlisting the “it” models and celebrities of the moment (Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner) and social media influencers to promote their brand in a simple, yet fresh way, they created a want in the market that would eventually turn into free press and advertising. And, their latest campaign features such a diverse cast of individuals, more and more people feel like they too, can rock their Calvins with pride and confidence.” 

9. Odessa Paloma Parker

Fashion Editor, The Globe and Mail

“Branding is important because it helps tell the story of your product – it communicates what your values are, your perspective, and helps illuminate small character elements that are part of the bigger picture of your business.”

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“Take your time! I feel like creatives and entrepreneurs rush themselves because we all operate at such a crazy pace these days. If your business and brand are something meaningful – and creating such a thing doesn’t happen overnight – then the world can wait, because it’s worth it.”

10. Nick Ede

CEO, EastofEden London

“Fashion is all about identity and establishing a strong tone of voice that makes you stand out from other brands. It is one of the most competitive markets and important for brands to understand who their target market is, what they want to provide their customers, and how to become the go-to place for fashion fans. Its also important to look at how a brand can evolve.”

“My advice to new brands it to carefully research your target market and see who your competitors are. Having a strong social media presence is a must – this can be a really cost-effective way of selling product and communicating to your target customer. It’s very important to look at price point – if you are high end you still need an affordable item that can get featured in shopping pages, as more and more glossy mags will look for products under 200£.”

11. Helen Rice

Creative Director & Co-founder, FUZZCO

“Fashion is constantly changing, so it’s important for brands to work hard to establish and defend their niche in the changing landscape. Due to the dynamic nature of fashion, brands must be incredibly aware of themselves and the market. Their ability to embody the lifestyle that their audience aspires to is developed through every decision the brand makes, from choices in materials, design, production, customer service, cultural associations, etc. All of these things inform the relationship that the brand has with consumers.”

“Brands should consult with a branding agency right in the beginning. This allows the brand to gain insights into the best strategy for the shopping experience, merchandising, positioning, voice and tone, and visual balance between the graphic identity and the product.”

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“We see the best results when the relationship between the brand and agency continues for the life of the brand. The agency can really help the brand navigate the changing landscape of the fashion industry. Having been there from the beginning, they are deeply familiar with the history of the brand and it’s original intentions. The agency can help the brand navigate challenges, as well as point out when there need to be realignments.”

“Now that so much business is happening online, creating interesting content is becoming more and more important. This is where an agency can help a brand realize its full potential. We believe that the power of design thinking is often the difference between having a good business and a great business.”

Brands should consult with a branding agency right in the beginning.

12. Andrew Coimbra

Creative Director & Designer, Andrew Coimbra

“The most important thing when starting your own label from scratch would be to know your brand. People always think that they know what they are aiming at, and what vibe appeals to them, but people rarely consider what that means beyond the basics. Who are your clients? What is your ultimate objective? Where do you see your label in 5 years? 10 years?”

“These questions feel like cliches from a high school business class, but at the end of the day they offer core concepts that define the direction of every single step you decide to take in producing and promoting your business. The answers to those questions act as everyday tools to accomplish your goals.”

“Part of knowing your brand is knowing who can help your brand. I’ve been extremely lucky in growing really special friendships with people in my life who I can trust and whose perspectives are well-curated and valid. I would suggest finding a core group of friends, or a “team” of people who have skills that are not only beneficial to you, but are beneficial to them, too. Grow and learn with each other.”

“Proenza and Celine, brands that have proven longevity, have both achieved particular success in the luxury division, and although their collections are distinctive season to season, they still maintain a really great balance of continuing a staple carry-over/through. Beyond that, their branding has evolved in a way that feels natural to their brand, and reflective of their values.”

Part of knowing your brand is knowing who can help your brand.

13. Sara Koonar


“When most shoppers are faced with a choice, whether to buy this black tote bag or that black tote bag, they’ll choose the one they’ve heard of. It’s as simple as that. That’s the entire basis of advertising. So getting the word out there about your brand and what makes it unique it crucial to your sales. And sales are crucial to keeping your business afloat.”

“Lost-cost, guerilla marketing is better than it’s ever been with social media. You don’t need to place expensive print or television ads to get the word out about your fashion line. Collaborating with influencers or creating your own social media brand can be very effective in building business. Plus, you can keep it local and have a closer relationship with those people endorsing your brand. Of course there are benefits to having an expensive PR firm and schmoozing fashion stylists to get your clothes on the backs of A-list celebrities. But, you’ll be surprised how influential these social media stars can be.”

When most shoppers are faced with a choice, whether to buy this black tote bag or that black tote bag, they’ll choose the one they’ve heard of.

14. Alex O’Byrne

Director, WeMakeWebsites

“Building a fashion business is all about creating a brand. Sure, the product is important, but the brand is much much bigger. Ask yourself this: do people buy Nike sneakers because they’re better than other sneakers? No. They buy them because Nike has created an extremely desirable brand; they buy them because they’re cooler; they buy them because of what wearing Nike sneakers says about them — and they’re happy to pay a premium to do so. A great example I like to use when talking about building a brand is P&Co. Take a look at their Instagram – the bikes, the beards, the coffee, the tats; they’ve nailed the hipster look. And all you need to do to become a part of their cult brand is buy one of their t-shirts.”

“First of all, be able to describe your fashion brand in a few words. No one seems to really be able to do this these days. You need to know how your brand makes your customers feel. Branding needs to be about the emotional experience for your target audience. Exceptional branding provides a sense of comfort, acceptance, yet inspiration to keep your clients coming back for more each season. These three questions are a good place to start: What do you want your brand reputation to be? What are your brand’s core values? How does your brand want to be visually seen? Once you’ve answered these, then you need to start executing on them.”