“I hear a lot of people say, you know, I have an idea, but it isn’t ready. I can’t talk about it yet. But, it is never really ready or done or any of those things. It is always going to change,” Natasha Case, who helped co-found Coolhaus nine years ago, told attendees at Nosh Live in New York City earlier this month. She added that by embracing that notion that brands are elastic companies can come to market more quickly and are in a better position to evolve with consumers over the long-term.
While this notion might be uncomfortable to some entrepreneurs, Case said the revelation for her felt like “a big exhale, because it shows that you never have to get it perfect and pointed. You can always kind of keep growing and shapeshifting.”
She points to the original packaging that Coolhaus painstakingly created for its ice cream sandwiches when it transitioned from food trucks to retail. At the time, the brand wanted to help consumers make the connection between the ice cream sandwiches it sold out of the trucks to the ones that were now available on shelf, so Case designed boxes that resembled iconic food trucks.
While a great storytelling concept in theory, in reality the design was such that consumers couldn’t see the company’s brand or the flavor when the boxes were stacked in store freezers at eye level.
Despite these oversights, the products sold thanks to the buzz the company created around the launch. But when it came time to expand distribution, Coolhaus took the opportunity to iterate its packaging so that instead of boxes it used bags, which were more cost effective and therefore allowed the brand to use brighter colors and better showcase its name and the flavor inside.
Over the next nine years, Case says the packaging continued to evolve based on consumer feedback – something that wouldn’t have been possible if she had waited to create something that was perfect for the initial launch.
“I am so glad we just launched as a minimum viable product just to get something out there because then after this store test we had something to respond to and develop and that is key,” she said. She also added that if she had just “pitter pattered for months and months, we could have lost the window to just get out there.
Brands are storytelling
Another lesson that Case learned over the nine years she has grown the Coolhaus business is that “the story behind your brand is going to be more important than ever,” she said.
She explained: “So much about how people are connecting with brands is about transparency and about feeling like they are connected to you. It is a very personal thing. … So, it is essential to share with your consumer who you are, what you like, where you are from, who is in your family, what you like to do on the weekends.”
Recognizing that listing all of this on the side panel of a box might be a bit much, Case says that like branding – the story can evolve overtime as long as the values that attract consumers remain strong.
For example, when Coolhaus first launched it was important to Case to tell the story of her history as a trained architect, in part because the company launched during the recession and consumers wanted to see how someone could pivot based on external circumstance and succeed.
Overtime, other elements of the company’s story rose to the surface as important cultural touchstones, such as the fact the company is woman-owned.
She explained that Coolhaus didn’t talk about being woman-owned early on but as the US has experienced “a real shift in power dynamics, it has become such an important part of our voice.”
At the same time, she added, Coolhaus hasn’t abandoned its early messaging about what it means for an architect to design an ice cream sandwich. Rather, the messages are layered and help the company reach more people.
Brands are identity
While entrepreneurs should brace for change over time, they also should not lose sight of or dilute who they were and what their brand represented when it first launched because this is the cornerstone of their identity, Case said.
“You know more than you realize you do early on because you are trusting your gut when you launch, and so you need to find a way to circle back to that clarity,” as the brand evolves, otherwise it risk becoming so diluted that loyal consumers could be turned off, she said.
When Coolhaus launched in the trucks it was focused on offering “zany flavors,” but when it moved to brick and mortar the flavors became more focused on elevated classics in order to appeal to the masses, Case said. And while this worked, it wasn’t until the company was brave enough to launch its milk shake and fries flavor that it saw real growth – in part because it was a return to the brand’s “whacky” value.
Brands are social beings
Like many companies, Coolhaus quickly learned that social media was one of the most influential ways to tell its story, identify its brand and create a following. But it was only with time that Case said she discovered the true value of the social side social media.
While managing the brand’s social media accounts is essential, so too is managing how your brand appears on others’ social media accounts in order to control messaging, reach more people and build a longer lasting network, she aid.
“One of my favorite things we do is pop up on other people’s social media accounts because that tells you what is going to be most exportable about what you are doing,” she said, explaining that Coolhaus will often “pop up” on retailers’ social media accounts to add a little color and life to them.
The result was net positive for both Coolhaus and its hosting accounts, Case said.
“We found almost every time popping up on these retailers accounts it is some of the most traffic they see to their page in month. So, it is really promising to know that this is the culture that we can live in our space, but it really as important to live in other people’s space for it to succeed,” she said.
Brands are the unexpected
Finally, to really build a brand, Case recommends companies embrace the unexpected as this is often where the most growth originates.
“It is so important to keep your eyes as open as possible when you are developing your brand and storytelling because you don’t know where something will come to light and if you are too honed in on the process, you are going to ignore it,” Case said.
An early example from Coolhaus’ journey was the company’s intention to use the trucks at festivals and on the streets a few nights a week. As such, it was unprepared when MySpace asked it to cater an event – a unplanned for opportunity that eventually led to catering making up 90% of the company’s truck-based business.
Ultimately, while these strategies worked for Coohaus, Case acknowledged, “there is no prescription for [growing a brand] and no right way or wrong way.” Rather, coming full circle, she noted, to succeed at growing, brands need to be flexible and open to opportunities.