How has a small hot sauce brand founded by two college friends, Nick Ajluni and Nick Guillen, amassed 120,000 followers on Instagram with a fan base that includes Pharrell, Oprah, Jason Derulo, Zedd, Steve Aoki, Chef Michael Symon, and Chef Alvin Cailan? According to Ajluni, its digitally-native roots laid the foundation for its success.
"The brand did not start off as a brand. About five years ago, Nick Guillen got the Instagram name @Sauce. To us, we saw it as a very valuable piece of digital real estate," TRUFF co-founder Ajluni told FoodNavigator-USA.
The word 'sauce' has become very relevant to pop culture, said Ajluni, explaining how as a slang term, 'sauce' is synonymous with a sense of enviable style -- often luxurious -- or 'swagger'.
With a creative license to leverage the digitally-powerful term 'sauce', the two co-founders starting posting and engaging with its followers with "things that we considered saucy," said Ajluni, which included a variety of fashion, food, and lifestyle-related posts.
With that content strategy, the account started to grow, which is when the duo got the idea to launch a hot sauce brand as its next creative endeavor.
Hot sauce on fire
"We didn’t want to just make a sauce, we wanted to make one that was on brand and relevant to the account we were building," said Ajluni. "Naturally we looked at hot sauce, mainly because we ourselves love hot sauce and I think hot sauce is very culturally relevant compared to other types of sauces."
Looking at the hot sauce and condiments aisle, a shopper will find a wide variety of sauces with different levels of heat and ingredients. The hot sauce category has grown significantly over the past few years. According to Euromonitor data (via The Wall Street Journal), the hot sauce market grew by more than 25% between 2013 and 2018 to $700m with 41% of the category made up by small, independent brands.
Hot sauce, for many consumers, can serve as a proxy for culinary exploration, according to the company, who strives to provide its customers with value-added content to inspire different and creative uses of TRUFF.
Like the image the two had crafted through the account, the product had to be elevated and high-end, leading Ajluni and Guillen to take a closer look at truffles, which have a price per pound ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on the variety used.
With a dramatic unveiling on social media and a clean, geometric logo and packaging which included a customized cap resembling an abstract, stylized version of a truffle, the account transitioned into the TRUFF brand.
"And then it was off to the races," said Ajluni.
Proving the TRUFF concept at retail
Not long after, TRUFF began entering high retailers such as Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus where it became a popular gifting item while also landing on Oprah's Favorite Things List two years in a row proving that the brand was expanding the audience for hot sauce.
"Hot sauce might sway a little bit more male, but TRUFF isn’t your typical hot sauce. Truly, our customer base is anyone and everyone," he said.
More recently, TRUFF has turned its attention towards grocery retail entering higher-end accounts including Whole Foods, Wegmans, and Central Market. According to the company, TRUFF has become the No. 1 best-selling hot sauce on Amazon and at Whole Foods.
At retail, the brand stands out from competitors with its its modern, high-end packaging, and captures repeat purchases because of its unique taste profile which provides heat from red chili peppers and a hint of decadence from the truffle oil, claimed Ajluni.
"A lot of our customers are not hot sauce people, because TRUFF isn't your typical hot sauce.. it's this unique flavor experience with a kick of heat," he added.
As the TRUFF business grows, Ajluni and Guillen have an eye on expanding into other categories of grocery where they can provide the same level of differentiated brand and taste experience to consumers.
"We’re very mindful about not being everything for everyone. We want to just focus on a few things that we can be great at," added Ajluni.