Reward your customers: Customers love it when you reward them for their loyalty. Your existing customers know your brand and get excited by a discount. Retaining them is much easier than acquiring new customers. Do not let them go.
As part of our series about how to create a trusted, believable, and beloved brand, I had the pleasure to interview Ritu Rana, Co-Founder of Down Cotton, an e-commerce company that sells luxury bedding online. Headquartered in McLean, Virginia, the company manufactures and sells 100% Egyptian cotton bed linens, goose down comforters and luxury bath linens. Down Cotton’s ethical procurement and manufacturing process sets it apart from other bedding brands. Ritu was a mom and a homemaker with no prior entrepreneurial experience and starting a bedding company was never on her mind. What inspired her to launch Down Cotton was her dissatisfaction with the quality of the Egyptian cotton sheets that were being sold in the market. Ritu has been using Egyptian cotton linens since she was a child. A drastic decline in the quality of bedding prompted her to launch Down Cotton, a company that manufactures authentic Egyptian cotton bedding by procuring raw materials directly from the cotton farmers in Egypt.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was a kid, I remember my Grandma saying that Egyptian cotton sheets are considered nothing less than a treasured heirloom. She used to talk about the sheets that she received as a gift during her younger days. She proudly used to boast about their authenticity, given how they were still in great condition even after years of use and wash. I have been sleeping on Egyptian cotton sheets since I was 15 years old, although I never realized their importance back then. I still use the sheets from my Grandma, and they are still as good as new.
Whenever I searched for similar Egyptian cotton sheets, I was always left utterly disappointed. The sheets being sold these days are nowhere close to the kind of sheets I have been sleeping on. They appear to be soft when new, but they show their true quality once they are washed. My Grandma’s sheets have been doing great even with decades of use, but my new ones could not even last for months. I started to research, and I discovered that most of the Egyptian cotton sheets being sold on the market are actually counterfeit. Customers are being misled by presenting regular cotton sheets as Egyptian cotton. I was so unhappy with these counterfeit products that my disappointment gave birth to the idea of Down Cotton. My vision was to re-introduce Egyptian cotton sheets once again in its most authentic form.
Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’ve never been an entrepreneur before, so I had no idea about the basics of marketing. We are a lean team and do everything in-house. I thought that by reaching out to people again and again would help us in getting remembered and building a brand image. Every day, I used to send out the same marketing email to our existing customers offering them huge discounts. Eventually, one of our customers replied to the email asking us to “stop bugging him”. On top of that, we also got a warning from our email service provider that our emails were being marked as “spam” and this could impact Down Cotton’s domain reputation. I’ve learned that spamming does not help in building brand awareness and it is the relationships and the trust that we build with people whose values and standards mimic those of our brand.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
If you ask this question to any of the big bedding brands, they would most likely say that it is the quality of their products. Down Cotton has always been an authenticity-driven company. Egyptian cotton has been acknowledged as one of the best cottons in the world. Quality isn’t an issue here; the main concern is the authenticity of the fabric. If the sheets are made from authentic Egyptian cotton, quality will be automatically taken care of. Down Cotton has partnered with cotton producers in Egypt as a way to monitor the authenticity of raw materials. Although it is not easy, taking this extra step has helped us ensure the authenticity and quality of our bed linens.
Down Cotton also stands out in helping the farming community that supplies our authentic Egyptian cotton. Unfortunately, Egyptian cotton farmers have been impacted due to the Egyptian government’s decision to scrap subsidies. Moreover, the government has not held to their commitment of buying cotton from farmers at their promised price, which has been forcing the farmers to sell their produce to local traders who have been exploiting them. Down Cotton brought a positive change by cutting the local traders (middlemen) and reaching out directly to the cotton growers. Working directly with Down Cotton has been benefiting the farmers and allowing them to receive a fair price for their produce — a small change that has a big impact on the community.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Oh yeah, my brain never sits idle. Something that keeps returning is the idea of showing consumers the process of Egyptian cotton through video. Videos can help with educating consumers about the history of Egyptian cotton, how it is grown and what makes it stand out. I think that this will also help consumers in making wise decisions when shopping for their favorite sheets.
Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?
In the beginning I never used to see a difference. I felt that a meticulously designed advertising campaign would itself help with branding. But with experience, I’ve realized that this was not true. While advertising can certainly promote the product and help in driving revenue growth, a lot more goes into building a brand. And if I’m being really honest, I must admit that products sell, but building a brand is not as easy as it seems. I feel that brand marketing is not about conversions, but it is more about conversations. It revolves around building trust and relationship with customers with the help of storytelling. Social media plays a great role here. For product advertising, I think the traditional methods still work and as far as ecommerce is concerned, nothing works better than Google in terms of revenue generation.
That’s the difference between product advertising and brand marketing. There’s a thin line between both of them. Good brands are those that don’t try to sell something to you. But they grab your attention with a story so engaging that you’ll end up buying from them at some point in future.
Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?
Well, it’s no secret that building a brand is very important if a company wants to grow. I might have the best product and my webstore might be beautifully designed with attractive visuals and content, but all of those efforts only matter if my customers have faith in the company. Reaching out to the consumers to get their feedback, building trust and having a brand loyalty program are key to a branding campaign.
Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.
Trust is the path to success between a brand and the audience. It relies on what you communicate to your customers and how you present it in the most transparent manner.
- Honesty: I believe that the most important thing is to be honest with your customers. These days people are not just interested in a product, they want to know more about the company that’s behind it. Building relationships with prospective customers and educating them about the company and the core values will help in building a trusted brand.
- Presentation: It is not what you say, but how you say it. Every company wants to get consumer attention by throwing their products at them, assuming that the louder they are the more they’ll get noticed. But what they forget is that when you shout, people hear you, but they don’t listen to you. The message is lost.
- Communication: Customers appreciate clear communication. It could either be an email, a product review or a comment on your post on social media. Be quick to respond and make sure that you answer all questions.
- Transparency: If you receive an order for an item that’s currently out of stock, it is common practice for brands to offer a similar substitute. Let your customers know about the situation. Instead of surprising them by sending a different product, ask them if they would be interested in something else, or waiting a few more days/weeks until it is restocked. Can you offer a small discount for their inconvenience of having to wait? It is ok to lose a sale rather than losing a customer.
- Reward your customers: Customers love it when you reward them for their loyalty. Your existing customers know your brand and get excited by a discount. Retaining them is much easier than acquiring new customers. Do not let them go.
In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?
I think nothing beats Amazon when it comes to building a believable brand. It is ironic that Amazon is considered to be one of the most trusted ecommerce destinations although it does not sell a single product of its own. Today no one thinks twice before buying a product from Amazon because they’re confident that Amazon covers them, no matter what. Sellers are always on their toes, striving to offer the best products and exceptional customer service, thanks to Amazon’s customer-centric policies. From offering next day prime shipping to easy returns and exchanges, Amazon has it all.
In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?
Sales are extremely important for a company to survive, especially for a bootstrapped company like Down Cotton. Measuring the success of an advertising campaign is pretty straightforward. But the same yardstick cannot be used to measure the success of a brand campaign. That doesn’t mean that it is not possible to measure its success. I know that my advertising campaigns are doing great if they are generating revenues for the amount I spend on advertising. But when it comes to a brand building campaign, success happens when consumers think of Down Cotton first when shopping for quality Egyptian cotton bedding.
What role does social media play in your branding efforts?
I feel that social media tops the list. However, before we run branding campaigns on social media, we must know that social media is not like Google ads where you start seeing sales coming in immediately. People buy your product when they see your ads on Google because they searched for the product with an intention to buy. Social media is like cold calling. You are reaching out to people who are neither looking to buy something nor are they familiar with your company. Sales should never be the goal when it comes to social media.
Branding is all about building a community of fans and prospective buyers. It not only allows followers to learn more about your brand with the help of stories, but it also enables them to engage with you. Engagement is very important because it shows your customers that their opinion matters.
What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
For startups, I would say never try to replicate the success of other brands. Most of the startups are usually on a tight marketing budget, therefore, it is important for them to plan their advertising strategy very carefully. Do proper research before trying a particular marketing campaign. Early planning avoids brainstorming in the last moment.
There is a difference between a workaholic and a passionate entrepreneur. Work life balance will keep you going in the long run. Start your day with a morning ritual and do something that you like the most. Structure your day by prioritizing things. Invest time and resources in team building. Delegate responsibilities; just because you know everything doesn’t mean that you have to do everything. Take a day off and schedule time for yourself. “Ditch any guilt you might feel about stopping work,” said Richard Branson in a blog post.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would encourage people to quit or reduce drinking alcohol and practice 30 minutes of yoga every day. A healthy mind and a healthy body are the key to success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t be dead serious about your life — It’s just a play” — Sadhguru
We all have ups and downs in our lives and there are times when don’t see a road ahead. Life has not been easy for me since I’ve started this entrepreneurial journey. There were times when I was very excited and there were moments when I felt disappointed and discouraged. The decisions we make might not necessarily turn out to be in our favor. But then I realized that it is all part and parcel of doing a business. Success and failure go hand in hand and that’s how life is. Nowadays when something goes wrong, I take it as a lesson rather than brooding over it.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
It would be a privilege to meet Jeff Bezos over a cup of coffee. From an online book store to the largest retailer on the World Wide Web and the model for Internet sales, Amazon’s journey under Jeff’s leadership has been jaw dropping.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can keep in touch with us at @down.cotton on Instagram
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.